|Meet the Cunt #1: Exxon|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  30 Mar 2009
How bad does he have to be suffering for an animal to tear out his own eyes?
That’s what some otters did, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. People watched this, up on the beaches. For Alaska’s Prince William Sound, it was an apocalypse.
I want you to imagine what that otter must have been feeling, the oil covering his flesh, burning away at his eyes, as he floundered up on the beach and gouged his own eyes out. I want you to image what it takes to make an animal do that.
As awful as that image is, I could forgive it. I’m a logical and compassionate person. If someone makes an honest mistake, they should rectify it. Even if they fail to do so, my argument is with that failure, not with the initial mistake.
But that’s not what happened, just after midnight on 24 March 1989, in Prince William Sound.
For 20 years, we’ve been fed the lie that the Valdez’s captain was drunk and just ran aground. Exxon sent tons of people and ships out to try to clean up the oil spill, and they got a lot of it. As Chief Justice Roberts put it, in the decision that reduced the damages Exxon had to pay, “What more can a corporation do?”
But all of that is a lie. And it’s a lie of the worst sort: a willful one, designed to whitewash a hideous crime of immense proportions. In fact, the oil spill and the sweeping extent of its damage were the result of willful negligence, pure and simple.
When the Valdeez ran aground, the captain was indeed drunk. He was, in fact, a relapsed alcoholic. Which Exxon had left in charge of 53 million U.S. gallons of oil. But that wasn’t even the problem, because he was actually below decks, having left the ship in the hands of his third mate, who was later shown to have been inadequately rested.
The Valdez was sailing out of the port in an area normally reserved for inbound traffic. It had to get special permission to do this. That inbound channel, however, had a well-known reef in it: the Bligh Reef. The third mate, left in charge of the ship while the captain slept off a bender, didn’t know it was there.
But he should’ve. Because the Exxon Valdeez was supposed to have a sophisticated sonar system that would have shown the Bligh Reef and allowed for easy navigation around it. But this sonar had been inoperable since its maiden voyage. And Exxon hadn’t bothered repairing it.
So there was negligence causing the spill. But there was worse negligence in being prepared to clean it up.
There’s a policy for containing oil spills. You surround the spill with a big rubber skirt, called a “boom,” and you use vacuums to suck the oil up off the surface of the water. You have to do this quickly, because the oil naturally spreads with the waves. That’s why both pieces of equipment were supposed to be present, just in case.
But the night the Valdez ran aground, the skirt wasn’t there, despite that Exxon had actually promised Alaska that it would be. Ten months before the spill, the Vice-President of Exxon’s Alaska shipping operations, T. L. Polasek, pleaded with the company to have clean-up equipment nearby, as was actually required by law. He warned it was “not possible” to clean up a spill, without this equipment. But in an April 1988 meeting, according to Exxon’s own corporate memos, it decided to ignore this legal requirement, this good advice, and any concern for cleaning up after themselves, should something go wrong.
As for the vacuums, they’re held on a so-called “containment barge.” Regulations required that one be at the ready, any time an oil tanker left port. Exxon had signed documents attesting to its readiness. Except that it was actually frozen in place in dry-dock.
So there was negligence causing the spill and negligence to prepare to clean it up. But there’s also the little matter that it was only through corruption that the oil companies were there in the first place.
To explain, let’s back up for a moment. Why was the Exxon Valdez in the Prince William Sound to begin with? Well, that’s where Alaska’s famed oil pipeline terminates, specifically in the Port of Valdez, allowing ships to fill up before shipping that fuel for sale around the world. But many locals didn’t want it to begin with? Why?
They were afraid of an oil spill, and environmental experts had determined that the Prince William Sound, which is a largely enclosed body of water, would basically have its ecosystem destroyed, should an oil spill occur in it. Alaska’s courts agreed, and the Supreme Court decided against hearing an appeal. So the oil companies that stood to benefit, including Exxon, took the case to Washington… and Washington rewrote the law to let the pipeline go through. Exxon actually benefited from the whole delay, because the new law prohibited EPA studies of the Sound, which would otherwise have been carried out.
So it was oil companies’ manipulation of American politics that got them the pipeline to begin with. And everyone knew that an oil spill in Prince William Sound would be particularly awful. Which puts not providing, say, clean-up equipment over protests in a new light.
So yes, there was negligence before and during the spill: Exxon did just about everything wrong. And it was only corruption that got the pipeline there in the first place. But after the spill, didn’t Exxon do the best job it could, after the fact?
Actually, not at all. Exxon didn’t and doesn’t care about the environment; it cares about the bottom line. And with reports of this horrible spill on the national news, Exxon saw the spill as a public relations crisis, not an environmental one. The company acted quickly enough, but its head wasn’t exactly in the right place.
