“We have a tanker on the rocks and oil in the water. You’d better get in here.”

The midnight call was from the chief environmental officer at Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and it came 31 years ago this Tuesday. At the time I was in charge of media relations for the pipeline company,

My wife and I were spending the weekend at our skiing condo at Alyeska Resort. I set a new land-speed record for the drive into Anchorage and, fortunately, traffic was light and no police officers saw me go by.

It was several hours after midnight when I pulled into the company’s parking lot on Bragaw and began a nightmare operation of gathering information about the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and forwarding it to media people working the graveyard shift.

The ship had been leaving the pipeline terminal in Valdez with a full cargo of North Slope crude oil. I had been working on and off for the industry for about 15 years and spent many hours countering public worries about massive oil-spills. Considering the many precautions I knew the companies took, I was convinced that a catastrophic spill was very unlikely. But this time the worst seemed to be happening.

Sometime around 6 a.m. I headed for Anchorage International Airport and joined two environmental experts waiting for a charter that would take us to Valdez. When we cleared the Chugach Mountains we headed across the spread of ocean where Valdez Arm becomes Prince William Sound.

As I craned my neck to get a view of the water below, the co-pilot came back to the passenger section and told me: “The captain says you better come up and see what’s happening. Take my seat.”

As a great feeling of dread settled over me I made my way forward and slipped into the co-pilot’s position. Ahead in the water below sat a huge tanker sitting motionless with a spreading dark mass in the water around it.

The captain told me he was going to measure the size of the spill as he flew over the ship and turned southeast over Prince William Sound. I didn’t have much perspective on the distance but after a few minutes the pilot said: “It’s about five miles long right now.” It was also perhaps two hundred yards wide. I could tell by the captain’s voice that he knew it would get much larger.

We turned northeast toward Valdez Airport and I wandered back to my seat. The worst environmental disaster in Alaska’s history was just beginning.

The Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989. The ensuing oil spill spread across the waters of Prince William Sound with devastating impact and created problems that persisted for years.

Much has been written about the disaster and not all of it was true or fairly presented. One of the complications was that the tanker captain, Joseph Hazelwood, had been drinking in a Valdez tavern before the ship sailed. But Hazelwood knew his career would be in jeopardy if he took command of his vessel after drinking. So upon boarding he went to bed.

The problem was that he left control of the ship in the hands of two somewhat inexperienced officers. As they sailed out of Valdez Arm one of them spotted a large piece of ice in the channel ahead. It had been spawned by a nearby glacier. They took appropriate action by turning out of the channel to avoid the ice, but they misjudged how far they should move out of the channel and ran aground on a reef waiting unseen below the water.

The resulting spill involved 11 million gallons of oil that spread across the area’s coastline, killing thousands of creatures and causing a physical and mental nightmare that tortured Alaskans for years.

Exxon is one of the world’s great companies. I have worked with them often over the years and know that they strive to be good at what they do and to protect the environment in which they operate. The disaster did terrible damage to the company’s reputation and ruined some careers.

Captain Hazelwood’s reputation was virtually destroyed by the Exxon Valdez incident. Because he was not at the wheel, a charge of being intoxicated while commanding a vessel was discharged. But he was responsible for what happened so he was convicted of a misdemeanor, negligent discharge of oil. Hazelwood was fined $50,000 and required to do 1,000 hours of community service.

Many important changes have been made in the way things are done at the pipeline terminal and on the vessels that operate there. One of the most important is a system of tanker escorts involving vessels that can guide them past potential problems and deal with maritime problems like loss of control.

You can never eliminate all risk from such operations, but those who run and work at the many companies involved are doing everything they can to make sure nothing like the Exxon Valdez disaster ever happens again.

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