When the twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill came around last month, a lot of the mythology surrounding the incident came around again, too. Everybody knows, for instance, that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the tanker, was drunk at the time of the incident. Except, this was never proved. In his trial following the incident in Prince William Sound, Hazelwood was acquitted of being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the oil spill. In fact, he was acquitted of all felony charges, though he was convicted of a misdemeanor charge (negligent discharge of oil) and his master’s license was suspended under Coast Guard administrative rules.
Also untrue is the story that Hazelwood left the bridge under the supervision of an unlicensed mate. Third Mate Gregory Cousins was a licensed mate, what he lacked was the endorsement required by oil tanker watch officers to operate in Prince William Sound. Cousins was cleared of any charges related to the incident.
The Exxon Valdez may be the most famous oil spill, but it’s not even close to being the largest. Ten years before the incident in Alaska, the Atlantic Empress collided with the Aegean Captain off Trinidad and Tobago in the eastern Caribbean. The resulting spill dumped 287,000 metric tons (about 84 million gallons) into the sea, compared with the Exxon Valdez’s 37,000 metric tons (about 10.8 million gallons). The Exxon Valdez doesn’t even make the top ten in terms of size of spill.
On the other hand, none of the oil from the Atlantic Empress/Aegean Captain incident came ashore. The crude from the Exxon Valdez’s tanks is still being dug out of the beaches in Prince William Sound. The resulting damage to shore life, fisheries, tourism, and recreation has been an economic disaster for the Prince William Sound region, even leading to the bankruptcy of the Chugach native corporation.
The legal wrangling following the case is still in the courts. Less than a year ago the US Supreme Court threw out a $2.5 billion punitive damage award against Exxon. It had been whittled down from an initial $5 billion figure, in addition to nearly $300 million in actual damages, awarded in 1994.
As for Hazelwood, he paid a fine, did community service, and spent two decades as the butt of drunken captain jokes. Last month he apologized to the people of Alaska for the incident. See http://www.adn.com/exxonvaldez/story/711385.html for more.