Well, the company got that suction equipment out of the ice, but it took half a day. By the time it got out to the spill, the oil had already drifted over a vast area, and the suction couldn’t do much – because it was late and there was no plastic skirt to contain the still-drifting oil. As a result, instead of containing the spill and getting most of it, it was kind of like tying to cart the sand away from a beach with your fingers. Despite this, the “containment barge” with the vacuums was all over the news, showing Exxon’s quick response as its employees sucked oil from a tiny corner of an enormous oil slick, helpless to do more. Instead of negligence, we got irony – and the impression that the company was doing all it could.
But Exxon did far more than this. All that oil stretching up the rocky beaches just looked awful on television. So Exxon sent employees to spray down the beaches with 140-degree water. This didn’t clean anything, but it pushed the oil out of sight. It also killed plant and animal life, which many scientists think could contribute to organically processing the oil.
The spill, totaling around 11 million U.S. gallons, eventually stretched some 1200 miles. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimated that only three or four percent of the spill was cleaned up during all those initial efforts.
The company also blamed the Valdez’s captain, and reports circulated that he had been drunk. Never mind all the negligence and corruption involved: this had really been a simple case of drunk driving. And that’s a story every American can relate to, one that’s a lot simpler than explaining Exxon’s negligence at every step of the way. All those animals floundering while covered in oil on every American TV were sad, but this was a simple accident.
Exxon also paid locals to help with the clean-up operations, which was a good idea. After all, Exxon had ruined many of their livelihoods, so a little short-term employment was the least it could do. Besides, those people cleaning things up on TV so soon after the events looked good, and employing locals was good PR. Those locals had to sign confidentiality agreements in which they promised not to say things that were negative against Exxon, meaning that they couldn’t talk to the press.
Clean-up workers also got sick not only from the oil but from the chemicals Exxon used to “clean up” the area, which has reportedly caused neurological and respiratory disorders. In fact, some workers are believed to have later died as a result of these “clean-up” chemicals. And some have found that this whole clean-up process was actually focused on hiding the oil from sight, pushing it underground. As a result, there is a massive amount of oil underground in that area of Alaska, and it’s believed that this may cause health problems for decades to come. In fact, there’s also a ring of oil at the high-water mark, just beneath the rocks on the beach, that you can still stick your hand into and pull it up, covered with sludge.
As part of its aggressive PR handling of the spill, then-Exxon President Dan Cornett even flew to Cordova, Alaska, a small fishing town along the Prince William Sound. Speaking to locals there, he delivered a solemn and unambiguous promise: “You won’t have a problem. I don’t care if you believe that or not. That’s the truth. You have had some good luck and you don’t realize it. You have Exxon and we do business straight. We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole. Now that’s – you have my word on that.” Which made for great PR. But it wasn’t true either.
In fact, Exxon was busy lying at the same time. Its lies about how much oil was spilled and how well the clean-up process was going have been well-documented. And it’s kept lying, claiming that there was no significant damage done to the Sound.
In this, it’s been aided by the fact that the pipeline didn’t go through except after buying influence among corrupt politicians in Washington. Remember those EPA studies that would have been done, had the pipeline gone through normally but that were waived by the new laws Washington drafted for the oil companies? Well, those studies would have established the original details of the Sound’s ecosystem, before the spill. In other words, they would have established a baseline, against which we could measure all the damage. Because the oil companies went around the law and the courts, there’s nothing scientific to compare to the current state of the Sound.
Exxon has paid scientists to evaluate the Sound and claim that there’s no environmental damage left from the spill. Both the government and non-profit organizations disagree, as do mainstream scientists. But these studies get bandied about in court, in politics, and in the media, as if they are legitimate.
If this reminds you of corporate studies attacking global warming, you’re not alone. The disinformation Exxon produced about the Valdez oil spill is seen by many as a forerunner of its later involvement in spreading disinformation about global warming, for which it has set up seemingly independent groups with the express intent of discrediting legitimate science about climate change. A 2007 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Exxon had spent almost $16 over a seven-year period financing pseudo-science discrediting global warming. More recently Exxon also funded false science claiming the polar bear was thriving and was not endangered, despite all legitimate science on the matter, because concern for polar bears has been a major roadblock to further oil exploration in Alaska. Those phony studies were recently cited by Alaska governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential campaign.
Okay, Exxon was negligent every step of the way. It helped corrupt the system to get the pipeline in Prince William Sound, despite concerns of just this kind of oil spill. It was more concerned with its PR problem than cleaning up the spill. It made clean-up workers sick. And it not only lied but created a whole network of professional pseudo-scientific liars to cover up the environmental damage done to the Sound. But at least Exxon’s then-President was true to his words and they provided for the locals, right?
