1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill notes

Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for Exxon Valdez. The National Transportation Shipping Board found this was widespread throughout the industry, prompting a safety recommendation to Exxon and to the industry. The third mate failed to properly manoeuvre the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload.

Exxon Shipping Company failed to properly maintain the Raytheon Collision Avoidance System (RAYCAS) radar, which, if functional, would have indicated to the third mate an impending collision with the Bligh Reef by detecting the “radar reflector”, placed on the next rock inland from Bligh Reef for the purpose of keeping boats on course via radar. Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who was widely reported to have been drinking heavily that night, was not at the controls when the ship struck the reef.

However, as the senior officer, he was in command of the ship even though he was asleep in his bunk. In light of the other findings, investigative reporter Greg Palast stated in 2008, “Forget the drunken skipper fable. As to Captain Joe Hazelwood, he was below decks, sleeping off his bender. At the helm, the third mate never would have collided with Bligh Reef had he looked at his RAYCAS radar.

But the radar was not turned on. In fact, the tanker’s radar was left broken and disabled for more than a year before the disaster, and Exxon management knew it. It was [in Exxon’s view] just too expensive to fix and operate. Exxon blamed Captain Hazelwood for the grounding of the tanker Tanker crews were not told that the previous practice of the Coast Guard tracking ships out to Bligh Reef had ceased.

The oil industry promised, but never installed, state-of-the-art iceberg monitoring equipment Exxon Valdez was sailing outside the normal sea lane to avoid small icebergs thought to be in the area The 1989 tanker crew was half the size of the 1977 crew, worked 12–14 hour shifts, plus overtime. The crew was rushing to leave Valdez with a load of oil. Coast Guard tanker inspections in Valdez were not done, and the number of staff was reduced Lack of available equipment and personnel hampered the spill clean up.

ConsequencesHundreds of thousands of birds, fish and animals died right away, including 500,000 seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbour seals and bald eagles, a couple of dozen killer whales, and a dozen or more river otters. Clean-up efforts washed away much of the visible damage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill within the first year, but the environmental effects of the spill are still being felt. In the years since the accident, scientists have noted higher death rates among sea otters and some other species affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill and stunted growth or other damage among others. The Exxon Valdez oil spill also destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Twenty years later those fisheries were still unrecovered. Most of the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez was in the water within six hours after the ship hit Bligh Reef, and for the first two days it remained concentrated in a large but potentially manageable area near Bligh Island. On March 26, two days after the spill, a storm with winds of more than 70 mph swept through Prince William Sound and pushed the oil out to sea. By March 30, the oil stretched 90 miles beyond the spill site. Another complicating factor was that the spring tidal fluctuations at that time of year were nearly 18 feet, which carried the oil farther onto land than normal wave action, would have done.

Some of the clean-up efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused further damage instead of correcting it. To get at oil that had collected in rocky coves, rescue workers sprayed hot water from high-pressure hoses to displace it. Unfortunately, that method also destroyed tiny organisms that were either essential components in the food chain or could have accelerated the biodegradation of the oil. The Exxon Valdez oil spill led to many lawsuits.

In 1994, an Alaska jury ordered ExxonMobil to pay $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. In 2006, an appeals court reduced punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill to $2.5 billion, half the original amount. Two years later, in June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court cut the punitive damages even more, to $507.5 million.

The new figure represented about 12 hours of revenue for the giant oil company at the time of the ruling. In early 2007, more than 26,000 gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill remained trapped in the sand along the Alaska shoreline, according to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists involved in the study determined that this residual oil was declining at a rate of less than 4 percent annually. An estimated 210,000 gallons of crude has been spewing into the Gulf every day since an oil rig sank to the ocean floor April 22 after a huge explosion, rupturing a wellhead about 1500 metres below the surface.

The council, made up of three state and three federal appointees, was created to administer the $900 million that Exxon paid to settle lawsuits filed after the accident, which also resulted in criminal charges against the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood Hazelwood, was accused but then acquitted on a charge of being drunk at the time. He was, however, convicted of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service.