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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster

Dateline: March 24, 1999

Photo of the Exxon Valdez aground in Prince William Sound on March 23, 1989.     On March 24, 1989 at 4 minutes past midnight, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska's spectacular Prince William Sound. An environmental nightmare began that changed not only Prince William Sound, but the world. No longer would people blindly believe promises from corporations that their operations were completely safe.

    A total of 11,000,000 gallons of Alaska North Slope crude oil leaked from the ruptured hull of the ship, impaled by the jagged rocks of Bligh Reef. Within two months, the oil had been driven along a path stretching 470 miles to the southwest (map).

    The initial cleanup of the spill took three years, and the cost was over $2.1 billion. The death toll in terms of wildlife was staggering, the full impact may never be known. On October 8, 1991, an agreement was reached between the State of Alaska, the federal government, and Exxon on both criminal charges and civil damage claims.

  • In settlement of civil charges, Exxon would pay the State of Alaska and the United States $900 million over a 10-year period. This money would be used for restoration and would be administered by six government Trustees; three federal, three state.
  • In settlement of criminal charges, Exxon would pay a fine of $250 million. Two "restitution funds" of $50 million each were established, one under state control and one under federal authority. Against strong opposition from many Alaskans, $125 million of the balance was forgiven due to Exxon's cooperation during the cleanup, and upgraded safety procedures to prevent a reoccurrence. The remaining $25 million was divided between the Victims of Crime Act account ($13 million) and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund ($12 million).

    On September 16, 1994, a jury in federal court returned a $5 billion punitive damages verdict against Exxon. The company, however, has appealed several times since that time; on August 4, 1998, the Anchorage Daily News reported that:

Apparently, delay pays. Exxon is earning $90,000 an hour, about $2 millon a day or nearly $800 million a year, on the same $5 billion as long as the case drags on and the money stays in its coffers. As it stands now, if the appeals linger a couple of more years, Exxon will have earned enough interest alone to pay the $5 billion plus the accrued interest.
The $5 billion verdict was finally overturned by a panel of the 9th Circuit Court in November 2001.

    Joseph Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez the night she ran aground. Despite his admission that he had consumed at least three drinks before boarding the ship, Hazelwood was acquitted in 1990 of operating the tanker while drunk. He was convicted of the misdemeanor offence of illegally discharging oil, and on July 8, 1998, the Alaska Appeals Court upheld Hazelwood's sentence on that charge. This summer, we will be spending 1,000 hours picking up garbage along Anchoarge-area highways. Hazelwood currently lives on Long Island, New York, and works as a maritime insurance adjustor for a company owned by his lawyer.

    The Exxon Valdez, re-named the SeaRiver Mediterranean, is still carrying oil around the world. Although she has been barred from ever entering Alaskan waters again, Exxon applied to have that court ruling reversed. The appeal was rejected.

    An application to merge with Mobil to form the world's largest corporation was opposed by Senator Slade Gorton on March 4, 1999, due to Exxon's non-payent of assessed penalties.

    Searching for positive results of the spill requires a creative definition of the term "positive." As a direct or indirect result of the Exxon Valdez disaster, tighter environmental regulations have been imposed on many industries. The most important regulation attempting to protect against a repeat of the spill is the modern standard for tanker ships, which now must be built with double hulls, so that if the outer skin is punctured, no oil will leak. Among other benefits, large tracts of land have been added to Kenai Fjords National Park, using funds from the Exxon fines.

  • The State of Alaska has a large Web site set up which explains the history of the spill and cleanup efforts from a government perspective.
  • CNN has a good series of update articles and video posted .
  • The Alaska SeaLife Center, a state-of-the-art research and education facility in Seward, was built with funds from the Exxon fines.

    At what point do we draw the line between resource extraction at any cost and environmental protection? Can we have both? We can only hope that the Exxon Valdez disaster has taught the people who make those decisions some lessons they will never forget.

    Update: On the 30th anniversary of the disaster, oil can still be found on some beaches in Prince William Sound, and other effects, both physical and emotional, can also be found - see Tim Lydon's article "Wounded Wilderness: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill 30 Years Later" in Hakai Magazine.