Twenty-five years ago, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, images of ravaged waters in an otherwise untouched environment shocked the nation. But it did not surprise some local residents who had met earlier that very night. This gathering of fishermen, tour-boat operators and citizens -- including the mayor of Valdez -- had already concluded that it was a matter of when, not if, a major oil spill occurred. Later that night, one wrong turn by a supertanker changed everyone’s lives.
Fishermen had feared this day for over 20 years. Whether from a catastrophic spill or an accumulation of smaller spills, fishers from around Prince William Sound had voiced their concerns. An environmental disaster could cost them their livelihoods, they said. In the years between 1977, when the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska pipeline was completed, and 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, more than 400 small spills sullied the waters of Port Valdez and the Sound. Still, 8,700 tankers had traversed Prince William Sound without a major accident, and with each passing year, safety precautions were cut back.
The Coast Guard allowed reductions in the number of crew members required on board tankers, leading to the kind of overwork and fatigue that likely contributed to the Valdez grounding. The harbor pilots who once captained tankers until they reached the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska now departed ship just outside the narrow entrance to Valdez Bay. The radar upgrades and double-hulled tankers envisioned in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act passed by Congress were never implemented. Whistleblowers who leaked information about violations of air and water quality standards at the Alyeska marine terminal (the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline) were intimidated into silence or fired.
Alyeska, a consortium of seven oil companies, was responsible for filing an oil spill prevention and cleanup plan with the state. In 1982, an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation official in Valdez wrote a memo to his supervisor, warning that the estimates outlined in Alyeska’s plan were “superficial at best.” State regulators overseeing the terminal weren’t the only ones raising concerns. Industry insiders and the Environmental Protection Agency also noted violations of the Clean Water Act and air-quality standards at the terminal. Fishermen expressed their fears during hearings held by the Department of Interior, before congressional committees, and even at an international conference on oil spills.
Yet despite this chorus of concerns, the state of Alaska never withheld approval for oil spill contingency plans and never threatened to halt production. In the five years prior to the grounding, the state issued 150 “notices of violation” related to tanker operations, but only once sought monetary damages. The political will to enforce regulations was simply nonexistent. A report released two years prior to the spill estimated that the state of Alaska had earned $29.3 billion in taxes and royalties between 1969 and 1987. The concerns leveled by citizens and regulators apparently weren’t weighty enough to serve as a counterbalance to the oil industry.
Exxon and Alyeska would like all of us to believe in the myth of a tragic accident brought about by a rogue, drunken skipper. But as the ship’s lookout burst through the door to the bridge on that fateful night, her cry that the red buoy light was on the wrong side proved merely the last in a litany of unheeded warnings of impending disaster.
When 10,000 fishermen sought to hold Exxon accountable for the devastation it created in their waters and for their way of life, justice was denied. Although an Anchorage jury in 1994 awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, the Supreme Court in 2008 whittled that amount down to approximately 10 cents on the dollar. Unfortunately, the fishermen’s case now contributes to legal precedence that precludes punitive damages in cases of reckless disregard for the environment.
The fears of fishers and other resource users gathered in the Valdez City Council chambers 25 years ago were justified. Although they couldn’t have imagined the series of events that would ultimately dump 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into the Sound, they recognized that circumstances were ripe for disaster. On this 25th anniversary, we should remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill not simply as an accident caused by a single captain, but as a systemic failure. It was the collective failure of politicians, regulatory bodies and the United States legal system to rein in a powerful industry and hold it accountable for a preventable disaster.
Angela Day is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. Her book, Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster, will be published by Washington State University Press this spring.