TEXT ON SCREEN: March 24, 1989
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-24-89):DAN RATHER: An oil tanker ran aground today off the nations northernmost ice-free port, Valdez, Alaska.
NARRATION: One of the worst oil spills in U.S. history brought Americans images of blackened beaches, dying wildlife, outrage and betrayal.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-26-89):GOVERNOR STEVE COWPER: The evidence is that the response was slow and inadequate.
NARRATION: Blame soon centered on the tanker captain.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-28-89):TOM BROKAW: It is now clear that the captain of the tanker, who was not on the bridge at the time of the accident, had been drinking.
NARRATION: But the accident also exposed the inattention to oil industry safety, and led to promises to repair the damage that had been done
ARCHIVAL (ROSS MULLINS, 3-28-89):DON CORNETT (EXXON EXECUTIVE): We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole.
NARRATION: and to do more to stop future spills.
ARCHIVAL (PRESIDENTIAL BRIEFING, 4-7-89):PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: We also rededicate ourselves to transportation safety and to realistic planning for accidents that do occur.
NARRATION: Decades later, what happened to the promises made in the wake of the Exxon Valdez?
ARCHIVAL (ABC/WJLA 5-28-10):NEWS REPORT: The Gulf spill might already be as much as three times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster.
ARCHIVAL (EXXON VALDEZ RADIO TRANSMISSION, 3-24-89):CAPTAIN JOSEPH HAZELWOOD: Uh, weve fetched up hard agroundand uh, evidently were leaking some oil.
NARRATION: Just past midnight on March 24, the supertanker Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef off the coast of southern Alaska.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-25-89):NEWS REPORT: One of Americas most magnificent waterways is blackened and befouled tonight by the biggest oil spill in American history.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-25-89):NEWS REPORT: Twenty-four thousand barrels, 11 million gallons, of Alaskan crude oil escaped from the huge vessel.
NARRATION: The oil industrys response plans had promised a swift cleanup in the event of a spill. But Riki Ott was alarmed when she flew over the wreck.
RIKI OTT (MARINE TOXICOLOGIST): Were nine hours after the wreck and there was not a speck of promised recovery equipment on the water. This had all been promised within six hours and we were three hours past six hours and nothing.
NARRATION: Neither Exxon nor Alyeska, the oil pipeline company in charge of the immediate response, was ready for such a large spill.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-4-89):NEWS REPORT: Alyeska was supposed to have an emergency response team at its terminal in Valdez, but eight years ago the team was disbanded.
STEPHEN HAYCOX (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA ): The response vessels were either under snow or were being repaired. They were completely overwhelmed. Coast Guard didnt quite know what to do.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 3-26-89):NEWS REPORT: Equipment to fight the spill has to be flown in from as far away as Texas and England.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-26-89):NEWS REPORT: Exxon says it is using all available resources, but it argues the spill is simply too big to surround with booms and skim it up.
NARRATION: As images of the spill appeared on the evening news, Exxon began limited tests of chemical dispersants to try to break up the oil. The dispersants were controversial, and it was unclear if they would work or cause even more harm.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-25-89):GOVERNOR STEVE COWPER: The chemicals that you use to cause the oil to sink is very dangerous to marine life and we have to be certain that we cause a minimal amount of damage.
NARRATION: But it was soon too late to matter.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-27-89):NEWS REPORT: Winds up to 70 miles an hour virtually shut down the oil spill cleanup operation this morning.
STEPHEN HAYCOX: The storm had come up, and the oil was moving and almost nothing could be done.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 4-3-89):NEWS REPORT: Some crews are literally on their knees, using absorbent towels to remove the oil from rocky beaches.
NARRATION: Less than 15 percent of the oil was recovered. News cameras captured the damage
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 4-3-89):NEWS REPORT: Eight hundred miles of shoreline already covered with oil.
NARRATION: and the anger.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-25-89):RIKI OTT: This should have been the easiest spill in the world to clean up.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-4-89):NEWS REPORT: Growing questions about how future disasters of this kind can be prevented and why there was such a slow response to this spill.
NARRATION: At the same time, another storyline was taking hold.
RIKI OTT: The Exxon spokesperson says, There might have been a problem with Captain Hazelwood. It seems he had a bit of a drinking problem.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-30-89):PETER JENNINGS: Good evening, the captain was drinking, the captain has been fired. That is the sum of it from Alaska tonight.
RIKI OTT: The story became Hazelwood.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, 1989):DAVID LETTERMAN: Top 10 excuses of the Exxon tanker captain. Number 10: Was trying to scrape ice off reef for margarita.
STEPHEN HAYCOX: Thats a sensational kind of story. You have an immediate assignment of responsibility, an immediate villain. What was lost in all of that was the companys responsibility.
NARRATION: When a pipeline to bring oil from northern Alaska to Valdez was approved back in 1973, the oil industry and the federal government promised to make safety a priority.
ARCHIVAL (ALASKA PIPELINE ACT CONFERENCE, 11-16-73):PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The Alaska pipelines on its way, the environment will be saved.
NARRATION: The government initially supported double-hulled tankers and a high tech navigation system in Valdez.
JOHN HAVELOCK (1932-2021, FORMER ALASKA ATTORNEY GENERAL): We were given blanket assurances about safety and spills. In retrospect, I erred in not making sure that, almost, that what was said was not put in writing.
NARRATION: Those promises never materialized and when the state of Alaska passed its own safety law, the oil industry sued, saying the law infringed on federal authority.
