The Exxon Valdez caused the greatest oil spill in U.S. history and one of the largest world ecological disasters.
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, en route from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles, California, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
The vessel was traveling outside normal shipping lanes in an attempt to avoid ice. Within six hours of the accident, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons of its 53 million gallon cargo of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. Eight of the eleven tanks on board were damaged. The oil would eventually impact over 1,200 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making the Exxon Valdez the largest oil spill to date in U.S. waters.
For the record, the oil spill ruined 1,200 miles of Alaskan shoreline and killed hundreds and thousands of animals which were indigenous to the region. This oil spill reflected what many people felt was a severe environmental insult to a relatively pristine, ecologically important area that was home to many species of wildlife endangered elsewhere. Even today, scientists continue to study the affected shorelines to understand how an ecosystem like Prince William Sound responds to, and recovers from, an incident like the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Who was responsible for this calamity? The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and determined five probable causes of the grounding:
- The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload.
- The master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol.
- Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez.
- The U.S. Coast Guard failed to provide an effective vessel traffic system.
- Effective pilot and escort services were lacking.
In 1994 a jury in Anchorage, Alaska awarded the victims of the incident $5 billion in punitive damages. In 2006, a federal appeals court cut that verdict in half. Following the court ruling, Exxon Mobil Corp. made a series of court appeals and the amount to be paid in damages has since been drastically cut.
On June 25, 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court decided to cut the punitive damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to $507.5 million. That translates to an average of $15,000 per victim. There are more than 33,000 victims of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The Supreme Court’s decision to reduce an amount equivalent to about four days worth of Exxon Mobil’s last quarter profits was hailed by the business community and decried by environmentalists and Alaskans. First-quarter profits at Exxon Mobil were $10.9 billion. The company’s 2007 profit was $40.7 billion.
“This turns America’s resources to the oil industry and only the U.S. Congress can do something about it,” said Jim Ayers, vice president of the advocacy group Oceana. “If the Congress doesn’t act, this means that America’s resources, including our marine life, are now in serious jeopardy and can be bought and destroyed for a mere pittance.”
Exxon Mobil maintained that many studies found the area healthy and thriving, countering findings of continuing damage. The company, which posted a $40.7 billion profit last year, had said punitive damages would be excessive punishment on top of the $3.4 billion in cleanup costs, compensatory payments and fines it already has paid.
Now, it turns out that $2.5 billion is too much for a company which made a profit of $40.7 billion in 2007 alone! Is it really so “unconstitutional” to ask Exxon Mobile to pay punitive damages which equates to a measly 6.1 percent of their annual profit? Is it cruel and unusual punishment to ask them to pay adequate punitive damages for a major accident which was their own fault? (Please look back at the probable causes of the accident.)
It’s really sad to witness how powerful oil conglomerates destroy the environment in many parts of the world to satisfy their insatiable greed and get away with murder.
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