1989 Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

30 Years After the EXXON VALDEZ Spill – Looking Back

By Charles L. Simmons and James R. Jeffcoat

Thirty years ago, at 12:04 AM on Good Friday, March 24, 1989, the oil tanker EXXON VALDEZ ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska. Underwater rocks tore huge holes in eight of the single-hull tanks holding crude oil. As a result, the tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Sound and “oiled” 1300 miles of shoreline.

EXXON VALDEZ, built in 1986, left the Trans Alaska Pipeline Terminal in the Port of Valdez about three hours earlier. The tanked was owned by Exxon Shipping Company. The captain of the of the tanker was Joseph Hazelwood, a 1968 graduate of New York Maritime College with over 20 years of experience, including experience as an oil tanker captain.

The tanker was carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil headed for Long Beach, California. The course was west out of Port of Valdez, southward through the Valdez Narrows, into the Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, and eventually into the Pacific Ocean heading south along the California coast.

When the tanker left the oil terminal, harbor pilot William Murphy was in charge of the navigation. He took the EXXON VALDEZ through the Valdez Narrows towards the Prince William Sound. Murphy left the tanker after passing through the narrows, and Captain Hazelwood took command.

Because there were icebergs in the designated shipping lanes, Hazelwood navigated the EXXON VALDEZ outside of those lanes as a safety measure. Hazelwood then turned over command to third mate Gregory Cousins, left the bridge, and went below to his quarters. Cousins failed to change course to take the EXXON VALDEZ back into the shipping lanes. The tanker ran aground just west of Bligh Island, and rocks ruptured the tanks.

Exxon’s initial response to the spill was slow. An emergency containment crew did not arrive until 14 hours after the tanker ran aground, and no boom was placed around the tanker until more than 20 hours after the spill began. It took three or four days before the response came up to full speed. Eventually, approximately 100 airplanes, 1000 boats, and 10,000 workers were involved in the cleanup.

The spill was an environmental disaster, especially because it occurred in a remote environment with hundreds of miles of pristine coastline and wildlife. Thousands of sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, seabirds, and harlequin ducks were killed. The population of sand lance herring, pink salmon, and other fish species were reduced in subsequent years. The spill adversely affected the commercial fishing industry and those people dependent on it, and it had some adverse effect on tourism in south-central Alaska. If you dig a hole on the beach along the Sound today, you are likely to find oil.

The grounding was investigated by the National Safety Transportation Board. A number of causes were identified: the third mate did not properly maneuver the vessel because of workload fatigue; the captain was not on the bridge and perhaps was impaired by alcohol; Exxon failed to provide a sufficient crew; the United States Coast Guard did not operate a vessel traffic system in the Sound. As to Hazelwood’s culpability, however, in 1990 he was found not guilty by a jury of operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol. Even his conviction based on jury verdict that he was guilty of negligent discharge of oil was overturned on appeal.

The EXXON VALDEZ was towed in May 1989 back to the shipyard where she was built, National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego. She was still leaking oil when she arrived at the shipyard. The tanker emerged from the shipyard a year later, but the tanker was jinxed. In November 2010, the tanker collided with a bulk carrier in the Yellow Sea. In 2011 when bearing the name ORIENTAL NICETY, the tanker was sold for scrap and 2012 was dismantled in India.

The spill in Prince William Sound angered Americans. At the time, federal and state statutes addressing oil pollution and cleanup were disjointed. The federal Clean Water Act regulated the discharge of pollutants into our waters, but it was not focused on the storage, transportation, accidental spill, and cleanup of crude oil.

1989 Photo by NOAA

The Governor of Alaska appointed a commission to study the spill, and in January 1990 its report and recommendations were issued. The report criticized Exxon, the U. S. Coast Guard, the State of Alaska, and indeed the “entire regulatory system” governing the transportation of oil. A bill containing most of the recommendations became the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, signed by President George H. W. Bush.

The Oil Pollution Act phased out all single-hull tankers in U. S. waters by 2015; required double-hulls for newly constructed tankers and barges; required companies transporting oil to have safety plans and cleanup recovery plans; made entities causing oil spills liable for all cleanup costs; made the Coast Guard responsible for oversight and enforcement of the Act’s requirements; caused a more robust and comprehensive vessel tracking system throughout Prince William Sound; resulted in more stringent drug and alcohol testing requirements; and established the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund with money from fines and a per-barrel excise tax on oil. Amendments in 2010 further strengthened the Act. On the other hand, depending on the facts and circumstances, the Act limited liability for damages to victims of an oil spill.

The Act could not totally eliminate oil spills. Accidents happen. But the Act’s response requirements and cleanup funding process work. For example, in 2004 the ATHOS, a single-hull oil tanker, hit a submerged anchor in the Delaware River near a Philadelphia refinery and spilled over 260,000 gallons of crude oil. The tanker owner spent $143 million for cleanup costs and was reimbursed $88 million by the United States out of the Trust Fund. The tanker owner and United States recovered against the terminal owner that failed to provide a safe berth.

The legacy of the EXXON VALDEZ spill can be summarized as follows:

  1. Environmental reform and investment in renewable energy. The environmental reform spurred by the EXXON VALDEZ was further propelled by the horrendous Deepwater Horizon blowout in April 2010 that spilled 168 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
  2. Wildlife died and the lives and livelihoods of thousands of persons were disrupted.
  3. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and safety improvements in navigation, technology, and crew training.
  4. Constitutional restraints on the imposition of punitive damages developed in the context of federal maritime law by the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker. The Court held that reasonableness and reasonable predictability govern punitive damage awards. Exxon was negligent, but not malicious, and its liability for punitive damages was limited to $507.5 million, an amount equal to the compensatory damages (a 1-to-1 ratio).

Charles Simmons and James Jeffcoat handle commercial, maritime, insurance, and corporate litigation at Gorman & Williams.