STEPHEN HAYCOX: The court threw out the states plan. So, no double-hulled tankers: much more freedom to determine where the navigation channel would be.
NARRATION: When the pipeline first opened, tankers were closely monitored by the Coast Guard and stayed in the shipping lanes, even when they were clogged with ice flows.
STEPHEN HAYCOX: Instead of diverting out of the channel, they were supposed to slow down.
NARRATION: But by the time the Exxon Valdez left port, the Coast Guard routinely allowed ships to leave the channel to avoid the increasing amount of ice.
JOHN HAVELOCK: Slowing down was not something they want to do because time is money.
ARCHIVAL (EXXON VALDEZ RADIO TRANSMISSION, 3-24-89):CAPTAIN JOSEPH HAZELWOOD: Judging by our radar, I will probably divert from the TSS and end up in the inbound lane, if theres no conflicting traffic, over.
NARRATION: A few minutes after that message, the Coast Guard wasnt monitoring the Valdez on its radar.
JOHN KONRAD (FORMER OIL RIG CAPTAIN): The Coast Guard is supposed to be the check in case the ship makes a mistake. And they werent. They werent watching the ship.
NARRATION: Captain Hazelwood turned the bridge over to third mate Gregory Cousins and went to his quarters, after giving instructions to maneuver around the ice.
ARCHIVAL (NTSB HEARING KTOO/PBS, 5-16-89):NTSB INVESTIGATOR: Did you have any concerns about, uh, getting past the ice?
ARCHIVAL (NTSB HEARING KTOO/PBS, 5-16-89):GREGORY COUSINS: Not at that time, not at that instant.
JOHN KONRAD: Cousins continued going south, heading directly into Bligh Reef.
NARRATION: A federal investigation later found that Cousins lost track of the ships location and didnt turn back in time. It found that reduced tanker crews probably left Cousins overworked and tired, contributing to the accident, a conclusion Cousins and Exxon disputed. The investigation faulted Hazelwood for leaving the bridge and said his judgment was impaired by alcohol. Hazelwood denied he was drunk and was later acquitted of criminal charges related to drinking.
JOHN KONRAD: Did they have some fault? Yes. But the real fault was, there wasnt the safety net.
NARRATION: EXXON spent more than $2 billion cleaning up the spill and says there was no long-term environmental damage. But pockets of oil were found beneath the surface of some beaches as of 2018 and remain a concern.
RIKI OTT: Prince William Sound is not the same as it was. The environment still has not fully recovered.
NARRATION: Exxon paid $300 million to those hurt by the spill and a jury later awarded another $5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon appealed, delaying the case for 14 years, and leaving lasting bitterness in Alaska.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEW, 3-23-06):NEWS REPORT: Four thousand of the original plaintiffs have died since the Exxon Valdez.
NARRATION: In 2008, the Supreme Court cut punitive damages to a 10th of the original amount.
After the spill, millions of federal dollars were designated for cleanup research and Congress required better contingency planning, double-hulled tankers, and tugboat escorts in Prince William Sound.
JOHN HAVELOCK: We were now making traffic out of Valdez, probably the safest line of passage anywhere in the globe.
TEXT ON SCREEN: April 20, 2010
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 4-22-10):NEWS REPORT: The explosion happened at the Deepwater Horizon rig Tuesday night.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 4-22-10):NEWS REPORT: Now everyone is hoping and praying that the Gulf of Mexico rig doesnt turn into an environmental disaster.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-24-10):NEWS REPORT: The Coast Guard has called off the search for the 11 missing workers.
NARRATION: After an explosion on an oil rig owned by BP in 2010, a presidential commission found that many lessons of the Exxon Valdez had been forgotten in the pursuit of offshore oil drilling.
BOB GRAHAM (FORMER U.S. SENATOR, CO-CHAIR, BP DEEPWATER HORIZON OIL SPILL COMMISSION): I used the phrase that the offense got way ahead of the defense. The potential risks had increased dramatically, but thered been no commensurate increase in our capability to avoid an accident or to respond to it.
NARRATION: It found that the major oil companies had made only a minimal investment in new response technology. And the government had spent less than half the authorized amount on cleanup research.
ARCHIVAL (CONGRESSIONAL HEARING, 6-15-10):REX TILLERSON (EXXONMOBIL CEO): The emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring because, when they happen, were not very well equipped to deal with them.
NARRATION: The news was again filled with an oil company struggling to contain an 87day spill 12 times larger than the Exxon Valdez, using much of the same crude cleanup technology from the 1980s.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-14-10):NEWS REPORT: Were still relying on booms, still relying on skimmers, still relying on shovels.
NARRATION: The government authorized BP to use nearly two million gallons of dispersants, whose environmental impact continues to be debated.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 7-22-10):NEWS REPORT: The key question that scientists are trying to figure out is whether oil dispersants in the deep ocean do more harm than good.
NARRATION: The commission also found that while tanker safety improved after the Valdez, the oil industry resisted new offshore drilling safety rules.
BOB GRAHAM: It was reflective of a culture in the offshore oil industry. We ended up 20 years after Exxon Valdez with an even more serious incident but no better prepared to avoid it or deal with it.
NARRATION: After the spill, BP paid more than $20 billion in penalties. And the Obama administration toughened safety requirements for offshore drilling some of which were later eased by the Trump administration. Its a pattern of unsettled standards and oversight that environmentalists say raises questions about the industrys preparedness for oil spills of the future.
BOB GRAHAM: I think the fundamental lesson is, can you sustain the commitment and the effort that was so intense immediately after the event to develop a constantly evolving science of safety and response?