As environmental villains go, Captain Joseph Hazelwood would make most peoples’ Ten Most Wanted list.
On March 24, 1989, Cap’n Hazelwood staggered to bed. He was the master of the Exxon Valdez, which was pulling out of port at the Southern Terminus of the Alaska pipeline. The port of Valdez was no stranger to disaster. On Good Friday 1964, the town was destroyed as an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the seaport on Prince William Sound, southeast of Anchorage.
The town of Valdez was rebuilt, relocated uphill and four miles away. In order to repeat the 1964 disaster, Valdez would have to stage a wreck of its own — with Hazelwood’s help.
The Exxon Valdez was a supertanker. If you took the longest field goal kicked in NFL history, you’d need five of them to get from the bow to the stern of the ship.
Hazelwood and a harbor pilot had guided the ship through the Narrows, normally the most difficult part of the shipping lanes leading from Valdez. But early spring ice made for a hazard in the shipping lanes. Hazelwood ordered the ship to steer clear, then he left the ship and its 53 million gallons of crude oil in the hands of the third mate and a helmsman. They missed a turn.
About a fifth of the cargo spilled, most of it within six hours after the ship struck Bligh Reef. Cold water congealed the oil, and stormy weather carried it as far as 470 miles away. Prince William Sound, one of America’s richest, most pristine fishing grounds, was a disaster. Exxon made quite a few fishermen temporarily rich, paying 11,000 people a royal wage to stage a massive, manual cleanup that deployed everything from detergents to pressure washers to paper towels.
Twenty years later, some traces of the Exxon Valdez spill remain. While most of the oil is gone, recent studies have differed on whether Prince William Sound’s ecosystem can be declared clean.
The massive class action suit on behalf of 32,000 Alaska fishermen and other plaintiffs took just short of two decades to resolve. The original settlement amount was whittled down by the U.S. Appeals and Supreme Courts. The $5 billion judgment ended up being just over $500 million. Exxon’s still fighting the potential of paying almost a half billion more in the interest that accrued since the original jury verdict. Either way, the plaintiffs’ attorneys net 22% of the haul. One problem when you take 20 years to resolve a lawsuit: About a fifth of the original plaintiffs have died.
The accident didn’t realize justice for a lot of Alaskans, but it did pretty good things for the tanker industry: Double-hulled tankers are now the rule, but accidents haven’t gone away. Some of the world’s most cluttered waterways are chokepoints for heavy tanker traffic: The Bosporus, the narrow, winding strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, handles more than 5,000 tanker runs per year. The Arthur Kill, the blighted waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, handles similarly heavy traffic. Both waterways have already been stained by spills. Both fear even bigger ones.
Hazelwood was criminally charged, but acquitted, of the equivalent of supertanker DUI. He was convicted of a lesser negligence charge. Five years after the spill, at Exxon’s civil trial, Hazelwood said he’d been battling the bottle for years, and his drinking was no secret to Exxon.
Both Captain Hazelwood and his ship started new careers. Understandably camera-shy, Hazelwood retreated to his Huntington, Long Island, N.Y., home, and commuted — presumably by train — to a gig teaching marine safety at the State of New York’s Maritime College. Maybe it works, having hard drinkers make an example of themselves by teaching caution. But it sounds like having Louis Farrakhan and the Grand Dragon teach diversity. The Exxon Valdez got repaired, then kept on tanking. In an attempt to sail away from its legacy, the ship changed its name as often as Sean Combs — first to the Exxon Mediterranean, then the Exxon SeaRiver, then the SeaRiver Mediterranean before being retired.
A new book comes out on the 20th anniversary, next Tuesday. The Man Overboard is the story of what Darryl Hagar, a career drunken sailor, did with himself to turn things around. Drug and alcohol abuse, as well as heavy smoking, are a routine part of the lonely life at sea. For Joe Hazelwood, as much a victim as a villain, addiction to alcohol while enabling a nation addicted to oil was a tragic combination.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)