Don’t Buy Exxon’s Fable Of The Drunken Captain

Today, March 24, the 32nd Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster will be commemorated with the re-telling of lies. The official story is, “Drunken Skipper Hits Reef.” Don’t believe it.

Days after the oil tanker slimed 1,200 miles of Alaska’s coastline, I was in Prince William Sound, launching an investigation for the Chugach Natives of Alaska. It was their coastline.

This story remains untold: the true cause of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe was the oil giant’s breaking their promises to the Natives and Congress, cynically and disastrously, in the fifteen years leading up to the spill.

As to Captain Joe Hazelwood, he was below decks, sleeping off his bender. At the helm, the third mate would never 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 just too expensive to fix and operate.

For the Chugach, this discovery was poignantly ironic. Twenty years earlier the Chugach sold Exxon and BP the incredibly valuable port of Valdez—for $1. That’s right, a dollar. But they won something in return: a guarantee of the safety of the waters on which they survived. On their list of safety demands in return for Valdez was “state-of-the-art” on-ship radar.

We discovered more, but because of the labyrinthine ways of litigation, little became public, especially about the reckless acts of the industry consortium, Alyeska, which controls the Alaska Pipeline.

  • Several smaller oil spills before the Exxon Valdez could have warned of a system breakdown. But Erlene Blake, a former Senior Lab Technician with Alyeska, the Exxon/BP consortium, told our investigators that management routinely ordered her to toss out test samples of water evidencing spilled oil. She was ordered to refill the test tubes with a bucket of clean sea water called, “The Miracle Barrel.”
  • In a secret meeting in April 1988, Alyeska Vice-President T.L. Polasek confidentially warned the oil group executives that, because Alyeska had never purchased promised safety equipment, it was simply “not possible” to contain an oil spill past the Valdez Narrows — exactly where the Exxon Valdez ran aground 10 months later.
  • The Natives demanded (and law requires) that the shippers maintain round-the-clock oil spill response teams. Alyeska hired the Natives, especially qualified by their generations-old knowledge of the Sound, for this emergency work. They trained to drop from helicopters into the water with special equipment to contain an oil slick at a moments notice. But in 1979, quietly, Alyeska fired them all. To deflect inquisitive state inspectors, the oil consortium created sham teams, listing names of oil terminal workers who had not the foggiest idea how to use spill equipment which, in any event, was missing, broken or existed only on paper.

In 1989, when the oil poured from the tanker, there was no Native response team, only chaos.

Today, three decades after the oil washed over the Chugach beaches, you can kick over a rock and it will smell like an old gas station.

The Fable of the Drunken Captain serves the oil industry well. It falsely presents America’s greatest environmental disaster as a tale of human frailty, a one-time accident. But broken radar, missing equipment, phantom spill teams, faked tests — the profit-driven disregard of the law — made the spill an inevitability, not an accident.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian UK on March 29,1999. The full untold story of the Exxon Valdez disaster can be found in Greg Palast’s book, Vultures’ Picnic.

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