By Mike O’Meara
The guy at the helm wasn’t the only one asleep at the wheel when the Exxon Valdez “fetched up hard aground” on Bligh Reef 25 years ago. Comfortably protected by corporate personhood, Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline executives had put quarterly profits ahead of operational safety. With a wink and nod from Texas headquarters, tanker captains regularly ignored Prince William Sound speed limits and shipping lanes. The U.S. Coast Guard, apparently bored, had stopped paying attention. State oversight agencies were missing in action – until it was too late to prevent disaster.
That’s worth remembering.
Then came the shock. Prevention had failed. Spill response was late, crazy and ineffective. By official estimates the Exxon Valdez dumped 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. There is evidence it was more like 30-35 million. The mess oiled our waters and beaches along more than 600 miles of coastline. Probably 580,000 birds and 5,500 sea otters got “moussed” to death, along with all kinds of other critters. The Prince William Sound herring fishery collapsed. Life in some 17 coastal communities turned upside down. After a long legal fight the $5 billion in punitive damages originally won by spill victims was cut to $507.5 million by a corporation friendly U.S. Supreme Court.
The reason we need to remember the Exxon Valdez is that the story is much the same from the Amoco Cadiz right up to the Deepwater Horizon.
As curator of the Darkened Waters exhibition, I followed spills worldwide for over 10 years after the Exxon Valdez. Data from sources like The Oil Spill Intelligence Report and first hand accounts from people on scene make clear that most spills happen because of corporate cost cutting, negligence or lack of oversight by government authority. Spill response is typically botched, but you can’t clean up a big spill anyway.
Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez we’re all talking about lessons learned and, to be sure, there are more than a few.
At the same time, though, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves what’s changed? No question, passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 resulted in fewer spills in U.S. waters and brought big improvements for Prince William Sound. Is that enough? Double hull tankers, escort tugs, vessel traffic control, more oil skimmers are all good things, but is spill prevention and response only a matter of technical fixes? I think not. Capt. Joseph Hazelwood paid a price for his part in the spill. He may be the only one. What were the consequences for company executives and shareholders shielded behind Exxon’s and Alyeska’s corporate veils? What about the bureaucrats and politicians who failed the public trust by looking the other way while the oil giants broke all the rules?
Until corporations and the human beings behind them can be held accountable for their wrongdoing, it’s hard to imagine them choosing the public good over personal profit. Unless their ability to corrupt public servants and use wealth to twist the political and legal system ends, we are apt to see more oil spills and other disasters. So oil spills look to me like symptoms of a much wider social, political and ethical problem that can only be addressed by widespread pressure for change from ordinary citizens. Where to start? One place is to get behind the effort to reject the idea that corporations are persons. This fiction was at the root of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe and is doing violence to our whole society today. We the People Alaska is a new political coalition aimed at ultimately assuring that only individual human beings exercise constitutional rights. Let’s not go to sleep at the wheel again. Check it out at www.wethepeoplealaska.org and see what you think.
Mike O’Meara is the curator of the Darkened Waters Pratt Museum exhibition.
Comments are closed