Exxon’s Deadly Legacy

March 24 brought us the tenth anniversary of the most notorious foul-upin the history of the oil business: the Exxon Valdez spill which took placein Prince William Sound, 25 miles south of Valdez, Alaska around midnightwhen the vast 948 foot long tanker ran into Bligh reef. Over the next fewdays at least 11.2 million gallons of Alaskan crude oil poured into theSound.

The spill fouled more than 1,500 miles of shore line. It killed morethan 250,000 beaver; 26 orca whales; 2,000 sea otters; 300 harbor seals;250 bald eagles. It turned the Sound’s mussel beds into toxic graveyardsand decimated herring and pink salmon stocks. Ten years later, of the 30different species, only one has recovered, the bald eagle.

Exxon has boasted of spending $1.5 billion cleaning up the spill, but20 per cent — 2.5 million gallons — of crude oil remains in the Sound,either coating the mussel beds or in tarry deposits on the shore. Exxon’scleaning crews only mopped up 15 per cent of the spilled crude. The remaindereither evaporated or broke down.

America’s largest oil company soon faced suits from the federal governmentand from native tribal and fishing communities. In 1994 a federal districtcourt jury ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to 30,000natives, fisherman and businesses suffering economic hardship because ofthe spill. To date, Exxon hasn’t turned over a penny in satisfaction ofthat judgment. In fact the company is earning $400 million a year in intereston the money reserved in case it’s ultimately compelled to pay up. Lee Raymond,Exxon’s CEO, has said that the jury award was an “excessive and unwarrantedjudgment”. Exxon has instigated appeals and other legal maneuvers tosquash it. Among other tactics Exxon has claimed that a court bailiff triedto influence a juror by showing him a bullet and his gun while saying thata juror who was holding out for Exxon should be “put out of her misery.”The bailiff, Donald Warwick, died in 1995. Two years ago, the federal judge,H. Russel Holland, found the allegations groundless.

Meanwhile the fishing industry in the Sound remains moribund and long-termprospects for the salmon fisherman are bleak, since the pink salmon havedeveloped what biologists call functional sterility and such fry as do getspawned are severely deformed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationreckons that the salmon and herring catch in the chief fishing port of Cordovahas been roughly cut in half, an annual $90 million loss.

The spill also had dire, long-term effects on human communities in thearea. A long-term research project on the town of Cordova by Dr Steve Picouof the University of South Alabama, finds people still reeling from chronicstress. Picou’s research suggests that widespread depression, broken familiesand increased use of drink and drugs parallel similar breakdowns in suchcommunities as those around Three Mile Island and Love Canal.

Reacting to the smouldering fury of the spill’s victims, Senator TedStevens of Alaska put through a law, known as the 1990 Oil Pollution Act,which forever barred a rehabbed Exxon Valdez from plying Alaskan waters.Unabashed, Exxon renamed the tanker the Sea River Mediterranean and triedto sail it back to Valdez. When the tanker was stopped, Exxon challengedthe constitutionality of the 1990 Act. This bid failed and so the companyfiled a “takings” claim, demanding $125 million from the federalgovernment, on the ground its tanker had been unfairly “demonized”.

The tanker’s skipper at the time of the spill, Joseph Hazelwood, waitedmany years for the courts to decree punishment. This coming summer he willbegin 1,000 hours of community service in south-east Alaska, picking uptrash along highways outside Anchorage. The court has ordered him to spenda month a year in Alaska for the next five years.

Despite much public opprobrium at the time and spontaneous consumer boycotts,Exxon is doing just fine. North slope oil production has soared. The consortiumoperating on the North Slope — Exxon, Arco and British Petroleum — areearning after-tax profits estimated by Fortune magazine at over $3 billiona year. Even after production begins to decline in a couple years, the stateof Alaska predicts the three companies will be earning profits of more than$2 billion a year.

Did the spill produce federal regulation to guard against such contaminationin the future? The answer is an emphatic No. The companies are even resistinghaving their tankers escorted by tug boats through the Sound.

The Clinton administration has acquiesced in the oil companies’ nextproposed onslaught on the Alaska’s Arctic plain. There’s been a fair measureof publicity about the threat to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, just east ofthe Prudhoe Bay oil field Such fears are well justified since Arco, B-Pand Exxon are all test drilling next to the Refuge. Much less is being saidabout Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s decision to open the National PetroleumReserve to the oil companies. At 24 million acres, the Reserve is the largestundeveloped swath of land in North America, home to wolves, caribou andsome of the most productive raptor habitat in the world.

The Clinton administration has been lissome in its posture towards BigOil. By contrast, Washington senator Slade Gordon, a Republican, has toldthe administration that it should hold up the impending merger of Exxonand Mobil until the former pays the $5 billion fine. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.