"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Marking time with Exxon...

We mark time, we humans do. We celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, marriages, and holidays religious and secular. We note the changing of seasons and the passing of years. Many of us have dates we hold in our hearts, dates of private significance by which we measure the years of our lives. Then there are events which are not cause for world-wide celebration, perhaps not even noticed in our own country, but confined to a smaller region, one that gained or lost by their occurance.

This month of March is a time of both grand celebration and of pause in Alaska, more than any other month of the year. The 20th was the vernal equinox, the first official day of spring. Two days later, sixteen inches of snow fell, just to let us know that winter still reigns and real spring is a month or so away.

This week alone marks two dates that will never be forgotten by Alaskans, for today and on this Friday, Southcentral Alaska suffered disasters of stupendous proportions: a catastrophic oil spill and, on the 27th, a cataclysmic earthquake. So today, while Mt. Redoubt spews volcanic ash up to sixty thousand feet, I will tell you a story about one of those events.

The long daylight of Alaskan summers had three months yet to reach its peak, but on the evening of Thursday, March 23rd, 1989, it was still daylight as the off-duty crew boarded their vessel across the fjord from the town of Valdez, a place of such mountainous beauty it is called the Switzerland of Alaska. One of those men was the ship's master, a man with a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard who was known as Joeseph Hazelwood. Little did he or anyone else suspect that the captain's name was soon to become a household word--a name heaped in scorn and epithets, a man who would forever be maligned in the history books of Alaska.

At nine p.m., a harbor pilot guided the massive tanker through the Valdez narrows, then turned over command to Captain Hazelwood. With permission of the Coast Guard, he guided the tanker into the incoming transit lane, because the outgoing lane was studded with icebergs.

A short time later, Hazelwood left the bridge of his fully-loaded ship. Prior to its departure, more than 53 million gallons of heavy crude oil sucked from wells on the northern coast of the state had been pumped eight hundred miles through the Trans Alaska Oil pipeline and into the holds of the Exxon Valdez. Hazelwood, who reportedly was seen drinking in a local bar in Valdez before he boarded his ship, retired to his cabin, leaving the helm to the Third Mate and an Able Seaman. The ship was on autopilot and under the control of two men who had not been alloted their mandatory six hour break before beginning a twelve hour watch, and, it was later claimed, had excessive workloads.

Four minutes after midnight on the 24th,the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef and impaled itself on the charted obstacle. In the days that followed, an estimated 10.8 million gallons of heavy crude oil gushed from the damaged tanker, forever altering the ecology and economy of Prince William Sound. Up to a half million seagulls, at least a thousand sea otters, three hundred seals, two hundred and fifty bald eagles, and twenty-two orcas died. In addition, billions of salmon and herring eggs were destroyed, and fisheries and villages in those waters were permanently affected.

While a substantial, if belated, clean-up effort was launched by Exxon, oil contamination can still be found on the beaches, though it is not visible at first glance. A lawsuit by those affected still stumbles through the court system. An Anchorage jury initially awarded $287 million in actual damages, and $5 billion in punitive damages. The punitive damages were equal to one year’s profits by Exxon in those days. After several trips through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a couple to the U.S. Supreme Court, the punitive amount was reduced to $500 million last year, a pittance in contrast to record-breaking obscene profits by Exxon. Now, the oil giant is quibbling about whether or not it has to pay interest on that sum.

Lawsuits and drunken sailors aside, my own life changed drastically as a result of the oil spill. My husband and I had returned from working a solid year (seven days a week, twelve hours or more a day) on a construction job on remote Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Chain, that string of islands that beckons towards Siberia and would be in tomorrow were it not for a jog in the International Date Line

Soon after our return home to Moose Pass, my husband made an offer on a boat owned by Crowley Maritime, with plans to turn the small, shallow-draft tanker into a fish tender. Crowley accepted our offer, and we were about to send off the clinching down payment check when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef. The boat we were going to buy went on rental as a cleanup vessel that very day, while still docked in Long Beach, Calif., for $25,000 a day. I have to admit I was happy I was not going to spend my summers as a seasick cook/housekeeper on board that vessel as my husband motored it around collecting the catches of fishing boats and delivering them to a cannery.

