Lessons Learned

by Drew Natterjack

The Yup’ik saw this. They saw thousands of sea otters die. They saw hundreds of thousands of seabirds die. They saw billions of salmon and herring die. This wasn’t a dream. It was a very real nightmare. You may have heard of it. It was called the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Lessons LearnedIt all began on 24th March 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounded on a reef in Prince William Sound, 40 miles off the Alaskan coast. It spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea that contaminated about 1,300 miles of coastline. But for the Yup’ik, and other southern Alaskans, the nightmare was just beginning.

“We had suicides, domestic violence, child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, divorces, and we lost people in the community who went elsewhere,” said Patience Andersen Faulkner, a Yup’ik from the Chugach people, on a recent visit to Louisiana coastal communities. J. Steven Picou, Professor of Sociology at the University of South Alabama, who has researched the community impacts of disasters for 30 years, supports these findings. He says, “These empirical findings are consistent with smaller studies of survivors of Three-Mile Island, Bhopal and Chernobyl.” But this was the Exxon Valdez oil spill, so BP had nothing to do with it, right?

Well actually, no, BP were in it up to their necks. They were in charge of the botched response to the spill. They are the major player in the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. who control oil production in Alaska. Exxon, despite having its name on the ship, was a junior partner. Captain James Woodle, then the Alyeska’s Valdez port commander, states that four years before the disaster he reported the following to BP’s Alaska chief, George Nelson: “Due to a reduction in manning, age of equipment, limited training and lack of personnel, serious doubt exists that [we] would be able to contain and clean up effectively a medium- or large-size oil spill.”

BP sought to bury this report and blackmail its author. As investigative journalist Greg Palast reported, “Alyeska showed Captain Woodle a file of his marital infidelities (all bogus). It then offered him payouts on condition that he leave the state within days, promising never to return.” Palast adds, “Charles Hamel of Washington DC, shaken by evidence he received from Alyeska employees, warn[ed] BP executives in London about scandalous goings-on at Valdez.” BP thanked him. “Then a secret campaign was launched to hound him out of the industry. A CIA expert was hired to wiretap Hamel’s phone lines, smuggle microphones into his home, intercept his mail and try to entrap him with young women. The industrial espionage caper was personally ordered and controlled by BP executive James Hermiller, President of Alyeska. A US Federal Judge later told Alyeska this conduct was ‘reminiscent of Nazi Germany’.”

Only last year, 20 years after the oil spill, did Exxon pay up. They have spent this time battling Alaskan coastal communities over damages. Damages were initially set by the court at $5 billion. Exxon have managed to get this slashed by 90% to half a billion dollars for 30,000 Natives and fishermen. There is still oil on Alaskan beaches. The fishing industry still hasn’t recovered. Cleanup workers’ health is still affected. BP got away with paying a pittance.

But don’t worry, BP learned its lesson from the Exxon Valdez. Not lessons about safety or environmental protection of course; BP has had a string of accidents, leaks and near misses over the last few years. In late May 2010 it spilled over 100,000 gallons of oil from its Alaska pipeline operation. This happened, according to state investigators, because, “procedures weren’t properly implemented.” Does this sound familiar? They did, however, learn lessons about oiling the wheels of power in their favor. In 2009 they spent $16 million on federal lobbying, with Louisiana’s Senator Mary Landrieu being the top congressional recipient.

Why, given 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, did BP not put more time and money in to preparing for another leak? If the people of the Gulf Coast ask, I’m sure the Yup’ik would remind them of Tony Hayward’s words in 2009 when he said BP’s “primary purpose was to generate profit for our shareholders” and that “our primary purpose in life was not to save the world.”