Impact of Exxon Valdez spill is subject of lawsuit

May 02, 1994|By Dallas Morning News

VALDEZ, Alaska -- The supertankers come calling, two, sometimes three a day, just as they have for the past 17 years. The sprawling steel giants take on a load of North Slope oil, slip away from their berths at the Alyeska Marine Terminal and slowly nose into Prince William Sound.

It's a tight squeeze through the craggy Valdez Narrows, crew members' watchful eyes starboard for icebergs from the Columbia Glacier; a portside turn past Bligh Reef; further to port beyond Naked Island; then a straight shot through Hinchinbrook Entrance and out into the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

Tankers have made this passage safely nearly 13,000 times since the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began pumping North Slope oil to Valdez in 1977. It is the one that didn't that oil companies, environmentalists, government officials and Prince William Sound residents will always remember.

Five years ago, the Exxon Valdez lumbered off course, rammed Bligh Reef and dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The oil trade that is the sustenance of this picturesque port is brisk again, just as it was before the spill. But much has changed in Valdez since that disastrous March night in 1989, most observers agree.

Prince William Sound's commercial fishermen and native inhabitants are nagging reminders of those changes. They contend that their lives have been wrecked by the bad fishing and financial ruin that has befallen them in the spill's aftermath. And they are poised to walk into a federal courtroom today, seeking billions of dollars in damages from Irving, Texas-based Exxon Corp., owner of the Exxon Valdez.

Exxon takes responsibility for the spill but disputes most of the suit's other claims and says the sound has made a "remarkable recovery." It says it already has spent $3.5 billion cleaning up the spill, settling federal and state criminal charges and lawsuits and responding to earlier damage claims by some of those affected by the accident.

As this legal drama unfolds in Anchorage, the people of Prince William Sound still ponder lessons learned from the nation's worst oil spill. And they wrestle with a single haunting question: Could it ever happen again?

Officials with Alyeska -- the consortium owned by Exxon and six other oil companies that operates the Trans-Alaska pipeline and Valdez oil terminal -- are careful to stress that nothing can ever be ruled out. But Alyeska and state environmental officials say $250 million worth of precautions taken over the past five years make the likelihood of a similar disaster remote.

Still, skeptics scrutinize every move the oil companies make and every word they utter.

"The spill ripped people up," says Patti Saunders, an Anchorage lawyer and environmental activist. "I'm doing everything I can do to make sure this never happens again."

The oil companies and environmentalists in Alaska disagree on many things. But on this point, both sides profess the same aim: preventing a disaster like this from ever happening again.

"It's safe to say that if we thought there was a chance of having another spill the size of the Exxon Valdez, it would be hard to sleep at night," says Tim Plummer, a tanker pilot and Alyeska's terminal marine manager in Valdez.

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez shortly after midnight March 24, 1989, was the result of "bad seamanship, bad judgment, bad management and bad luck," according to a 1993 report prepared by the state of Alaska.

State and federal authorities say blame isn't limited to the Exxon Valdez crew and its hapless skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, whom Exxon fired immediately after the accident.

Official inquiries have long since concluded that a series of missteps by Alyeska, Exxon and federal and state authorities compounded the disaster -- a conclusion that Exxon disputes.

Government contingency plans at the time of the accident called for Alyeska to have a barge with booms that contain spilled oil and skimmers that suck it up at the site of any accident within five hours.

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground, the barge wasn't loaded, and vital equipment was buried under several feet of snow. Only a fraction of the required 20,000 feet of boom was on hand.

Once the snow was removed, only one of the 50 response team members knew how to operate the forklift and crane needed to load the booms and skimmers. Fourteen hours passed before the first response barge reached Bligh Reef and the spreading spill.

5l Two days into the disaster, Exxon took control of the cleanup efforts from Alyeska and discarded a state-approved spill response plan, according to the state report.

Confusion and feuding among the various government agencies and Exxon resulted in further delays. There were discussions over whether to use chemical dispersants to break up the slick and whether to burn the floating crude.

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