A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
This is the first in a series addressing the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The 20th anniversary of the biggest, deadliest oil spill in our nation’s history is coming up next month. It will no doubt be a somber occasion. But for those who were most affected, remembering what came before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill may be more painful than the anniversary of the disaster itself.
The captain of the Exxon Valdez, a man described in later court documents as a “relapsed alcoholic,” was in his quarters when he should have been piloting the ship, and the men he assigned to take his place weren’t properly rested. The ship obtained special permission to exit the Prince Williams Sound through the inbound shipping lane. The ship came too close to shore and was grounded on the Bligh Reef, a well-known obstacle in the area, just after midnight on March 24, 1989.
Immediately after the spill, delays and mishaps interfered with the clean-up. The fishermen and the townspeople of Cordova, Alaska, who relied on the waters for their very existence, were worried. But the president of Exxon assured them they would all be taken care of. He even called the incident a blessing in disguise for Alaskans.
“You won’t have a problem. I don’t care if you believe that or not. That’s the truth. You have had some good luck and you don’t realize it. You have Exxon and we do business straight. We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole. Now that’s — you have my word on that,” Exxon President Dan Cornett told a crowd of Cordovans gathered in concern after the disaster (watch a video excerpt of that meeting here).
The opposite turned out to be the case; in reality it was more of a fleecing in the disguise of disaster. For the past two decades, Exxon has dragged its corporate feet in court while Alaskans have struggled to cope with the aftereffects of the spill. Communities such as Cordova still report cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome, along with continuing increases in divorce, bankruptcy, and suicide rates.
The situation is sad and frustrating. But perhaps the most difficult part of all is that the fishermen, along with environmentalists and other community members, saw it coming all along.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the foundations of plans to extract Alaska’s oil reserves were being laid. Media reports on the subject of a possible pipeline reveal a country hungry for oil and a state hungry for revenue. At the time, one writer salivated that the northern tip of Alaska might produce 2.5 million barrels of crude oil a day, with Alaska benefiting at a rate of around $1.2 million daily.
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was established in 1970 as a consortium of oil companies, including Exxon, working to ensure the construction of a pipeline. The company also pushed for the overseas transportation of oil instead of what several studies contended would be a significantly safer land route through Canada. The overseas route would mean huge oil tankers chugging through notoriously volatile conditions in the Prince Williams Sound, which was also one of the richest habitats for marine life in the world.
The Cordova District Fisheries Union (CDFU — they’ve since changed their name to Cordova District Fishermen United) criticized the preparations surrounding the building of the pipeline before it occurred.
They called into question both oil pollution risks and what they saw as shoddy research by the U.S. Interior Department over the safety of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System. In the end, the Interior Department’s published report stated that the need for oil outweighed environmental and commercial risks.
Finding no one in the federal government to hear them out, the CDFU wrote a letter in 1969 to Alaska’s governor calling for caution. The group pointed out that the environmental conditions of the area and the species within it were unique in their vulnerability to oil pollution. They said they were not opposed to the pipeline, but wanted the operation to be strictly regulated by the government with strong enforcement and stiff penalties to root out any violators.
The governor brushed off the community’s concerns. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) promised that “not a drop” of oil would fall into the Sound. So, the CDFU took it to the courts, with a media blitz on the side. The CDFU filed an injunction against the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture in spring 1971.
In late 1971, fishermen from the union testified before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation. One union representative noted that the geography of the area would make spill clean-up nearly impossible.
“There is no way that oil can flush out of the Sound. It would have to blow one way or the other in approximately 3,000 miles of coastline,” he said.
Another union representative noted that the isolated location would make for a lag in the commencement of emergency clean up, and the extreme weather conditions plaguing the area would also hamper efforts.
The representatives then traveled to New York and gave a presentation to the environmental director of The New York Times’ Magazine about the threat of the pipeline. The editor seemed to cheerily accept that the pipeline and environmental disaster were both foregone conclusions. One of the union’s representatives that attended the meeting recalled the editor reacting to the presentation quite glibly:
“Now when we have a disaster, when we have a big oil spill in Prince William Sound or along the coast of Canada, we’ll have a handle on the story.”
In many ways, the concerns of fishermen at the time were strikingly prescient. Nearly every worry they expressed before the building of the pipeline ended up coming to pass.
One complaint about the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released by the Interior Department was that there was a great deal of confusion over the usefulness of natural processes and organisms that could help clean up in the event of a spill. The CDFU called for more research so that if a spill happened, corporations and the government would know how to deal with it. When the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred, the clean-up crew blasted organic helpers into submission with high-powered water streams, not allowing them to aid in the natural recovery process.
The general lack of scientific knowledge about the Sound’s marine life was also brought up by the group as a reason the EIS was insufficient. After the oil spill, the lack of an environmental baseline made it possible for Exxon to claim that the high die-offs from the 1990s that continue today are due to the natural ebb and flow of species in the Sound, having nothing to do with the oil spill.
The strangest part of this story is that after injunctions and other delays to the pipeline, the little guys actually won — in the courtroom, at least. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Alyeska, and the Supreme Court declined to take them up on appeal.
It took congressional action and a presidential signature for Big Oil to get its way. In making changes to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal government basically wrote a law in 1973 overruling the court decision to halt the building of the pipeline until the correct leasing procedure could be followed and more research could be completed.
The legislation that overrode the court decision and made National Environmental Policy Act procedures immaterial was so contentious that the vote of Vice President Spiro Agnew was necessary to break a Senate tie and make the proposal law.
In November 1985, more than three years before the spill, the CDFU sponsored a report written by James T. Payne titled “Our Way of Life is Threatened and Nobody Seems to Give a Damn:” The Cordova District Fisheries Union and the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. It’s a heartbreaking document, admitting defeat in their efforts to stop the construction of the pipeline and fretting over possible damage due to the release of unclean ballast water into the Sound. The idea of a tragedy on the scale of Exxon Valdez, which is just around the corner, is treated more as a doomsday scenario than anything to be actively worried about.
Payne’s report notes that though the fishermen were unsuccessful in stopping the pipeline, they lobbied for every safety measure they could in the wake of their loss in the “court” of Congress. One success was the establishment of a specific shipping lane for outbound tankers. Unfortunately, the Exxon Valdez violated such requirements, exiting through the inbound lane before striking the Bligh Reef.
Payne also quoted Max Blumer, one of only a few scientists who had studied the effects of oil pollution in the late 60s and early 70s, cautioning that human error is “the most important cause of oil pollution and the most difficult one to correct.”
Hours after the accident was announced, the president of Exxon Shipping blamed the spill on “human error.”
When journalists create their obligatory stories on the 20-year anniversary of the spill, there’s no doubt the phrase “tragic accident” will be part of the report. And, in a way, that’s an accurate description. But it’s only fair to note that the events following the disaster might be more tragic, though less accidental.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
Check back next week for more on the legacy of the Exxon Valdez disaster. We’ll be writing about the decades of court battles, the lingering environmental issues, the culture of Big Oil and much more.