Ten Years After But Who Was To Blame?


Sunday, March 21, 1999

By Gregory Palast for The Observer/Guardian UK

The captain, Joe Hazelwood, was below decks, sleeping off his bender. The man left at the helm, the third mate, would never have hit Bligh Reef had he simply looked at his Raycas radar. But he could not. Why? Because the radar was not turned on. The complex Raycas system costs a lot to operate, so a frugal Exxon management left it broken and useless for the entire year before the grounding.

And there's more of the Exxon Valdez disaster story that you've never been told.

Just 10 months before the spill, the six oil companies that own Alaska's oil held a secret, top-level meeting in Arizona. Their chief of operations at the Valdez terminal, Theo Polasek, warned at the meeting that it was 'not possible' to contain an oil spill in the centre of the Prince William Sound - exactly where the Exxon Valdez grounded. Polasek needed millions of dollars for spill containment equipment. The law required it; the companies promised it to regulators; then, at the meeting, the proposed spending was voted down.

Smaller spills before the Exxon disaster could have alerted government watchdogs that the port's oil-spill containment system was not up to scratch. But according to the oil group's lab technician Erlene Blake, management routinely ordered her to change test results to eliminate 'oil-in-water' readings. The procedure was simple, says Blake. She was told to dump out oily water and re-fill test tubes from a bucket of cleansed sea water, which they called the Miracle Barrel.

A confidential letter dated April 1984, fully four years before the big spill, written by Captain James Woodle, then the oil group's Valdez port commander, warned management: 'Due to a reduction in manning, age of equipment, limited training and lack of personnel, serious doubt exists that [we] would be able to contain and clean-up effectively a medium or large size oil spill.'

According to Woodle, there had been a spill at Valdez before the Exxon collision - although not nearly as large. When he prepared to report it to the government, his supervisor forced him to take back the notice, with the Orwellian command, 'You made a mistake. This was not an oil spill.'

The Fable of the Drunken Skipper has served the oil industry well. It transforms the most destructive oil spill in history into a tale of human frailty - a terrible, but one-time, accident. But broken radar, missing equipment, phantom spill personnel, faked tests, the profit-mad disregard of law - all these made the spill disaster not an accident but an inevitability.

The canard of the alcoholic captain has also provided effective camouflage for British Petroleum's involvement in the environmental catastrophe which Exxon Valdez caused.

Alaska's oil is BP oil. The company owns and controls a majority of the Alaska Pipeline system, the consortium called 'Alyeska'. Exxon is a junior partner, and four others are just along for the ride. Captain Woodle, technician Blake, and vice-president Polasek, all worked for BP's Alyeska.

When it comes to oil spills, the name of the game is 'containment' because, radar or not, some day, some tanker somewhere will hit the rocks. It was the failure to contain the spreading oil from Exxon Valdez that destroyed over 1,000 miles of coastline.

Quite naturally, British Petroleum has never rushed to have its name associated with Alyeska's destructive recklessness. After all, the disaster is always referred to by the name of the tanker. Who's name was on the side of the that tanker? Answer: Exxon. BP has rarely been fingered.

But we now know that BP's London headquarters learned of the alleged falsification of reports to the US government years before the spill. In September 1984, independent oil shipper Charles Hamel of Washington DC, shaken by evidence he received from Alyeska employees, hopped on the first available Concorde at his own expense to warn BP executives in London about scandalous goings-on at Valdez.

Furthermore, the port commander, Captain Woodle, swears he personally delivered his damning list of missing equipment and personnel directly into the hands of BP's Alaska chief, George Nelson.

BP has never been eager that Woodle's letter, details of Hamel's London trip and other warnings of the deteriorating containment system should see the light of day.

Alyeska showed Woodle a file of his marital infidelities (all bogus). It then offered him pay-outs on condition that he leave the state within days, promising never to return.

As to Hamel, the oil shipping broker, BP in London thanked him. Then a secret campaign was launched to hound him out of the industry. A CIA expert was hired to wiretap Hamel's phone lines, smuggle microphones into his home, intercept his mail and try to entrap him with young women.

The industrial espionage caper was personally ordered and controlled by BP executive James Hermiller, President of Alyeska. A US federal judge later told Alyeska this conduct was 'reminiscent of Nazi Germany'.

BP's inglorious role in the Alaskan oil game began in 1969 when the oil group bought the most valuable real estate in all Alaska, the Valdez oil terminal land, from the Chugach Natives. Alyeska paid one dollar.

A US Supreme Court Justice explained to the natives the worth of their claim on this land. But their own lawyer, the state's most powerful legislator, advised them against pressing for payment. He later became Alyeska's lawyer.

The natives, who lived off what they hunted and caught, extracted promises from the oil consortium to keep the Prince William Sound safe from oil spills. Presciently, these seal hunters and fishermen demanded that tankers carry state-of-the-art radar, that Alyeska place spill equipment on Bligh Reef, and that emergency vessels escort the tankers. The oil companies put all this in their official 1973 Oil Spill Response Plan - but only implemented it after the 1989 disaster.

When the pipeline opened in 1974, law required Alyeska to maintain round-the-clock oil-spill response teams. As part of the come-on to get hold of the Chugach's Valdez property, Alyeska hired the natives for this emergency work.

They practiced leaping out of helicopters into icy water, learning to surround leaking boats with rubber barriers. But they soon found that part of their assignment was not to clean up spills but to cover them up. Their foreman David Decker said he was expected to report an oil spill as two gallons when two thousand gallons had spilled.

Alyeska kept the natives at the terminal for two years - long enough to help break the dockworkers' union - and then quietly fired them all.

To deflect inquisitive inspectors, Alyeska created sham teams, listing names of oil terminal workers who had not the foggiest idea how to use spill equipment - equipment which was, in any event, missing, broken or existed only on paper.

When the Exxon Valdez grounded, there was no native spill crew, only chaos.

Yet, Alyeska was able to settle all claims for 2 per cent of the acknowledged damage, roughly a $50 million pay-out (£30 million), fully covered by an insurance fund.

A jury ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion, although the petroleum giant continues to stall on payment.

BP said this weekend that it was unable to comment on events which happened as long as 15 years ago.

Immediately after the spill, I was asked by the Chugach to head a team investigating the spill. Much of the evidence here comes from those files, useless now to the natives because two years after the spill, when herring failed to appear and fishing in the Sound collapsed, the Chugach tribal corporation went bankrupt.

I often return to the Prince William Sound and get news from the native villages. At Chenega, they are preparing to spend another summer scrubbing rocks. Last year, they pulled 20 tons of sludge from their beaches.

At Nanwalek village, the state again declared the clams inedible, poisoned by persistent hydrocarbons. Salmon carry abscesses and tumors, the herring never returned, and the sea lion rookery at Montague Island remains silent and empty.

But despite what my eyes see, I must have it wrong, because right here in an Exxon brochure it says: 'The water is clean and plant, animal and sea life are healthy and abundant.'

* * * * *

Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, "Inside Corporate America" fortnightly in Britain's Sunday newspaper, The Observer part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared. For comments or request to reprint, contact us.

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