Legal Cleanup Begins in Exxon Valdez Disaster
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Former Exxon Valdez skipper Joseph Hazelwood has left town and the voices of protest that marked the first anniversary of the nation’s worst oil spill have quieted. Now, the legal cleanup begins.
With more than 150 lawsuits on file against Exxon Corp., Hazelwood and others, Alaska’s court calendars will be clogged for years to come.
Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Co., the oil company consortium that operates the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and Valdez terminal, also have been indicted by a federal grand jury on five criminal counts stemming from the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.
The tanker hemorrhaged nearly 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil into Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, killing countless birds, fish and other wildlife and fouling the rocky shore for hundreds of miles.
As many as 75 people marked the anniversary Saturday with a protest outside Alyeska headquarters in Anchorage. Someone splattered the building with a plastic bag filled with chocolate syrup - intended to symbolize spilled crude.
Environmental groups held low-key events to raise money for spill- prevention efforts and to pursue Valdez-related lawsuits.
Gov. Steve Cowper called on Exxon to settle quickly the flood of lawsuits filed by environmental groups, fishermen, native Alaskans and the state.
The lawsuits are not scheduled for trial until 1992. If Exxon does not settle all valid spill-related lawsuits, litigation could drag on into the next century, Cowper said.
A lawyer coordinating the lawsuits said he wants to set a precedent.
″We have to make it unprofitable to pollute,″ said attorney Macon Cowles of Boulder, Colo.
The National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Fund and other plaintiffs want Exxon to set up a fund to pay for environmental damage assessment, restoration and the purchase of wildlife preserves.
Cowles said he might even try to collect damages on behalf of plants and animals.
″We’re trying to come up with a way to put a value on the devastation to life,″ he said. Cowles said it might take 10 years to assess that damage.
Hazelwood, the only individual charged criminally in the spill, was convicted last Thursday of a state misdemeanor charge of neglegent discharge of oil, but was acquitted of second-degree criminal mischief, a felony, and misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and operating ship under the influence of alcohol.
In an emotional hearing on Friday, Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone sentenced the skipper to spend 1,000 hours helping to clean up oiled beaches. He also ordered Hazelwood to pay $50,000 in restitution.
Hazelwood’s lawyers said they would appeal the conviction and the highly unusual sentence, which they asserted was harsher than the law allows.
The judge said he will stay Hazelwood’s sentence once the appeal is filed.
In an interview before he left Alaska, Hazelwood said he was troubled by the enormous environmental devastation in Prince William Sound.
″It was terrible,″ he said. ″It’s like any devastation. It’s like Chernobyl or medical waste washing up on my back yard in Long Island (N.Y.). ... It was a terrible tragedy. There’s no getting around it.″
But Hazelwood, 43, was prevented from giving his own view of what caused the Exxon Valdez to run aground on Bligh Reef. His lawyers feared his comments might affect the outcome of the lawsuits against him.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard plans to hold hearings on whether Hazelwood’s maritime master’s license should be suspended, renewed or revoked, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost said.
But Yost appeared to partially absolve Hazelwood of responsibility, saying, ″A fully qualified third mate ran the vessel aground.″
Hazelwood was below deck when the accident occurred. Third mate Gregory Cousins was on the bridge, directing a helmsman at the wheel. Jurors in Hazelwood’s trial rejected the claim that the skipper was reckless to leave the bridge in Cousins’ control.
In the federal indictments, Exxon is charged with staffing the tanker with people who were physically or mentally incapable of performing their duties. Hazelwood’s acquittal could weigh in the company’s favor on that charge.