Instead, we soon found ourselves the owners of some abandoned, dilapidated lake frontage property in downtown Moose Pass that consisted of a restaurant/bar/motel. Snow load had collapsed the roof of one wing of the motel, all the plumbing was frozen and broken, floors in the restaurant and bar were rotted out. We had no idea what to do with the buildings—tear them down, rebuild them, or wait for an epiphany. A business fifteen miles away offered to rent any rooms we could get livable to house its employees. We worked long hours, building walkways, replacing broken plumbing fixtures and pipes, cleaning, painting, and carpeting, and readied eight rooms.

Then a representative from Exxon arrived, offering to repair all the damage necessary to get the rest of the rooms livable. In exchange, they wanted to rent the rooms to house their Community Service personnel. This service provided workers for local businesses who were impacted by the oil spill and the subsequent clean-up activities. Many businesses lost regular employees to the clean-up because wages there were $16 an hour. Thus, Exxon imported workers for restaurants, motels, gas stations, shops, markets, and canneries to take those jobs.

First, Exxon asked us what we would charge. We offered $10 a bed per day. Exxon jumped at the opportunity, and even supplied the beds. At the same time, a bed in a basement room in Valdez was fetching a hundred dollars a night, and many other such “bargains” were common.

We treated Exxon right, and they in turn treated us right. After contractors submitted outrageous bids, we signed a contract to do the work ourselves. They reimbursed us every penny it cost to repair our facilities to house their community service people. That gave us the money to purchase the million dollars in liability insurance they required us to carry, as well as to do cosmetic work on the buildings, and refurbish and open the restaurant.

And so I found myself the reluctant owner/operator of a restaurant, bar, and a thirty-five room motel. My husband and I operated it for seven years, getting it on its feet with hard work, long hours, and the dedication that owner-operators can bring to a business. Each year we upgraded the facilities as we could afford it, putting all our income from other sources as well as borrowed money into the property. We sold it in 1996, and retired. This sale made it possible for me to have the financial resources to care for my husband during his final, seven year long illness.

So, my feelings towards Exxon are mixed. While there can be do doubt that the master of the Exxon Valdez was negligent and ultimately responsible for the oil spill, and Exxon itself for allowing a man with a known drinking problem to operate such a massive ship in a fragile environment, I don’t think Exxon was grossly malicious. Even though Exxon spent millions of dollars in fines and clean-up expenses, I think it should just pay the punitive award and get it over with—twenty years late. A few months ago, a portion of the award was paid to litigants.

I am proud that my husband and I did not take advantage of the giant oil company by demanding exorbitant fees for renting them rooms. I like being able hold my head up when I look at myself in the mirror. Ironically, my husband and I met while we both were working on construction of the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline.

Recently, in a newly published book called "The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster" by Sharon Bushell, Hazelwood offered his apologies to the people of Alaska for the damages wrought by the oil spill, but with the caveat that he had been wrongly blamed for causing the disaster. As for the Exxon Valdez itself, it became a pariah in the shipping world, and as a direct result of the disaster, double-hulled vessels are being phased into use. The Coast Guard claims that while the disaster could not have been avoided had the Exxon Valdez been a double-hulled ship, the amount of oil disgorged might have been as little as forty percent of the 10.8 million gallons that eventually smeared the wildlife and beaches of the sound.

In early 2007, a NOAA study estimated that more than 26,000 gallons of oil remained in the sandy shoreline of Prince William Sound, declining slowly at perhaps four percent a year.

Friday, the 45th anniversary of the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, I’ll tell you that story, and how it changed my life. Just remember: Alaska, It Ain't for Sissies.

Ripples of Death

The otter floats
on her back
as she eats.
She bumps
her nearby pup,
floating in sleep.

I’m here.
I will protect you
as you sleep.

Sleek, dark fur
smeared and grimy,
smothered in goo
sucked from the earth
eight hundred miles away.

I’m cold.
I cannot sleep.
The water takes my warmth,
replaces it with cold.

I cannot protect you.
I’m cold too.

Black, tarry crude oil,
meant to fuel
a world
to places far and distant.
Death delivered
on the rippling water
of Prince William Sound.


  1. This story has long legs, Gully. And weight. And heft. It feels like the centerpiece of a larger work. Check out a publication called Memoir(and) -- this story might be a fit. (It's a classy, printed lit-mag.) I hope to send in something soon. Richard Gilbert has a terrific piece in their current issue called "Remembering Paul." You can read it online.

  2. Thank you, Gully, for sharing your personal involvement in the after effects of the oil spill.