The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
31. The Exxon Valdez

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Oil spill from the Exxon Valdez the day it ran aground.
(ADN/Erik Hill)
At about 9:00 PM on 23 March 1989, the 987-foot supertanker Exxon Valdez left the tanker terminal at the end of the 800-mile-long Alaska pipeline, fully loaded with crude oil and bound for California. Two and a half hours later, Captain Joseph Hazelwood informed the Coast Guard that he was moving the tanker from the outbound to the inbound sea lane through Prince William Sound in order to avoid ice floes. Then Hazelwood turned the helm over to Third Mate Gregory Cousins. For some reason the supertanker sailed past the inboard lane and, shortly after midnight, plowed into Bligh Reef, three miles beyond the channel. Oil began to gush from the ruptured hull. Returning to the bridge, Captain Hazelwood took steps to keep the Exxon Valdez from sliding off the reef, which would have increased the spillage. Even so, 240,000 barrels of crude -- 10 million gallons -- were dumped into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, the worst  oil disaster in North American history, and an environmental catastrophe of such proportions that some called it "America's Chernobyl," comparing it to the Soviet nuclear power plant disaster which had occurred in 1986.
Alyeska, the association formed by the seven oil companies engaged in the Alaska trade, had a 1,800-page contingency plan for oil spills. There were booms to corral the spilled oil, mechanical skimmers to suck it out of the water, and laser's to burn it off. But confusion and -- according to some -- incompetence delayed the cleanup. The booms arrived late, and by the third day high winds rendered them useless and allowed the oil slick to spread. It would soon cover an area of 1,800 square miles. President George Bush was criticized for tardiness in declaring the spill eligible for federal Superfund assistance.
Who was responsible for the disaster? Captain Hazelwood became America's "Environmental Enemy Number One." But was he villain or scapegoat? A former Sea Scout and graduate of the New York Maritime College, the Georgia-born Hazelwood became at age 32 the youngest skipper in Exxon's fleet when he took command of the Exxon Philadelphia in 1978. By all accounts he was an excellent seaman; in 1985 he saved the Exxon Chester when a freak storm boasting 30-foot waves snapped the tanker's mast and had the crew scrambling to abandon ship. In 1987 and 1988 the Exxon Valdez under Hazelwood's command earned a company safety and performance award. But Hazelwood had a problem -- he was an alcoholic, and though he had entered a rehabilitation program in 1985 and was closely monitored by Exxon thereafter, Coast Guard investigators who boarded the Exxon Valdez hours after the wreck reported that he reeked of alcohol. Many believed that Hazelwood erred in turning the ship over to Third Mate Cousins during the passage, since Cousins lacked the "pilotage endorsement" required for navigating the Sound. However, the pilotage issue was obfuscated by a previous easing of the rules by the Coast Guard. Still others pointed a finger at the Coast Guard, which failed to track the Exxon Valdez by radar through the Sound; such monitoring might have resulted in an alert that could have kept the tanker off the reef. The Coast Guard blamed faulty equipment and a change of shift for the oversight.
Regardless of who was a fault, the damage done by the oil spill was an environmental holocaust. Prince William Sound produced 50 percent of Alaska's commercial salmon catch and many fishermen made a good living harvesting herring roe, a delicacy in Japan, from those waters. The 1989 fishing season was cancelled. The spill killed at least 5,000 sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals and over half a million birds, including 250 bald eagles. Years later residual oil would be blamed for a continuing decline in the duck, loon and cormorant populations. The Sound's killer whale population also went into steep decline. Scientists determined that while most of the components in oil soon dissipated, certain toxic compounds could linger for years. Fish eggs incubated in water containing as little as 15 parts of oil in one billion parts of water caused a 40 percent reduction in survival rates. Salmon egg mortality was still higher than normal four years after the spill, and herring showed increased numbers with deformities for years to come.
Exxon's cleanup efforts were tardy, confused and ineffectual, according to critics. The company's main weapon against an oil spill were chemical dispersants, but six days after the wreck there were only 110,000 gallons on hand, five times less than what was needed folr a spill of such dimensions. It was a moot point, anyway -- after the fifth day the oil had become a dispersant-resistant sludge. Skimmers could remove only a few thousand gallons of spilled oil a day. Soon toxic hydrocarbons had contaminated a shoreline equivalent in size to the entire Atlantic coast of the United States. Scientists predicted it would take two or three decades before the Sound would fully recover.
The effects on the local economy were devastating. In the fishing town of Cordova, three of five fish processors were closed in the years following the spill. In 1988 there were 270 salmon seining boats working out of Cordova; ten years later that number had dwindled to 80. A lawsuit brough by 30,000 fishermen, suppliers and processors resulted in a $5 billion judgment against Exxon -- the largest punitive damage verdict in American history. In addition, Exxon spent $2.2 billion on cleanup efforts and suffered, briefly, from a consumer boycott. (However, ten years after the spill Exxon was still the nation's biggest oil company, selling 20 percent more oil than it had in 1988.) Repaired and rechristened the Seariver Mediterranean, the Exxon Valdez carried Middle Eastern crude to European ports. Captain Hazelwood was jailed with bond set at $500,000 (which was later deemed excessive and reduced to $25,000.) New York State Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Rohl proclaimed that the oil spill was "man-made destruction that probably has not been equaled since Hiroshima." Hazelwood was eventually acquitted of all charges save one misdemeanor. His captain's license was restored to him following a nine-month suspension; unable to find work at sea, Hazelwood took a job as a maritime insurance adjuster.


The Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the largest in history. In 1978 the Amoco Cadiz was wrecked off the coast of France and spilled six times as much oil. However, that spill dissipated quickly since the wreck occurred, unlike the Exxon Valdez incident, in the open seas.

Gas retailers were quick to take advantage of the spill, raising prices at the pump by as much as 14 cents.

Nearly $400 million of the Exxon settlement was used by the government to purchase 650,000 acres that included 1,400 miles of shoreline along Prince William Sound as well as 287 salmon spawning streams in order to protect against development.

In the aftermath of the incident Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, strengthening regulations on oil tankers and oil tank operators. Oil companies engaged in the Alaska trade were ordered to switch to double-hulled tankers by the year 2015. In Prince William Sound, tugs escorted tankers all the way to the open sea while fully-qualified pilots remained at the helm until all vessel were beyond Bligh Reef.

Workers use pressure washers to clean a beach on Smith Island.
 (ADN/Bob Hallinen)


Newsweek, 10 April 1989, 17 April 1989, 24 April 1989

Time, 24 July 1989

"The Sound and the Fury"
Paul Nussbaum, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1999