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High Court Cuts Damages in Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Almost twenty years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Supreme Court decided Wednesday to reduce victims' compensation in Alaska. Two journalists who have covered the story discuss the decision and how the impact of the accident still lingers in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: The distress call came just after midnight, March 24, 1989. Captain Joseph Hazelwood radioed the Port of Valdez the tanker under his command, and named for the town it had just left, had run aground.

JOSEPH HAZELWOOD, Captain, Exxon Valdez: Yes, it’s Valdez back. We should be on your radar there. We’ve fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef and, evidently, leaking some oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Hazelwood had not been at the helm. It was later revealed that, though a recovering alcoholic, he had been drinking. He had also broken Exxon company regulations by leaving his third mate alone to navigate the 950-foot tanker through the shallows of Prince William Sound.

The vessel was loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil when it struck the reef. Nearly 11 million gallons leaked from the ship.

The spill spread quickly and devastated the waters and coastline of the surrounding area. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of marine mammals, and countless fish were killed by the viscous oil that would eventually coat nearly 10,000 square miles of the sound and 1,200 miles of shoreline.

Exxon’s initial reaction to the spill was criticized for being slow. The company would eventually spend billions in a Coast Guard-led cleanup effort.

Still, years later, the severe damage to the regional economy and the delicate ecosystem continued. Fisherman Ron Stephens spoke to the NewsHour in 1994 of the problems found in his catch.

RON STEPHENS, Commercial Fisherman: They got lesions and sores and — I don’t know. Everything was fine for years and years and years up until then. And then we have a catastrophic failure of our herring, of our salmon, of our shrimp, you know. There’s not even any jellyfish out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Though most of the oil dispersed or was cleaned up, environmental groups contend that thousands of gallons of oil remain.

RIKKI OTT, Oil Pollution Expert: This is still what we have on our beaches. And if you smear this around, you see that it’s oiled rocks. And it pretty much smells like a gas station; it smells like this happened yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fishermen, business and landowners, Native Alaskans and others affected by the spill brought suit against Exxon.

Captain Hazelwood never had his master’s license revoked. He paid a $50,000 fine, performed 1,000 hours of community service, and today works for the law firm that defended him.

The Exxon Valdez itself was towed to San Diego, repaired and renamed, and was still sailing as of last year. It is banned by law from ever re-entering Prince William Sound.

Oil still left in beaches

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to two journalists who have followed this story over the years. First, Matt Zencey of the Anchorage Daily News, he's now the editorial page editor. I spoke with him earlier today.

Well, Matt, I want to walk through some of the various impacts that you see 19 years later. First, if you walk out there, do you see visible damage?

MATT ZENCEY, Anchorage Daily News: The main lingering effect of the oil spill would be actually in the beach, not on the beach. The beaches that were hit the hardest, the oil got mixed into the sands. The clean-up techniques were controversial and ultimately ineffective.

So there is some oil still left in some of the heavily oiled beaches that can affect some of the marine life when the tides wash over it and a little bit of oil bleeds out as you go on over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a consensus even now about the extent of the damage to the biology of the region?

MATT ZENCEY: Well, we have an organization called the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which was funded by money that Exxon paid for civil and criminal damages as a result of the spill. And that council does periodic reports on the status of the injured resources.

And it has done a report in 2006 and indicates that a number of species have fully recovered, but there are a bunch that have not recovered. Pacific herring is one of them; pigeon guillemot, which is another type of marine bird, definitively have not recovered; some other species are making recoveries.

Clams, for example, because they live in the inner tidal zone where some of this oil is still trapped in the beaches, the clams are not fully recovered yet, because they're not really sure what effect the lingering oil has on organisms that rely on that inner tidal marine life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then what about the socioeconomic impact? Start with some of the economic -- what kind of businesses were most hurt? And what kind of recovery have they been able to make?

MATT ZENCEY: Well, fishing was hit very hard. Cordova is a fishing community, about 3,000 people, very close to the epicenter of the spill. And its fishery, particularly for herring, was devastated and has never fully recovered.

The salmon fisheries were affected during that year. There was a shutdown of the salmon fisheries. They came back a little bit better, just because the salmon statewide -- some salmon were not affected, and salmon in the region that was affected most when the spill happened, those salmon have recovered.

But the Pacific herring, which was a mainstay of the Cordova economy there, hit very hard, very hard. Cordova is a fishing town, has never really recovered.

Native Alaskans, with their heavy reliance on natural foods for their existence, their cultural and traditional fare, both from the sea and the land, they were very heavily affected. You know, imagine if somebody came into your refrigerator and sprayed crude oil all over it. I mean, that's about the emotional impact it had on Alaskan natives.

And the lingering effects, the doubts about whether things like clams are still safe to eat or at least, you know, free of oil, those kinds of concerns are really hard to measure. But they are significant and lingering even this long after the spill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matt Zencey in Anchorage, thank you very much for joining us.

MATT ZENCEY: OK, thank you.

