A captain’s guilt: a verdict in the Exxon Valdez oil spill

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A captain’s guilt

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot supertanker carrying 1.3 million barrels of oil, ran aground in the icy, shallow waters of Bligh Reef, 25 miles south of Valdez, Alaska. Last week, two days short of a year later, Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who was in charge of the Exxon Valdez that night, sat in an Anchorage courtroom awaiting a jury’s verdict on whether or not he was guilty of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, operating a vessel while intoxicated and negligent discharge of oil. Then, at 12:40 on Thursday afternoon, after deliberating for only 10-1/2 hours, the six-man, six-woman jury declared the 43-year-old Huntington, N.Y., resident guilty only of one of the least serious charges, negligent discharge of oil. One of Hazelwood’s lawyers, Richard Madson, called the decision a “victory” but said that he would appeal.

For his part, Hazelwood, who had barely uttered a word throughout the trial, smiled and said only that he was “relieved.” But the following day, Alaska Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone ordered him to perform 1,000 hours of community service in helping to clean up the polluted beaches. The judge also ordered him to pay $58,500 in restitution to the state. As well, Johnstone sentenced Hazelwood to 90 days in jail and a $1,200 fine, the maximum under the misdemeanor conviction, but suspended both. Said Johnstone: “I am sure deep down he is very shameful.”


The grounding of the Exxon Valdez, owned by New York City-based Exxon Corp., resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. More than 240,000 barrels of oil spewed out of the damaged tanker, creating a slick across more than 500 square miles. Oil killed thousands of birds and marine animals and polluted hundreds of miles of shoreline. During the eight-week trial, much of the testimony focused on how Hazelwood had spent his time before he boarded the Exxon Valdez at about 8:30 p.m. The prosecution maintained that Hazelwood had spent more than four hours in a Valdez bar called the Pipeline Club and consumed several drinks containing vodka. As well, as U.S. Coast Guard investigator said that Hazelwood had alcohol on his breath 10 hours after the accident. But 21 witnesses, both for the prosecution and for the defence, testified that the captain did not appear to be impaired either when he left the bar or when he was onboard the ship.

The coast guard test rated the captain’s blood-alcohol level at 0.061–above the coast guard’s legal level of intoxication (0.04), but well below the state’s limit of 0.10. But Richard Prouty, chief forensic toxicologist for the state of Oklahoma, estimated that Hazelwood’s level was at least 0.14 when the tanker grounded–testimony that defense witness Michael Hlastala, a physiology professor at the University of Washington, later disputed. The prosecution portrayed Hazelwood as a man who made many reckless decisions, and he did not testify in his own defence.

The captain’s biggest mistake, the state argued, was turning the ship over to third mate Gregory Cousins and helmsman Robert Kagan. Cousins testified that he was not certified by the coast guard to pilot a ship through Prince William Sound, a narrow channel containing dangerous shoals and reefs. He also told the court that Kagan failed to follow his steering instructions, which, he said, would have prevented the accident. Chief mate James Kunkel testified that Kagan was not capable of steering the tanker–a fact, he added, that Hazelwood should have known.

But many people said that too much blame was placed on Hazelwood. after the jury delivered its verdict, juror Jeffrey Sage, a 28-year-old grocery store manager, told Maclean’s: “No law states Hazelwood had to be on the bridge. Hazelwood made no mistakes. His only bad judgment was leaving the bridge.”


Madson conceded that Hazelwood may have made some mistakes, but not enough to be held criminally liable for the actions of his crew. He also argued that the coast guard was negligent because it failed to monitor the ship when it first went off course. “Capt. Hazelwood isn’t perfect and he made mistakes,” Madson said in his closing argument. “A lot of things went wrong that night.” He added: “No matter how many instruments there are on the bridge of a ship, it all comes down to people. And people are not perfect.”

In the year since the disaster occurred, Exxon has spent more than $2 billion cleaning up its results, but those efforts, environmentalist charge, have only been cosmetically successful so far. Exxon officials still face 150 lawsuits from environmentalists, native groups, fishermen and others. Clearly, the fallout of the spill, both to Exxon and to Alaskans, will continue long after the passing of the first anniversary of the Exxon Valdezhs ill-fated journey.

>>> View more: If Yeltsin only knew….

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