Well, no. In fact, Exxon has litigated to prevent doing what’s right and what it promised for the last 20 years.
Today, Cordova is still reportedly rife with post-traumatic stress disorder. Seeing otters tear out their eyes will do that. Divorce and suicide are reportedly way up. The town’s mayor even killed himself, specifically citing Exxon in his suicide note.
Fishermen are even worse off. More than 6000 people lost their livelihoods as a direct result of the spill. Many have declared bankruptcy. It’s an expensive business, with boats costing tens of thousands of dollars. Alaskan fishing permits can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and most fishermen have to secure loans to acquire them. But fish populations in the Sound have plummeted, and those permits are now worth far less – especially since they’re specific to the species of fish, and whole species have been all but prohibited for fishing in the Sound.
Herring seem particularly hurt. Before the oil spill, they were fine. Afterwards, the Herring in the Sound were covered in lesions and bleeding internally. They swim around erratically, as if something is clearly wrong. They continue to do this, 20 years later. Scientists can’t prove that these effects are related to the spill, despite what fishermen say about the timetable, and it may be the result of a virus which is either related or not related to the spill. There are no maps for spills of this magnitude in such an enclosed ecosystem, after all.
The area’s Natives lost all the animals they hunted to survive. Those that survived, like the local clam population, were declared deadly to eat. The local deer ate contaminated plants and died. Exxon saw bad press and sent food to the Natives: seal meat in cans marked “unfit for human consumption.” Where they got this meat is unknown, but it was likely intended for animals.
Ironically, some of these locals, especially fishermen, were among those who fought to keep the pipeline from coming to the Sound in the first place, fearing exactly what happened.
In the wake of Exxon abandoning them, 32,000 plaintiffs, including Cordova’s fishermen, sued the company and won. They were awarded $5 billion in damages. Often, people balk at such high awards for damages, but there’s a reason the U.S. judicial system has them: to prevent future corporate malfeasance. The jury didn’t just arbitrarily come up with that figure: it was one year’s worth of net profit for Exxon, at the time, which was deemed enough to punish Exxon and ensure this wouldn’t happen again.
Which would’ve been great, except that Exxon kept litigating. The award was reduced to $4 billion, raised back up to $4.5 billion, and then slashed to $2.5 billion. Finally, it made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the occasion for Chief Justice Roberts saying, “What more can a corporation do?” Keep in mind the Roberts was appointed by George W. Bush, who let Enron write environmental legislation and seems to have used the entire Iraq War as little more than an occasion for a huge corporate giveaway. The Court decided that one year’s worth of net profits had been excessive and reduced it to… wait for it… that of the duration of the incident, judged at four days. The bottom line was a reduction to $507 million, about 10% of the original verdict and not enough, when divided amongst those harmed, to prevent many from declaring bankruptcy.
Of course, all of these figures are based on Exxon’s 1989 profits, not its profits after keeping the case tied up in litigation for two decades. In 2008, Exxon reported its highest profits ever: about $45 billion. The entire judgment against Exxon is now not one year’s profits but just over 1% of them.
Worse, many of the plaintiffs have borrowed against their settlements, trying to keep afloat, often as a result of the financial harm done to them by the spill. But this means that they won’t see much or any money from the judgment. Some will actually end up paying money, since they’ll have to pay taxes on their share of the settlement. For others, their share won’t even pay for the fishing licenses that were made almost valueless, in the wake of the spill.
But it gets better: Exxon hasn’t paid up even this paltry sum, which it delayed through litigation by two decades. Now, the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether Exxon should even pay interest on this payment for suffering for the last 20 years.
In April 2006, Exxon’s President, Lee Raymond, retired. While he wasn’t the company’s President at the time of the spill, he had presided over the decision not to provide the required oil spill equipment. He took a $400 million bonus on his way out.
Understandably, many of the locals seem despondent about their situation and the efficacy of the courts, as they continue to suffer and Exxon’s stock soars.
But no human died as a result of the spill, if you discount the claims of a few workers dying as a result of clean-up chemicals. There’s certainly no apologizing for Exxon’s treatment of the locals or even its own workers. But I keep coming back to that otter, clawing its own eyes out.
That otter died in horrible suffering, amidst an apocalyptic landscape covered by a sticky layer of oil. Little seals were up on those beaches, floundering in the thick black goo. Call it a symbol of the entire event, if you like, or even just a symbol of its massive environmental damage. You don’t have to be as much of a sap as me and care directly about its suffering.
It died blind. Perhaps it’s time for us to peel back Exxon’s media curtain and see what happened, 20 years ago, in Prince William Sound – and how it’s still happening.
What does it take to make Exxon’s executives claw their eyes out? I don’t know, but it’s worth funding a pseudo-scientific experiment to find out.
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