The Change That Seeped From The Exxon Valdez Spill

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On March 24, 1989, Capt. Joseph Hazelwood on the Exxon Valdez supertanker told the Vessel Traffic Center in Valdez that the ship was leaking oil. They had run aground into a reef off the Alaskan coast, causing one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. NPR looks at the impact of the spill 25 years on.


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Russian forces have now seized the airbase at Belbek, one of the last military installations in Crimea previously under Ukrainian control.

NPR's Gregory Warner is there and will have the latest on that in a little while. But first, a radio transmission from March 24, 1989 to the vessel traffic center in Valdez, Alaska, just after midnight.


CAPTAIN JOSEPH HAZELWOOD: We're leaking some oil.

RATH: We're leaking some oil. That's Captain Joseph Hazelwood, casually announcing one of the worst environmental disasters the U.S. had ever seen. The supertanker he commanded, the Exxon Valdez, had just run aground in a reef off the coast of Alaska. An estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil gushed into Prince William Sound. Back then, NPR's Peter Kenyon was reporting for Alaska Public Radio.


PETER KENYON, BYLINE: By this afternoon, the slick had been blown clear across the beaches on the far side of Prince William Sound. Some islands were completely surrounded by oil.

RATH: Response vessels weren't prepared for the scale of the disaster, and strong winds and choppy seas overwhelmed any attempts to clean up the thick, black oil that coated the shores. Rupert Cutler, then with The Wilderness Society, told NPR that he wasn't surprised by what had happened.


RUPERT CUTLER: Wood, rocks and the reefs, the fog, the icebergs, and now, of course, it appears that there was negligence involved with the skipper being down below and an unqualified third mate at the helm.

RATH: John Devens was mayor of Valdez. He said the future of the entire region was at stake.


JOHN DEVENS: Cordova and Titiplik and possibly even Whittier are faced with destruction of our entire way of life.

RATH: Don Cornett, an Exxon executive, tried a different spin with local citizens, worried about the extinction of the fishing industry.


DON CORNETT: You have Exxon, and we do business straight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

CORNETT: We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole.

RATH: After years of litigation, $2.5 billion in punitive damages was awarded to those harmed by the spill. The Supreme Court later reduced that to 500 million.

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