Thrawn Rickle 1

The Exxon Valdez Spill
© 1990 Williscroft

As I sat down to write this column, the jury was still out in the case of Captain Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez. Now that they have found him not guilty, who is? Perhaps that isn’t the right question. Is it Exxon? Perhaps, despite the noises made by almost every “environmentally concerned group,” perhaps that isn’t the right question either.

Back in March, 1978, the Amoco Cadiz floundered on the rocks about a mile off the northwestern coast of France. 223,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the North Atlantic, fouling the shoreline with six times more oil than resulted from the Exxon Valdez spill. This oil covered oyster and mussel beds and lobster pounds. What wasn’t killed outright was unmarketable.

Three years later there was no apparent damage left. Commercial fishing was in full swing. Five years later nature had taken its full course. Today it is as if the oil spill had never happened.

Shortly after the spill in Prince William Sound, one news report described it as the worst man-made disaster since the bombing of Hiroshima. (Really, now…) The Prince William Sound spill was far smaller than the French spill, much more confined, and clean-up was addressed much more quickly and with greater efficiency.

This notwithstanding, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and other groups pounced on the obvious villain, focusing their anger on Exxon and Captain Hazelwood. Headlines ranted against the huge, faceless, greedy corporation – the ogre that fouled the precious environment to save a few pennies on substandard ships and captains. They even organized cut-ins where everyone cut up their Exxon credit cards. They laid plans to bring about the indictment of corporate officers on criminal charges. It became the media event of the year.

After the spill, the Coast Guard requested that Captain Hazelwood remain aboard his ship to supervise the ballasting to minimize the spill. I would interpret that to mean that they judged the captain competent. Had he been intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated, I do not believe the Coast Guard would have requested his assistance.

The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company operates the oil terminal in Valdez. This company was formed by seven oil-producing firms. Fifty percent is owned by British Petroleum through BP Pipelines, which controls the company and is responsible for its operations. Sometime before the spill, Alyeska removed 36 tons of clean-up equipment from the response barge and stowed it ashore. All decisions concerning clean-up equipment, its maintenance and stowage, were made in London by BP, NOT by Exxon. Where was the Coast Guard monitoring of this equipment (its legal mandate)? Where was the State of Alaska’s monitoring presence since it has a huge stake in safe and proper operation of the whole related system?

Exxon went far beyond the requirements of the situation. The men running this corporation sensed how the wind was blowing and made practical decisions. They spent more on the cleanup than the annual budget of several nations. Exxon deserves praise and respect for its actions following the spill.
Perhaps we need to examine more closely the motives of the naysayers. The news media reaction is knee jerk as always – this requires no astute insight. The environmental groups who so cold-bloodedly attacked Exxon and Captain Hazelwood, however, may have been following an agenda that was established well before the Prince William Sound spill. We will examine this idea more closely in future columns.

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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