Lessons Learned: Exxon Valdez vs. Gulf Oil Spill

By Natterjack Press

The Yup'ik saw this. They saw hundreds of thousands of seabirds die. They saw thousands of sea otters die. They saw billions of salmon and herring die. This wasn't a dream; it was a very real nightmare. You may have heard of it—it was called the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

It all began on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounded on a reef in Prince William Sound, 40 miles off the Alaskan coast. It spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea, contaminating about 1,300 miles of coastline. But for the Yup'ik and other southern Alaskans, the nightmare was just beginning.

"We had suicides, domestic violence, child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, divorces, and we lost people in the community who went elsewhere," said Patience Andersen Faulkner, a Yup'ik from the Chugach people, on a recent visit to Louisiana coastal communities.

The sentiments of snowballing loss experienced by disaster survivors is echoed by social scientists.

J. Steven Picou, Professor of Sociology at the University of South Alabama, has for 30 years researched the impacts of disasters on communities. “These empirical findings are consistent with smaller studies of survivors of Three-Mile Island, Bhopal and Chernobyl,” he said, referring to the repercussions of past disasters.

These days, public anger is directed at BP, which had nothing to do with the Exxon Valdez spill...did it?

Actually, it did. BP was in up to its neck: It was in charge of the botched response to the spill. It was the major player in the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which controls oil production in Alaska. Exxon, despite having its name on the ship, was a junior partner. Capt. James Woodle, who was then the Alyeska's Valdez port commander, stated that four years before the disaster, he reported the following to BP's Alaska chief, George Nelson: “Due to a reduction in manning, age of equipment, limited training and lack of personnel, serious doubt exists that [we] would be able to contain and clean up effectively a medium or large size oil spill.”

BP sought to bury this report and blackmail its author. As investigative journalist Greg Palast reported, “Alyeska showed Capt. Woodle a file of his marital infidelities (all bogus). It then offered him payouts on condition that he leave the state within days, promising never to return.”

Palast added, “Charles Hamel of Washington, D.C., shaken by evidence he received from Alyeska employees, warn[ed] BP executives in London about scandalous goings-on at Valdez.” BP thanked him. “Then a secret campaign was launched to hound him out of the industry. A CIA expert was hired to wiretap Hamel's phone lines, smuggle microphones into his home, intercept his mail and try to entrap him with young women. The industrial espionage caper was personally ordered and controlled by BP executive James Hermiller, President of Alyeska. A U.S. federal judge later told Alyeska this conduct was 'reminiscent of Nazi Germany'.”

Only in 2009—20 years after the oil spill—did Exxon start paying up. It has spent this time battling Alaskan coastal communities over damages, which were initially set by the court at $5 billion. Exxon has managed to get this slashed by 90 percent to half a billion for 30,000 Natives and fishermen. There is still oil on Alaskan beaches. The fishing industry still hasn't recovered.

But don't worry: BP learned its lesson from the Exxon Valdez. Not lessons about safety or environmental protection, of course; BP has had a string of accidents, leaks and near misses over the last few years. Just recently, it spilled over 100,000 gallons of oil from its Alaska pipeline operation. This happened, according to state investigators, because “procedures weren't properly implemented.” Does this sound familiar? They did, however, learn lessons about oiling the wheels of power in their favor. In 2009, they spent $16 million on federal lobbying, with Louisiana's Sen. Mary Landrieu as the top congressional recipient.

The people of Louisiana and Florida are wondering, Why, given 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, did BP not put more time and money into preparing for another leak? The Yup'ik might remind them of Tony Hayward's words in 2009 when he said BP's “primary purpose was to generate profit for our shareholders” and that “[its] primary purpose in life was not to save the world.”

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