Birthday, Exxon Valdez
(Greg Palast brings us up to date. Oh, and I have I mentioned
lately what bastards the oil company's are? =mike=)
"Gail, Please! Stick your hand in
The petite Eskimo-Chugach woman gave
me that you-dumb-ass-white-boy look.
"Gail, Gail. STICK YOUR GODDAMN
HAND IN IT!"
She stuck it in, under the gravel of
the beach at Sleepy Bay, her village's
fishing ground. Gail's hand came up dripping
with black, sickening goo. It could make
you vomit. Oil from the Exxon Valdez.
It was already two years after the spill
and Exxon had crowed that Mother Nature
had happily cleaned up their stinking
oil mess for them. It was a lie. But
the media wouldn't question the bald-faced
bullshit. And who the hell was going
to investigate Exxon's claim way out
in some godforsaken Native village in
the Prince William Sound?
So I convinced the Natives to fly the
lazy-ass reporters out to Sleepy Bay
on rented float planes to see the oil
that Exxon said wasn't there.
The reporters looked, but didn't see
it, because it was three inches under
their feet, under the shingle rock of
the icy beach. Gail pulled out her hand
and now the whole place smelled like
a gas station. The network crews wanted
to puke. And now, with their eyes open,
they saw the oil, the vile feces-colored
smear across the glaciated ridge faces,
the poisonous "bathtub ring" that
ran for miles and miles at the high tide
And it's still there. Less for sure.
But twenty years later. IT'S STILL THERE,
GODDAMNIT. And I want YOU, dear reader,
to stick your hand in it. I want YOU,
President Obama, to stick your hand in
it before you blithely fulfill your Palin-esque
campaign promise for a little more offshore
Tuesday marks the 20th Anniversary of
the Exxon Valdez grounding and the smearing
of 1,200 miles of Alaska's coastline
with its oil.
It also marks the 20th Anniversary of
a lie. Lots of lies: catalogued in a
four-volume investigation of the disaster;
four volumes you'll never see. I wrote
that report, with my team of investigators
working with the Natives preparing fraud
and racketeering charges against Exxon.
You'll never see the report because Exxon
lawyers threatened the Natives, "Mention
the f-word [fraud] and you'll never get
a dime" of compensation to clean
up the villages. The Natives agreed to
drop the fraud charge -- and Exxon stiffed
them on the money. You're surprised,
Doubtless, for the 20th Anniversary of
the Great Spill, the media will schlep
out that old story that the tanker ran
aground because its captain was drunk
at the wheel. Bullshit.
Yes, the captain was "three sheets
to the wind" -- but sleeping it
off below-decks. The ship was in the
hands of the third mate who was driving
blind. That is, the Exxon Valdez' Raycas
radar system was turned off; turned off
because it was busted and had been busted
since its maiden voyage. Exxon didn't
want to spend the cash to fix it. So
the man at the helm, electronically blindfolded,
drove it up onto the reef.
So why the story of the drunken skipper?
Because it lets Exxon off the hook: Calling
it a case of "drunk driving" turns
the disaster into a case of human error,
not corporate penny-pinching greed.
Indeed, the "human error" tale
was the hook used by the Bush-stacked
Supreme Court to slash the punitive damages
awarded against Exxon by 90%, from $5
billion, to half a billion for 30,000
Natives and fishermen. Chief Justice
John Roberts erased almost all of the
payment due with the la-dee-dah comment, "What
more can a corporation do?"
Well, here's what they could have done:
Besides fix the radar, Exxon could have
set out equipment to contain the spill.
Containing a spill is actually quite
simple. Stick a rubber skirt around the
oil slick and suck it back up. The law
requires it and Exxon promised it.
So, when the tanker hit, where was the
rubber skirt and where was the sucker?
