Exxon Valdez oil spill: 25 years later

Truth is one of the first casualties of war, and in Alaska, truth was the first casualty of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Does it matter if we know how much spilled? Eleven million gallons was an intentional lie; the Exxon Valdez actually spilled about 30 million gallons.

Some say the truth doesn’t matter when it comes to how much oil was spilled. The state Attorney General’s Office wrote to me: “You and the State disagree over the relevance and materiality of the specific quantity of oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. On this issue, we must agree to disagree.”

In 2002 Bob Shavelson asked Dave Oesting, lead counsel for plaintiffs: “In light of the Ninth Circuit’s remand on punitives, I am curious why Exxon’s cover-up of the actual spill volume would not factor into plaintiff counsel’s argument regarding reprehensible conduct.” Oesting replied: “Plaintiffs took the approach for private victims that the scope of the impact/damage (which was huge) was the most relevant criteria, not the ‘size of the bomb.’”

It is hard to imagine why the plaintiffs’ attorneys would not want to show that Exxon was engaged in massive deceptions about the event. My guess is that in the mid to late 1990s when the attorneys had ample evidence of Exxon’s false reporting, they were afraid of delay, they thought they could wind up the litigation in a few years, and they thought they would nave no problem on appeal of the punitive award. They were wrong. The litigation  went on for more than 10 years and the punitive award was reduced by 90 percent.

Punitive awards are justified by reprehensible behavior and deception is a primary guidepost. I tried to submit evidence of the deceptions but because of our attorney’s opposition, the court would not grant leave to file. The case arrived at the Supreme Court as if Exxon was a good citizen, as if it did not lie about the spill, as if it did an adequate cleanup and the spill was a simple maritime event, not a huge contractual obligation with requirements for honest reporting.

Judge H. Russel Holland at the federal court in Anchorage repeatedly rejected attempts to bring Exxon to account about the size and cause of the spill. Exxon shamelessly exploited and abused plaintiff and court concessions for expediency and judicial economy. 

Lying and law-breaking apparently being regular Exxon practice, the deception began before the grounding on Bligh Reef. Capt. Joe Hazelwood told the Coast Guard that he was slowing and diverting to the inbound tanker lane to avoid icebergs. Actually he was speeding up and diverting completely from the lanes toward an illegal shortcut which would save hours of valuable tanker time.

As the Exxon Valdez entered the “Old Steamship Passage” between Bligh Reef and Reef Island, it needed to make a 20- or 30-degree turn. Gregory Cousins was glued to the radar and didn’t realize the ship had already made the turn, was sliding and helmsman Robert Kagan had applied counter-rudder to stabilize the turn and restore forward momentum. Cousins only saw the dot continue toward Reef Island. He panicked and threw the wheel hard right, which swung the bow to clip the first pinnacles and land the ship atop Bligh Reef, which was about 40 feet below the surface. The draft of the loaded Exxon Valdez was 56 feet.

Hazelwood recklessly tried to motor off the reef, ripping open more tanks, creating emulsions in the tanks, forcing oil out. If he had gotten off the reef, very likely the ship would have capsized, losing all the cargo and possible lives of crewmembers. Then, groups of Exxon and Exxon Shipping officials and attorneys arrived and began planning how to spin the event for minimum damage to the corporation.

The ship lodged at high tide and after low tide six hours later, the release of oil stopped. That’s because as the tide rose, clean sea  water was being sucked in through the holes in the bottom, to equalize with sea level. By volume, if there were no emulsions in the tanks, other conditions ideal, 11 million gallons would be the absolute minimum amount spilled at first low tide. So Exxon officials pegged the total spill at 11 million gallons. But oil continued to leak for at least a week during falling tides, in great quantity for two days, boiling two feet above the water surface alongside the ship.

With the pitch and roll of the ship, liquids slopping and churning against the baffles and tank walls, emulsions formed on top of the oil, forcing oil down and out. Before much lightering could happen, emulsions and oil water was about all there was left in the damaged tanks.

But Exxon claimed to recover large amounts of pure oil from those tanks. Exxon refused to reveal the off-loading reports of the lightering vessels which would show how much oil was recovered. After going south each lightering vessel returned to Valdez and unloaded to the dirty ballast treatment facility millions of gallons of very oily water from the same tanks which had been claimed to contain nearly pure crude oil.

Until a 1994 document-sharing agreement, the Alaska Attorney General’s Office held as confidential those “ballast” reports and two marine surveys, each estimating that at least 25 million gallons were spilled.

Why do the state and federal governments allow Exxon lies to go unchallenged in the face of irrefutable evidence? If you or I try to lie our way out of criminal culpability, we would be prosecuted and probably go to jail.

Why the double standard? Too big to challenge? Like companies too big to fail, so they get bailed out, but not smaller businesses?

It is a corruption of our societal values. It is a threat to a free and fair America. In  the words of writer Naomi Wolf:

“Democracy depends on a social agreement that is so obvious to us that it usually goes unspoken: There is such a thing as truth. In an open society, we know facts may be hedged and spun in the back-and-forth of debate, but truth is the ground from which the hedging or spinning begins. Democracy depends upon accountability; accountability requires us to be able to tell truth from lies; and to be able to tell truth from lies, we all first must agree that truth matters.”

Findlay Abbott’s family moved from Ojai, Calif., to Homer in 1959 and settled on Yukon Island. He briefly worked on the spill cleanup near Nuka Island and picked up tar balls on Yukon Island.