The Tragic Saga Began Long Before the Accident
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
This is the first in a series addressing the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The 20th anniversary of the biggest, deadliest oil spill in our nation's history is coming up next month. It will no doubt be a somber occasion. But for those who were most affected, remembering what came before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill may be more painful than the anniversary of the disaster itself.
The captain of the Exxon Valdez, a man described in later court documents as a "relapsed alcoholic," was in his quarters when he should have been piloting the ship, and the men he assigned to take his place weren't properly rested. The ship obtained special permission to exit the Prince Williams Sound through the inbound shipping lane. The ship came too close to shore and was grounded on the Bligh Reef, a well-known obstacle in the area, just after midnight on March 24, 1989.
Immediately after the spill, delays and mishaps interfered with the clean-up. The fishermen and the townspeople of Cordova, Alaska, who relied on the waters for their very existence, were worried. But the president of Exxon assured them they would all be taken care of. He even called the incident a blessing in disguise for Alaskans.
"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," Exxon President Dan Cornett told a crowd of Cordovans gathered in concern after the disaster (watch a video excerpt of that meeting here).
The opposite turned out to be the case; in reality it was more of a fleecing in the disguise of disaster. For the past two decades, Exxon has dragged its corporate feet in court while Alaskans have struggled to cope with the aftereffects of the spill. Communities such as Cordova still report cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome, along with continuing increases in divorce, bankruptcy, and suicide rates.
The situation is sad and frustrating. But perhaps the most difficult part of all is that the fishermen, along with environmentalists and other community members, saw it coming all along.