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High Court Cuts Damages in Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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.

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  • 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.