Twenty years ago, I was shoveling six feet of snow off my sail boat, parked beside the Conex at my little 18 foot travel trailer ten miles from the Alyeska Marine Terminal Facility on Port Valdez. We’d had 50 feet of snow that winter – there was still plenty to go around.
On the morning of March 24, 1989, I woke to the clock radio to hear the announcer at KCHU-AM say, “The tanker Exxon Valdez is on the rocks at Bligh Reef and leaking oil.” I hopped on my bike, road into town and got my video equipment. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week from March 24 until after September 15, documenting the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
It was pretty bewildering that morning, as I’d spent the previous evening in a meeting of the Valdez Mayor’s Ad-Hoc Committee on the Effects of Oil Development on Valdez, where I was chair of the Environmental Subcommittee. At 10:30 pm, Rikki Ott, on a teleconference link from Cordova had said, “It’s not a matter of if there will be a major oil spill in Prince William Sound, but when.” At the moment she spoke those words, Capt. Joe Hazelwood was leaving the Pipeline Club after an evening of drinking with his buddies, heading for the Exxon Valdez, moored at the Terminal Facility. As he left the bar, he passed a calendar by the door that had a picture of the Exxon Valdez as the featured ship for March, with the cheery slogan, “Take time for safety.”
It wasn’t Hazelwood’s drinking that caused the Exxon Valdez to pile on the well marked rocks at Bligh Reef. State and federal agencies had been bowing under Exxon pressure for many years to reduce regulations governing tanker traffic in Prince William Sound. The US Coast Guard radar facility at Potato Point had been cut back so severely that it could no longer see the ships as they passed Bligh Reef. The coastal pilot got off before Bligh Reef, instead of staying aboard until the ship cleared Hinchenbrook Entrance, as required by state and federal regulations. The First Mate took control of the ship in waters he was not qualified to navigate. Oil spill response equipment, required by law, was buried under ten feet of snow on the dock, instead of on the barge where it was supposed to be kept, and the only fork lift operator among the oil spill response team was on vacation. Oil spill response equipment did not arrive on the scene of the spill until fourteen hours after the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. When I arrived on the scene at first light, oil was shooting up six feet out of the water along the hull of the Exxon Valdez. We wallowed on a pool of oil eight feet thick; the head in the lower hull pumped oil into the bowl. Aromatic hydrocarbons: benzene, ethylene, toluene and xylene, produced a heady vapor that had me dizzy in moments and precipitated a chronic bronchitis that stays with me even today. No amount of oil spill equipment could have contained that spill, especially after the wind rose to seventy knots two days later.
Over the next six months I photographed and videotaped hundreds of thousands of dead and dying animals, poisoned by toxic oil, dying of hypothermia as the oil destroyed their natural insulation, lungs clogged with the vapors of North Slope crude. I watched sea otters crawling onto shore at my feet, trying to escape the cloying oil clogging their fur. I saw birds fall face forward into the slick and never rise again above the surface. I watched from helicopters as orcas and humpback whales surfaced and blew in a rainbow sheen. And to make it all worse, I heard Exxon and United States officials repeatedly lie about what was happening in Prince William Sound, and watched, astonished, as national corporate media repeated the lies, verbatim, as stenographers to power.
Nothing sufficient can be done now to condemn the atrocity that was unleashed on Prince William Sound twenty years ago, by Exxon, the State of Alaska and the United States government. I cannot imagine any fate horrible enough to be visited on Frank Iorossi, the corporate toadies of Exxon and the Bush dynasty. Sometimes I wish there really was a Hell so they’d have something warm to rot in.