The Exxon Valdez was an ecological disaster for the fragile environment of Prince William Sound. On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground and ruptured 8 of its 11 tanks, leading to a huge oil spill that decimated the fish and wildlife, resulting in untold billions of dollars in damage to the economy and untold damage to the Sound’s environment, which even today has still not fully recovered.

Most of us have at best only a vague memory of the events, the Exxon Valdez was being captained by John Hazelwood, who, it transpired later was a chronic alcoholic and at the time of the ship running aground had an estimated blood alcohol level of .241, or nearly 3 times the allowable amount to operate a motor car in most states, never mind a 1000 foot supertanker carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil.

Captain Hazelwood was not even on the bridge when the disaster struck, even though Prince William Sound is a dangerous and delicate area to maneuver through, Captain Hazelwood left the bridge in the hands of an unqualified flunky.

This was one instance where big business appeared to have little option but to fess up and pay up. And to a certain extent that was what they did in a half hearted way. A clean up effort was mounted, unfortunately it was too little and too late. In fact beaches in the area are still scarred from the 1989 spill.

With public opinion running pretty high, it was inevitable that court cases would be in the offing. With no defense worth a lick, Exxon seemed behind the 8 ball. In 1994, after years of discovery and general legal chicanery the court case seemed clear cut, and the verdict even more so. Along with regular damages, the court awarded 5 billion dollars in punitive damages. The last 13 years have seen this verdict appealed twice, and the award pared down to 2.5 billion. Exxon is still refusing to pay this to the 32,000 people involved in the class action suit.

It would seem though that Exxon has finally run out of courts to run to, the case now heads for the Supreme Court where oral arguments will be heard on the 27th Feb. If found responsible, and short of doing an OJ Simpson it seems reasonable that that will be the verdict, one wonders how much longer it will take to pry open Exxons wallet?

Simon Barrett

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