For The Guardian UK
Thirty years ago this month, Alaskan natives sold Exxon and its partners an astronomically valuable patch of land — the oil terminal at Valdez for a single dollar.
The Chugach Natives of the Prince William Sound refused cash. Rather, in 1969, they asked only that the oil companies promise to protect their fishing and seal hunting grounds from oil.
In 1971, Exxon and partners agreed to place the Natives’ specific list of safeguards into federal law. These commitment to safety reassured enough Congressmen for the oil group to win, by one vote, the right to ship oil from Valdez.
On Wednesday, March 24, the Tenth Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster was commemorated with the re-telling of lies. The official story is, “Drunken Skipper Hits Reef.” Don’t believe it.
This story remains untold: the true cause of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe was the oil giants’ 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.
I learned of the senseless crippling of the ship’s radar while working for the Natives as a spill investigator. For the Chugach, this discovery was poignantly ironic. 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 a former Senior Lab Technician with
Alyeska, Erlene Blake, 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, ten years 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.
Yet Big Oil tells us, as they plead to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, it can’t happen again.
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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.