Posted by: wantpeacework4justice | June 26, 2008

Supreme Injustice- Exxon Valdez Decision

Court Rewards Exxon for Valdez Spill
by Greg Palast
Chicago Tribune (revised)

[Thursday, June 26, 2008] Twenty years after Exxon Valdez slimed over
one thousand miles of Alaskan beaches, the company has yet to pay the $5
billion in punitive damages awarded by the jury. And now they won’t have
to. The Supreme Court today cut Exxon’s liability by 90% to half a
billion. It’s so cheap, it’s like a permit to spill.

Exxon knew this would happen. Right after the spill, I was brought to
Alaska by the Natives whose Prince William Sound islands, livelihoods,
and their food source was contaminated by Exxon crude. My assignment: to
investigate oil company frauds that led to to the disaster. There were
plenty.

But before we brought charges, the Natives hoped to settle with the oil
company, to receive just enough compensation to buy some boats and
rebuild their island villages to withstand what would be a decade of
trying to survive in a polluted ecological death zone.

In San Diego, I met with Exxon’s US production chief, Otto Harrison, who
said, “Admit it; the oil spill’s the best thing to happen” to the
Natives.

His company offered the Natives pennies on the dollar. The oil men added
a cruel threat: take it or leave it and wait twenty years to get even
the pennies. Exxon is immortal – but Natives die.

And they did. A third of the Native fishermen and seal hunters I worked
with are dead. Now their families will collect one tenth of their award,
two decades too late.

In today’s ruling, Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote that Exxon’s
recklessness was ”profitless” – so the company shouldn’t have to pay
punitive damages. Profitless, Mr. Souter? Exxon and it’s oil shipping
partners saved billions – BILLIONS – by operating for sixteen years
without the oil spill safety equipment they promised, in writing, under
oath and by contract.

The official story is, “Drunken Skipper Hits Reef.” But don’t believe
it, Mr. Souter. Alaska’s Native lands and coastline were destroyed by a
systematic fraud motivated by profit-crazed penny-pinching. Here’s the
unreported story, the one you won’t get tonight on the Petroleum
Broadcast System:

It begins in 1969 when big shots from Humble Oil and ARCO (now known as
Exxon and British Petroleum) met with the Chugach Natives, owners of the
most valuable parcel of land on the planet: Valdez Port, the only
conceivable terminus for a pipeline that would handle a trillion dollars
in crude oil.

These Alaskan natives ultimately agreed to sell the Exxon consortium
this astronomically valuable patch of land — for a single dollar. The
Natives refused cash. Rather, in 1969, they asked only that the oil
companies promise to protect their Prince William Sound fishing and seal
hunting grounds from oil.

In 1971, Exxon and partners agreed to place the Natives’ specific list
of safeguards into federal law. These commitment to safety reassured
enough Congressmen for the oil group to win, by one vote, the right to
ship oil from Valdez.

The oil companies repeated their promises under oath to the US Congress.

The spill disaster was the result of Exxon and partners breaking every
one of those promises – cynically, systematically, disastrously, in the
fifteen years leading up to the spill.

Forget the drunken skipper fable. As to Captain Joe Hazelwood, he was
below decks, sleeping off his bender. At the helm, the third mate would
never have collided with Bligh Reef had he looked at his Raycas radar.
But the radar was not turned on. In fact, the tanker’s radar was left
broken and disasbled for more than a year before the disaster, and Exxon
management knew it. It was just too expensive to fix and operate.

For the Chugach, this discovery was poignantly ironic. On their list of
safety demands in return for Valdez was “state-of-the-art” on-ship
radar.

We discovered more, but because of the labyrinthine ways of litigation,
little became public, especially about the reckless acts of the industry
consortium, Alyeska, which controls the Alaska Pipeline.
Several smaller oil spills before the Exxon Valdez could have warned of
a system breakdown. But a former Senior Lab Technician with Alyeska,
Erlene Blake, told our investigators that management routinely ordered
her to toss out test samples of water evidencing spilled oil. She was
ordered to refill the test tubes with a bucket of clean sea water
called, “The Miracle Barrel.”
In a secret meeting in April 1988, Alyeska Vice-President T.L. Polasek
confidentially warned the oil group executives that, because Alyeska had
never purchased promised safety equipment, it was simply “not possible”
to contain an oil spill past the Valdez Narrows — exactly where the
Exxon Valdez ran aground 10 months later.
The Natives demanded (and law requires) that the shippers maintain
round- the-clock oil spill response teams. Alyeska hired the Natives,
especiallly qualified by their generations-old knowledge of the Sound,
for this emergency work. They trained to drop from helicopters into the
water with special equipment to contain an oil slick at a moments
notice. But in 1979, quietly, Alyeska fired them all. To deflect
inquisitive state inspectors, the oil consortium created sham teams,
listing names of oil terminal workers who had not the foggiest idea how
to use spill equipment which, in any event, was missing, broken or
existed only on paper.
In 1989, when the oil poured from the tanker, there was no Native
response team, only chaos.

Today, twenty years after the oil washed over the Chugach beaches, you
can kick over a rock and it will smell like an old gas station.

The cover story of the Drunken Captain serves the oil industry well. It
falsely presents America’s greatest environmental disaster as a tale of
human frailty, a one-time accident. But broken radar, missing equipment,
phantom spill teams, faked tests — the profit-driven disregard of the
law — made the spill an inevitability, not an accident.

Yet Big Oil tells us, as they plead to drill in the Arctic National
Wildlife Reserve, as Senator John McCain calls for drilling off the
shores of the Lower 48, it can’t happen again. They promise.

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