Spill reached far into politics

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Timothy Egan. He reported on the Exxon Valdez accident and litigation from the beginning for the New York Times. He recently moved to the op-ed page and joins us from Seattle.

Tim, take us back to when this all happened. And remind us of what it meant, in terms of a kind of national trauma almost.

TIMOTHY EGAN, New York Times: Yes, I was there in just the first couple of days, literally the first hours of this spill, and it was extraordinary, because the country had never seen anything like this. It was the largest oil spill in American history, but it unfolded sort of day by day, this drama played out. It just got bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

And we could see the ripples. And most Americans saw the ripples, as well, as this thing spread out from the immediacy of the accident to cover this vast area, these 1,300 miles of coast line, to then eventually rippling through the political and the legal system.

So it had an effect, I think, in changing political dynamic, certainly the environmental dynamic, in addition to what you've all heard so far on changing the natural world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain -- let's pick up on that, the political dynamic, for example. In the west, in terms of environmental policy, what repercussions do you see today?

TIMOTHY EGAN: I don't think that anyone ever looked at the oil industry the same way after this accident. And in Alaska, while they still support drilling -- a majority support drilling, for example, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, people are very, very wary of big corporations like Exxon right now.

I mean, one of the things to remember about this case is it's been almost 20 years. And as the Republican governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, has said, this was truly, in her mind, justice delayed.

Eight thousand of the plaintiffs have died since this thing was initially litigated. It was resolved in 1994. So people look -- there's a real cynicism, I think, toward Big Oil. And you see it in all the oil-drilling states right now, not just in Alaska, but you see it in the Rocky Mountain states.

While people like the revenue that it brings in, there's a real distrust and a real cynicism, I think, from this thing. It really hardened attitudes against a certain sort of corporate culture.

Some changes have occurred

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about in terms of specific changes to the oil industry? I mean, for example, I remember the debate that was -- everybody was looking at the construction of the tankers, for example. Remember, the double hulls and whether those were two weak. Were changes -- did things happen because of this?

TIMOTHY EGAN: There were some changes made in a law that Congress passed in the early 1990s. They haven't really been dramatic. Basically, to summarize, they've made it harder for anyone involved with an oil spill to pilot a boat or for that boat to go and be involved with the transport of oil.

They've also sort of mandated on a gradual, long-term-phase basis, putting double hulls in certain areas. So it's been real -- I guess it would be sort of a mixed picture. There haven't been the dramatic changes.

Everybody thought we were going to go from single hulls to double hulls. I should point out, though, that the Coast Guard concluded that double-hulled tankers would not have prevented this disaster. It perhaps would have kept as much as half of the oil, though, from leaking out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Any other changes, in terms of transporting oil, where it can go, where it can't?

TIMOTHY EGAN: Well, I think people -- yes, I mean, they have escorts now. They have escorts where they didn't used to have escorts. There's more requirements on the captains. There's more monitoring of personal people. But I don't think, technically, there have been that many changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you talk to policymakers, people in the industry, the environmentalists now, is there any consensus about whether something like this could happen again?

TIMOTHY EGAN: No, there's no consensus, but everyone learns from one of these, and then they get rid of -- it's like an airline, when a plane goes down. You learn from this, and you do everything you can to prevent this last accident from happening again.

And you think you've eliminated 99 percent of the possible errors. And then one small thing comes along that proves to you that you've allowed some small margin of error for it to happen again.

I don't think you see any more of these blind statements like, "It can't ever happen again," or, "We've safely transported oil for 20-odd years without an accident," which you did see initially.

Case over but emotions remain

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there specific worries that you hear about now?

TIMOTHY EGAN: Yes, you do hear this. I mean, you worry about one thing destroying a body of water. That's what I always hear again.

People thought Prince William Sound was pretty resilient. I mean, it's huge. It is an enormous body of water. And they thought it was pretty resilient. And, as you just heard, 20 years later, they're still seeing the effects of that.

So, I mean, you don't hear people say, "Oh, it could take the hit," which is sort of an Alaskan thing to do. People say, "It's so vast, it's so open, it's so pristine. It could take the hit." You don't hear people say that anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Tim, finally, I know you followed the legal battle for a long time. Does it look like today's decision puts some -- closes the books on at least that part of this story?

TIMOTHY EGAN: On at least that part of it. But like I said, 8,000 of the plaintiffs have died since this thing started. The ruling itself was a fairly narrow ruling on maritime law.

One of the justices said during the hearings, are we going to hold a cabin boy responsible for what the CEO did? And it sort of goes down to these arcane things on maritime law.

But, yes, it closes this chapter with a lot of bitterness across the political spectrum. As I said, from the Republican governor, who's being mentioned now as a possible McCain running mate, all the way down to your salty fishermen, who swears before he has his first cup of coffee in the morning, people feel very bitter that this thing dragged on, that justice was delayed, however it ended up, for almost 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tim Egan of the New York Times, thanks very much.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Thanks for having me.