It wasn’t human error that caused America’s greatest environmental disaster, the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, it was inhuman corporate miserliness — the oil industry’s systemic fraud, corruption, and penny-pinching la-di-da view of safety. In this edition of The Thom Hartmann Program, Hartman and Palast discuss the Exxon Valdez on the 32 anniversary of the catastrophe.
Thom Hartmann: 32 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez disaster happened. The myth that I think most of us believe, the story that was told — in fact a movie was made out of it — is that the captain of the ship was a drunk and therefore it ran aground… But there’s a much deeper story here and one of the guys who was on that story at the time, doing the research, publishing articles about it is the author of Vultures’ Picnic, which features the full Exxon Valdez story. It’s one of Greg Palast’s absolutely does books…Greg, welcome back to the program. Tell us the true story of the Exxon Valdez.
Greg Palast: Yeah, let me declare that I was the chief investigator for the people that owned the shoreline, the Chugach Natives of Alaska. I lived up there with the natives. I was up there for a few years doing the investigation.
Here’s the story: There’s this whole myth that there’s a drunken skipper, like someone at the wheel of a car who’s drunk and smashes into a rock. No, he was below deck sleeping it off. That’s not how that happened… Anyone could’ve taken that ship through there because they had the very first GPS system in the world on that ship. It was very easy to sail through and not hit a rock. There’s a big, giant light on Bligh Reef, they should have missed it. But, believe it or not, Exxon had the radar turned off — I kid you not. The radar was turned off. Why? Because it was broken. It was too expensive to fix. It’s not like your $200 Garmin. We’re talking a $2 million piece of equipment, which took a lot of people, millions of dollars of training. They turned off the radar.
The other thing is that it hit at Bligh Reef at the Tatitlek village. You have to understand, the Chugach Natives, my clients who I was investigating for, they were standing on the beach, watching this ship come towards them and smash into the rocks. And here’s the tragedy. it destroyed their village, it destroyed 1200 miles of coastline, it destroyed their lives… They’d cut a deal, the Chugach Natives had given Exxon and BP the Port of Valdez — a billion dollar property — for $1. But they said, what we care about is not your money, we want these waters clean and safe. You put us in charge of the safety. Number one, you must have state-of-the-art radar. And they got Exxon to agree to it. And of course they turned off the radar… The second condition is that you have to have safety equipment at Bligh Reef in case oil spill.
It’s very easy, by the way, to clean up an oil spill. It’s really simple. You put rubber boom around it and then you get a containment ship and you suck it out. So you put on the rubber on it and suck it out and you’re done — you would have never heard of the Exxon Valdez. Exxon lied and BP lied and said that there was spill equipment right there at Bligh Reef, right where the ship hit, but it was a complete lie. They signed a document. It was a fraud.
And even worse, part of the deal for getting Valdez was that they hire the natives who were experts in being able to get into that icy water, with special suits on to surround a ship where there’s a spill. But kust before the tanker hit, they’d fired the natives to save money. They never put out the equipment. They fired the natives who were prepared and trained to surround a stricken vessel and stop the oil from flowing out, by pumping it out. You would have never heard of the Exxon Valdez except that Exxon and its partner British Petroleum lied and lied and lied — and that’s why we still know the name Exxon Valdez 33 years later.
Hartmann: I think we also know the name of Joseph…
Palast: Hazelwood. Look, if you’re a captain, you shouldn’t be drunk. But he wasn’t driving the car, he wasn’t driving the vessel. The problem was,
Hartmann: Right, he was in the back seat.
Palast: He was below decks, sleeping it off. So was the first and second mate, the third mate, he wasn’t exactly expert, but they had the radar. Any 12-year old who’s played a video game would know how to move that ship by following the GPS. That’s all you have to do. It’s a big, giant, wide channel.
Hartmann: But if you’ve got no GPS, you’ve got a problem.
Palast:vYeah. And, by the way, on top of everything else, while Exxon Mobil has run giant, full-page ads for several years about their safe vessels, because they have double hulls. Well, they didn’t. The Exxon Valdez had a single hull because Exxon and BP had successfully fought congressional demands to have every tanker out of Valdez have a double hull. They beat that, said it wasn’t necessary. When the tanker hit, if it had hit the reef and had the double hull, they wouldn’t have lost 12 ounces of oil let alone, you know, we don’t know how many gallons, but about 42 million gallons of oil.
Named Book of the Year on BBC Newsnight Review, you can get a signed copy of Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores with a tax deductible donation to support our work.
Vultures’ Picnic charts the course of Palast’s quest to bring the truth of the BP disaster to light as he and his team of journalist-detectives go from the streets of Baku, where Palast searches for a brown valise full of millions, to a small Eskimo village, where he hears firsthand of the depth of deceit and heartbreaking environmental devastation, to a burnt-out nuclear reactor in Japan, to Chevron’s operations in the Amazon jungle.
Along the way, Palast and his team see the many other crimes perpetrated by the energy giants of the worlds, the banks that fund their lies, and the governments that turn a blind eye.
Hartmann: Wow… What was the consequences of this to Exxon, other than bad publicity, which they seem to have been able to greenwash away? And what happened to your clients, the Native Americans there?
Palast: Well, oh boy, I fought Exxon for years on their behalf with the legal team and we uncovered this massive fraud. And they said, if you make the fraud public, if you use the F-word — fraud — we will never give you a penny. So they gave the natives a few shekels. What they did was they basically bought the natives’ land. Why? Cause they actually wanted to use it for oil work staging. You can still go to the Chugach lands, like to Sleepy Bay, and if you stick your hand in the gravel at the beach at Sleepy Bay — I go about every 10 years — if you stick your hand in the gravel, it’ll come up with goo and smell like a gas station.
This fantasy that nature is an endless toilet that flushes itself clean is nonsense. So they’ve still got the hydrocarbon. It killed their seals, it made their sardines that they live off inedible. I was at the Chenega village. They lived 100% off the land. Everything was poisoned. It destroyed their way of life. And a judge ruled that the native way of life, living off the land — which they have lived off for 3000 years — a judge said, look, your native life is just a lifestyle choice, you know, you could always just go to a supermarket (which is a hundred miles away by air). So they got nothing for the destruction of their way of life. It destroyed those villages. It destroyed those villages. It was horrendous, and it’s still there… And Exxon is still putting out the lie that nature cleans itself. Again, it’s just a toilet you can keep flushing. Because who goes up there? This is really remote.
Hartmann: Is any of this still being litigated?
Palast: No. By the way, Exxon told me when I tried to cut a deal with them, they said, you know, buddy, we can wait you out 20 years in a courtroom. And I thought, well, that’s an exaggeration. No, it was 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled and cut out 90% of the jury and court judgment against Exxon — 90% of the court judgment! It was the case that virtually ended punitive damages in America. So I don’t think people understand what happens with these oil spills. It is permanent destruction and you’re finished. These guys lie. The oil industry floats on lies.
This is an excerpt from Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Fraudsters.
My own favorite of all my books, I’ll sign my last copies — I removed it from print — if you make a tax-deductible donation to support our continuing investigations.