The Alaska court of appeals overturns the conviction of Joseph Hazelwood, the former captain of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez. Hazelwood, who was found guilty of negligence for his role in the massive oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, successfully argued that he was entitled to immunity from prosecution because he had reported the oil spill to authorities 20 minutes after the ship ran aground.
The Exxon Valdez accident on the Alaskan coast was one of the largest environmental disasters in American history and resulted in the deaths of 250,000 sea birds, thousands of sea otters and seals, hundreds of bald eagles and countless salmon and herring eggs. The ship, 1,000 feet long and carrying 1.3 million barrels of oil, ran aground on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, after failing to return to the shipping lanes, which it had maneuvered out of to avoid icebergs. It later came to light that several officers, including Captain Hazelwood, had been drinking at a bar the night the Exxon Valdez left port. However, there wasn’t enough evidence to support the notion that alcohol impairment had been responsible for the oil spill. Rather, poor weather conditions and preparation, combined with several incompetent maneuvers by the men steering the tanker, were deemed responsible for the disaster. Captain Hazelwood, who had prior drunk driving arrests, had a spotless record as a tanker captain before the Valdez accident.
Exxon compounded the environmental problems caused by the spill by not beginning the cleanup effort right away. In 1991, a civil suit resulted in a billion-dollar judgment against them. However, years later, while their appeal remained backlogged in the court system, Exxon still hadn’t paid the damages.
The Exxon Valdez was repaired and had a series of different owners before being bought by a Hong Kong-based company, which renamed it the Dong Fang Ocean. It once again made headlines in November 2010 when it collided with another cargo ship off of China.