On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. The oil spread along 1,300 miles of otherwise pristine coastline. It remains one of the worst peacetime oil spills in world history, second only to the 1979 Ixtoc I disaster, and its effects linger to this day. One of those effects is that Exxon never fully accepted responsibility, and the people whose lives were impacted the most never received the financial compensation they were due. We can expect that from a multinational conglomerate with trillion-dollar reserves.
In an age before the Internet and Twitter, news of the calamity still spread fast. At first, many thought it was just a technical issue. The crew of a gigantic oil tanker, traveling at night, misjudged the topography of the area and slammed into some rocks. It wasn’t that simple. Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood had left the navigation bridge around 11 P.M. local time the night before the accident and returned to his stateroom. He left two subordinates in charge of commandeering the vessel. When the accident occurred, U.S. Coast Guard officials immediately took Hazelwood into custody and began questioning him. They also detected the odor of alcohol on his breath and compelled him to undergo a Breathalyzer exam. His blood alcohol level registered .061, and Hazelwood later admitted to consuming “two to three vodkas” in the hours before the ship slammed into the shoreline. In 1990, however, a jury in Anchorage found Hazelwood not guilty of public intoxication and two other charges, but convicted him of “misdemeanor oil discharge;” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Hazelwood did lose his job, and the Coast Guard stripped him of his maritime master’s license.
But, the reaction from Exxon’s then-CEO, Lawrence G. Rawls, only intensified the anger and showed the disconnect corporate executives often have from their own company’s daily operations. Rawls remained aloof for nearly a week after the disaster and then spoke publicly only out of seeming reluctance. He refused to visit the site of the accident and even meet with then-Alaska Governor Steve Cowper who had just taken office four months earlier.
In some ways, Exxon paid the price for its almost-flippant response. Cleanup efforts alone cost the company $2.5 billion, and it paid out an additional $1.1 billion in various settlements. But, when asked how Exxon intended to pay for the mess, one executive merely said it would raise gas prices.
Aside from the livelihoods of coastal residents who depended on fishing to survive, Alaskan wildlife suffered the greatest impact. Responders estimated that as many as 3,000 otters perished within the first year after the spill and have only now seen their numbers replenished to pre-Valdez times. The population of herring also suffered, but their numbers haven’t recovered. Another species that hasn’t recovered is the pigeon guillemot. Their numbers were already in decline before the spill, but the disaster pushed them even further to the brink of extinction. The sight of a large brown bear stumbling along the rocky shoreline, trying to lick its paws clean of the sticky oil, is one particular image that remains with me. Oil-saturated birds struggling for air is another.
Exxon’s reputation suffered as well, but not nearly as much. In 1999, the company merged with Mobil; an $81 billion deal that made it one of the large oil monopolies in the world. In 1994, complicated litigation to make Exxon pay financially for the spill was settled in four phases for a total of $2.5 billion. But, the company, of course, prolonged its appeals, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the punitive damage award to $500 million. In the interim, Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) has reaped extraordinary profits. It hasn’t really suffered. Big corporations never really do. The effects still linger.