Answer: The rubber skirt, called "boom" --
was a fiction. Exxon promised to have
it sitting right there near the Native
village at Bligh Reef. The oil company
fulfilled that promised the cheap way:
And the lie was engineered at the very
top. After the spill, we got our hands
on a series of memos describing a secret
meeting of chief executives of Exxon
and its oil company partners, including
ARCO, a unit of British Petroleum. In
a meeting of these oil chieftains held
in April 1988, ten months before the
spill, Exxon rejected a plea from T.L.
Polasek, the Vice-President of its Alaska
shipping operations, to provide the oil
spill containment equipment required
by law. Polasek warned the CEOs it was "not
possible" to contain a spill in
the mid-Sound without the emergency set-up.
Exxon angrily vetoed ARCO's suggestion
that the oil companies supply the rubber
skirts and other materiel that would
have prevented the spill from spreading,
virtually eliminating the spill's damage.
Regulations state that no tanker may
leave the Alaska port of Valdez without
the "sucker" equipment, called
a "containment barge," at the
ready. Exxon signed off on the barge's
readiness. But, that night twenty years
ago, the barge was in dry-dock with its
pumps locked up under arctic ice. By
the time it arrived at the tanker, half
a day after the spill, the oil was well
along its thousand-mile killing path.
Natives watched as the now-unstoppable
oil overwhelmed their islands. Eyak Native
elder Henry Makarka saw an otter rip
out its own eyes burning from oil residue.
Henry, pointing down a waterside dead-zone,
told me, in a mix of Alutiiq and English, "If
I had a machine gun, I'd shoot every
one of those white sons-of-bitches."
Exxon promised -- promised -- to pay
the Natives and other fisherman for all
their losses. The Chief of the Natives
at Nanwalek lost his boat to bankruptcy.
His village, like other villages, Native
and non-Native, decayed into alcoholism.
The Mayor of fishing port Cordova killed
himself, citing Exxon in his suicide
On the island village of Chenega, Gail
Evanoff's uncle Paul Kompkoff was hungry.
Until the spill, he had lived on seal
meat, razor clams and salmon Chenegans
would catch, and on deer they hunted.
The clams and salmon were declared deadly
and the deer, not able to read the government
warning signs, ate the poisoned vegetation
The President of Exxon, Lee Raymond,
helicoptered into Chenega for a photo
op. He promised to compensate the Natives
and all fishermen for their losses, and
Exxon would thoroughly clean the beaches.
Uncle Paul told the Exxon chief of his
hunger. The oil company, sensing PR disaster,
shipped in seal meat to the isolated
village. The cans were marked, "NOT
FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION." Uncle
Paul said, "Zoo food."
Paul didn't want a seal in a can. He
wanted a boat to go fishing, to bring
the village back to life.
Two years after the spill, Otto Harrison,
General Manager of Exxon USA, told Evanoff
and me to forget about a fishing boat
for Uncle Paul. Exxon was immortal and
Natives were not. The company would litigate
for 20 years.
They did. Only now, two decades on, Exxon
has finally begun its payout of the court
award -- but only ten cents on the dollar.
And Uncle Paul's boat? No matter. Paul's
dead. So are a third of the fishermen
owed the money.
Lee Raymond, President of Exxon at the
time of the spill -- and its President
when the company made the secret decision
to do without oil spill equipment, retired
in April 2006. The company awarded him
a $400 million retirement bonus, more
than double the bonuses received by all
AIG executives combined.
Gail's oily hand never made it to national
television. The networks were distracted
with another oil story.
After sailing back to Chenega from Sleepy
Bay, I sat with Uncle Paul, watching
the smart bombs explode over Baghdad.
Gulf War I had begun.
Uncle Paul was silent a long time. The
generals on CNN pointed to the burning
oil fields near Basra. Paul said, "I
guess were all some kind of Native now."
Greg Palast investigated fraud and racketeering
claims for the Chugach Natives of Alaska. Now a journalist whose
on BBC Television Newsnight, Palast is the author of the New York
Times bestselling books The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed
Madhouse. Visit GregPalast.com for more.