The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
By Patrick Mondout
Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez,
which was being navigated by third mate Gregory T. Cousins, missed a
simple dogleg turn and was grounded on Bligh Reef in the upper part of
Prince William Sound in Alaska. Within a few days, it had spilled almost
11 million gallons of the oil (of the 53 million on board) into Prince
William Sound. The spill was the largest in U.S. history and quickly
became one of the year's biggest news stories.
The spill posed threats to the delicate food chain that supports Prince
William Sound's commercial fishing industry. Also in danger were ten
million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, hundreds of sea otters,
dozens of other species, such as harbor porpoises and sea lions, and
several varieties of whales.
Drinking & Driving Don't Mix
Captain of the Valdez Joseph Hazelwood had left the third mate in
charge reportedly because he was too drunk to do his duties (he claimed
that he was simply doing paperwork below deck but later admitted it was a
mistake to leave the deck). The National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) was of the opinion that it was poor judgment to leave the third
officer in charge so close to the shore and that his judgment was impaired
from drinking alcohol shortly before departing. It also cited Exxon for
failing to adequately staff its ships and for not providing proper
guidance to ships leaving Prince William Sound.
Various accounts, including more than one from Hazelwood himself, have
him drinking between two and four drinks at a bar in Valdez before the
9:00 p.m. departure. He has steadfastly denied the charge of being drunk
at the time of the accident. The Alaska state trooper dispatched to the
scene failed to bring a breathalyzer and tests conducted 10 hours after
the accident were apparently mishandled so it is unlikely we will ever
know for certain.
Hazelwood was quickly vilified as a drunk who abandoned his post. His
name soon became the punch-line to late-night comedian's jokes and his
face was often seen on the front cover of the tabloids. For what it is
worth, he was not convicted of operating the tanker while
intoxicated though he was convicted of negligently discharging oil into
the waters of the Prince William Sound (a misdemeanor).
Exxon, ecstatic at the possibility of having a scapegoat, released
Hazelwood's medical records showing that he had been treated four years
prior for depression and alcohol addiction. This knowledge did not prevent
them from hiring him but it was used as an excuse to fire him.
Unfortunately, an oil industry group called Alyeska first assumed
responsibility for the cleanup. It was more like a coverup. Exxon even
tried to blame the state of Alaska for the mess. Soon thereafter Governor
Cowper of Alaska was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News as saying
"There is clearly a campaign here by Exxon and its public relations
people to mislead the public into thinking that they could have cleaned
this entire thing up if it hadn't been for the state of Alaska."
It soon became clear that the Coast Guard, EPA, and other government
agencies were going to have to take over the cleanup because the Exxon was
more interested in protecting profits than cleaning up the environmental
mess they had made.
Many factors complicated the cleanup efforts following the spill. The
size of the spill and its remote location, accessible only by helicopter
and boat, made government and industry efforts difficult and tested
existing plans for dealing with such an event. Three methods were tried in
the effort to clean up the spill:
- Mechanical Cleanup
- Chemical Dispersants
A trial burn of the surface oil was conducted during the early stages
of the spill. A fire-resistant boom was placed on tow lines, and two ends
of the boom were each attached to a ship. The two ships with the boom
between them moved slowly throughout the main portion of the slick until
the boom was full of oil. The two ships then towed the boom away from the
slick and the oil was ignited. The fire did not endanger the main slick or
the Exxon Valdez because of the distance separating them. Because
of unfavorable weather, however, no additional burning was attempted in
this cleanup effort.
Despite the identification of sensitive areas and the rapid start-up of
shoreline cleaning, wildlife rescue was difficult and lengthy task made
even more difficult by a lack of resources at the scene.
Thousands of mammals and marine-life were killed in addition to an
estimated 250,000 seabirds and at least 22 killer whales. Otter
rehabilitation and pre-release centers were built in Valdez, Seward, and
Homer, Alaska. The three centers treated a total of 357 otters and
released 197 into Prince William Sound and along the Kenai Peninsula.
Because of concerns for their health, an additional 24 adult otters were
sent to various seaquariums.
In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez incident, Congress passed
the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the Coast Guard to
strengthen its regulations on oil tank vessels and oil tank owners and
operators. As usual it took an environmental disaster to get Congress to
take even this small step. Despite this, Greenpeace claims less than 10%
of the tankers in this area today meet the tougher standards (presumably
because the regulations only applied to new tankers).
Billion Dollar Fine
On March 13, 1991, the Justice Department announced a record $900
million settlement with Exxon (with an extra $100 million in fines to be
levied to cover damage beyond what was then known) to settle all federal
and state claims. According to the plea settlement Exxon Shipping Co.
pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, the Refuse Act, and the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Exxon Corporation also pleaded guilty to
violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is rare that a corporation has
to pay hefty fines and admit wrongdoing. However, given the $5-$10
billion a year in subsidies ("corporate welfare" is the non-PC
term for it) the oil industry receives from U.S. taxpayers, this amount -
to be paid over a 10 year period - is not nearly as large as it might at
Road to Recovery
According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration),
there is still residual oil to be found in the impacted areas. The
remaining oil generally lies below the surface of the beaches in those
places that are very sheltered from the actions of wind and wave (which
help to break down and remove stranded oil), and those beaches where oil
initially penetrated very deeply and was not removed.
NOAA's position on whether or not the Prince William Sound area has
recovered is this (as of Feb 1999): "While it is safe to say that
nearly all of us are impressed by the degree to which Prince William Sound
has rebounded from the spill and its aftermath, it would also be a fairly
good bet that there will be disagreement for some time on the nature and
details of that rebound and how far it needs to progress for recovery to
be considered complete. Based on the perspective we in NOAA/HAZMAT have
gained through two decades of spill response and from the results of our
intertidal monitoring program, we consider Prince William Sound to be well
along the road to recovery--but not yet recovered."
Where Are They Now?
Exxon was extremely successful at distancing themselves from the oil
spill as all-time record profits for fiscal 2000 show.
The Exxon Valdez tanker was rehabilitated about as quickly as
Exxon's image. It now sails the seas as the Exxon Mediterranean sans
Captain Hazelwood is no longer a captain even though he has regained
his license as no one will hire him. Nine years after first being
convicted for illegally spilling oil, his legal appeals had finally ran
there course and he had to grab a litter bag and begin his 1,000 hours of
community service. As that service was to be divided into 200 hours per
year, he will be picking up garbage until 2003 - 14 years after the spill.
Last we heard he was living in his native New York working as a paralegal
for the law firm that defended him for nearly a decade (New York City's
Chalos & Brown).
Note: You can read the
executive summary of the President's Report on the Exxon Valdez here.