Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the doomed oil tanker Exxon Valdez that ran aground more than three decades ago in Alaska, causing one of the worst oil spills in US history, has died aged 75.
Hazelwood, whose death in July was not publicly announced at the time, had battled COVID-19 and cancer, her nephew Sam Hazelwood told The New York Times. Family members and associates of Hazelwood did not respond to comments.
The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska at 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the fishing-rich waters of Prince William Sound . Currents and storms carried the crude oil more than 1,200 miles off the Alaskan coast.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates the spill killed a quarter of a million seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales and billions of eggs of fish. It took years for fish numbers to rebound after the spill, and oil can still be found below the surface at some beaches in Prince William Sound.
The grounding, along with other oil spills in 1989 and 1990, led to the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which strengthened how the US government responds to oil spills. The Exxon Valdez was surpassed as the nation’s worst oil spill when Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, releasing 168 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
An Anchorage jury awarded nearly 33,000 plaintiffs affected by the Alaska spill $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994, but that amount was halved by other courts on appeal by Exxon . In 2008, the United States Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages to $507.5 million.
Hazelwood, who prosecutors accused of being drunk when the tanker ran aground, was the only crew member charged after the spill. He had left a third mate in command of the ship while he went down to do some paperwork. Hazelwood was charged with a felony, criminal mischief and three misdemeanors: reckless endangerment, driving a vessel while intoxicated and careless discharge of oil.
During his trial in Anchorage in 1990, witnesses reported that he drank vodka at a Valdez bar before the ship sailed, but how much he drank and at what time was in dispute. No witnesses described Hazelwood as appearing drunk, staggering or slurring his words. Crew members called him cool, calm and in control before and after the grounding, according to Associated Press coverage of the trial.
His blood alcohol level was 0.061, but he was not tested until around 10.5 hours after the tanker ran aground. In most states, the legal limit is 0.08%.
The jury ultimately found Hazelwood guilty of careless discharge of oil into state waters and acquitted him of the other counts. He was ordered to do 1,000 hours of community service and ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution.
During his sentencing, then Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone said he was disappointed that Hazelwood had not publicly apologized for his role in the disaster.
“I’m sure deep down he’s very ashamed,” Johnstone said.
In June 1999, Hazelwood, of Huntington, NY, spoke to The New York Times as he prepared to leave for Anchorage to complete his community service.
“As captain of the ship, I accept responsibility for the ship and the actions of my subordinates,” he told the newspaper. “I never tried to avoid that. I am not an idiot without remorse.
He then noted that he had been convicted of a misdemeanor. “There is no lower crime in the state of Alaska. The judge had to impose a sentence. I can understand it. I don’t have to be okay with that,” Hazelwood told the newspaper.
However, a decade later he published the apology Judge Johnstone wanted to hear.
Hazelwood assumed responsibility for The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster, by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones.
“From time to time people have called me a scapegoat, but I’ve never felt comfortable with that term when applied to me in relation to the oil spill,” he said. he declares. “I was captain of a ship that ran aground and caused an appalling amount of damage. I have to be responsible for this. There’s no getting around it.
After the spill, he worked at a New York law firm as a paralegal and was also an instructor at a maritime college.
Hazelwood is survived by his wife, Suzanne; one daughter, Alison; two grandsons and a brother, Joshua.