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Secret Tapes Provide a Look at Early Reaction to Exxon Spill

November 18, 1992

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Oil company officials decided shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill they couldn’t clean it up but still tried to give the appearance of doing something, taped telephone conversations show.

The conversations during the flawed early response to the spill were secretly recorded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which Exxon and other oil companies formed to run the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Valdez marine terminal.

Alyeska never told state and congressional investigators about the tapes, but transcript summaries and excerpts have been disclosed during the past two weeks as a result of lawsuits.

The tapes appear to back the state’s contention that the oil companies were incapable of applying chemical dispersants on the spill in any quantity because there wasn’t enough on hand and aircraft with spray equipment arrived too late.

″There is a mass of confusion here, I think, as to where the dispersant is that’s in Alaska, and the crewing of the planes, and how fast they’ll be available,″ said Alyeska’s Bill Howitt in a midnight telephone call to Valdez almost 24 hours after the spill.

″Get that stuff out there,″ Exxon’s Don Cornett said in one transcript. ″I don’t care if it picks up 2 gallons a week.″

In another conversation, Cornett said, ″It doesn’t matter if they are really picking up a hell of a lot of oil. ... It makes a real bad impression with the public, without any activity going on.″

The excerpts were released by the state and by Alyeska critic Chuck Hamel, who has worked with some of the plaintiffs suing Alyeska and Exxon. On Monday, the state and other plaintiffs demanded a full transcript of the recordings as they prepare for trial.

Alyeska has refused, citing rules that protect parties in a lawsuit from disclosing the opinions and strategies of their attorneys. It said the full transcript was prepared by lawyers who filled in blank and ambiguous spots on the tape and identified unknown speakers through their knowledge of Alyeska.

Cornett, now Exxon’s chief of public relations, would not comment on specific portions of the tapes.

″If you look at the full content of these tapes, rather than a few selected quotes taken out of context, the tapes make clear the extraordinary efforts made by Exxon to mount the largest oil spill response ever undertaken,″ Cornett said in a statement from Houston.

David Ruskin, an Anchorage lawyer chosen by the courts to referee the disputes over what evidence must be turned over by each side, said he would rule on the request for transcripts soon.

Hamel called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether the pipeline company misled officials by providing the government only poor copies of the original seven-track tapes released last week.

Based on the copies he heard, Hamel told the EPA it appeared the pipeline owners were more interested in reopening the Valdez port to tanker operations than in cleaning up oil.

He also cited a conversation in which two Alyeska officials and Gordon Lindblom of Exxon debate what to do with toxic dispersant residue left in a truck at Anchorage International Airport.

One of the Alyeska officials says, ″Can’t they just fill it with water, drive around the block, and dump it in the sewer?″

Lindblom replies that he wasn’t sure that was a good idea, and suggests they ″dump it over time, not in one batch.″

Alaska Attorney General Charlie Cole said Tuesday the tapes could be used as evidence for the state to win punitive damages in addition to the more than $20 million sought from Alyeska for lost taxes, royalties and other damages.

A spokesman for the congressional committee that led an investigation of the Exxon Valdez disaster said Congress also will demand a transcript.

Danny Weiss, spokesman for House Interior Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said the tapes contradict statements made when Miller held hearings in Valdez in 1989.

″Chaos, a certain arrogance by the companies toward the public and the environment, which certainly came through without these tapes, come through even more with these tapes,″ Weiss said.

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