Joseph Hazelwood, captain of Exxon Valdez in 1989 Alaska spill, dies at 75


Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989, leaking 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in a massive environmental disaster that devastated marine habitats and prompted thorough investigations into the culprits, died on July 21. He was 75 years old.

The death was confirmed to The Washington Post on September 10 by a family associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity to respect the wishes of Mr Hazelwood’s widow, Suzanne Hazelwood, not to comment to the media. The New York Times quoted a nephew, Sam Hazelwood, as confirming the death.

No other details of the death were given, including date and place. Mr Hazelwood lived on Long Island in Huntington, NY The maritime website first reported his death on July 22, but gave no further information.

Other oil spills have exceeded the Exxon Valdez disaster in size – more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 from the damaged BP Deep Water Horizon platform – but the environmental damage along Alaska’s near-pristine coastline and inlets was near total in some places and fully exposed as one of the greatest environmental disasters in US history.

The vessel struck a reef less than two miles from shore amid ecosystems crucial to seabirds and marine life, including nearby salmon breeding grounds. According to the Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a federal state group that tracked the cleanup and aftermath, about 200 miles of coastline were “heavily or moderately stained” as the spill extended 1,300 miles.

A few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Coast Guard received a radio call from Mr. Hazelwood, who was not on the bridge when the vessel ran aground.

“Obviously we have an oil leak,” he said, “and we’re going to be here for quite a while.” For days, oil squirted from the single-hull vessel until the damage was sealed.

The animal population toll included up to 250,000 dead seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and 250 bald eagles, the board estimated. Coastal communities that depended on fishing were devastated – and decades later have yet to fully recover. Images of rescue teams cleaning up oil-soaked birds and shoveling slimy rocks off the beach have become rallying points for environmentalists and others calling for tougher controls on the oil industry.

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The disaster helped shape sweeping changes the following year to tighten the Environmental Protection Agency’s tanker regulations – including the phase-out of single-hull tankers like the Exxon Valdez – and boost the capacity of the EPA to respond to spills in US waters. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 hit the Exxon Valdez (pronounced Val-DEEZ) directly, banning from Prince William Sound any vessel that had “discharged more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989 “. This effectively blocked the ship from Alaskan waters.

“If a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez disaster had occurred off the east coast of the United States, the devastation would have spread from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay,” wrote Walter Parker. , head of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, in 1990.

Meanwhile, Mr Hazelwood faced court battles and became – with his full beard and fisherman cap – the face of disaster and questions about potential negligence, appearing in newspapers and magazines around the world . A cover of Time magazine from July 1989 featured an illustration of Mr. Hazelwood with the title: Fateful Voyage.

In In March 1990, Mr Hazelwood was acquitted of a criminal charge of operating a ship while intoxicated. He was, however, found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of negligent oil spillage, ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, including helping to clean up oil-stained beaches, and paid a fine of $5,000.

He never returned to service as a merchant seaman, but in 1992 he helped train students at his alma mater, Maritime College at the State University of New York in the Bronx, including standing watch course on the deck of a ship.

Mr Hazelwood was not on the Exxon Valdez deck when the 987ft vessel hit the reef, hours after starting a journey to Long Beach, California, with nearly 60 million gallons of crude from Prudhoe Bay. He had established a bypass route through Prince William Sound to avoid ice drift from a glacier.

Mr Hazelwood left the bridge at 11.50 p.m., handing it over to third mate Gregory Cousins. At 11:55 p.m., Cousins ​​phoned Hazelwood to say he was beginning the turn to the original route after clearing the ice, according to testimony and court records. The helmsman apparently did not turn fast enough to avoid collision with the reef.

“There was no reason to do what I did that night,” Cousins ​​said. “I shouldn’t have allowed myself to become inattentive.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in March 1990 that the third mate had “failed to handle the vessel properly due to fatigue and excessive workload”. Mr Hazelwood, according to the report, ‘did not provide proper boating supervision due to his alcohol impairment’. The Exxon Shipping Co., the NTSB added, “failed to provide a fit captain and a rested and sufficient crew.”

In an interview with an Alaska state trooper recorded hours after the ship ran aground, Mr Hazelwood said he drank a beer before leaving and a “bogus beer” once en route, a reference to an alcohol-free brand.

At the trial, jurors heard that tests showed Mr Hazelwood’s blood alcohol level was below the Alaskan legal limit for piloting a ship about 10 hours after the grounding. The prosecution argued the reading suggested he might have been legally intoxicated when the vessel hit the reef.

After the 1990s, Joseph Hazelwood leaves Alaska to return home

In 1991, a U.S. District Court in Anchorage accepted pleas of criminal liability from Exxon Corp. and Exxon Shipping Co., including a $100 million criminal fine, as part of a $1.1 billion settlement to settle criminal and civil charges. The vessel was transferred to SeaRiver Maritime Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, and renamed S/R Mediterranean. It was later sold to a Hong Kong-based haulage company and scrapped in 2012.

In 2014, Mr Hazelwood joined a CNN correspondent in a simulator to revisit the moments before the 1989 grounding. He said he changed the normal course through Prince William Sound after reports of ice floes from the glacier Columbia entering shipping lanes. Mr. Hazelwood said he advised the Coast Guard of the new bearings and they were acknowledged.

“No problem,” he said. “Two ships before me had done it.”

He handed the bridge over to the third mate, Cousins, with instructions to resume the normal route once clear of the ice. “I went down to my office,” he told CNN. “I had paperwork to fill out and wanted to check the latest weather forecast.”

“The turn has been started,” he added, “just started late”. The ship was unable to avoid Bligh Reef.

However, he could not explain what happened during those critical minutes. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sad to say I wasn’t there.”

Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood was born September 24, 1946, in Hawkinsville, Georgia, and later moved to Long Island when his father, a pilot for Pan American World Airways, took up a new base. Mr. Hazelwood earned a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation in 1968 from the Maritime College.

He rose through the maritime ranks and was a captain in the Exxon fleet in his early thirties. After the spill, he worked as a paralegal and maritime consultant for what is now Chalos & Co., an international law firm, which also represented him in his legal cases.

Survivors include Mr. Hazelwood’s wife, Suzanne; daughter Alison; a brother, Joshua, and two grandsons.

“I would like to apologize, a very sincere apology, to the people of Alaska,” Mr. Hazelwood said in an interview for the 2009 book “The Spill: Personal Stories From the Exxon Valdez Disaster.” But he remained on the defensive, saying he had been unfairly vilified even though “the real story is there for anyone who wants to look at the facts”.

Mr. Hazelwood harbored a smoldering resentment. In a 1997 interview with Outside magazine, he showed a framed collage of newspaper and magazine clippings from the cover. “Drunk at sea,” one headline read. “The rise and fall of Skipper,” said another.

“Which court should I go to to recover my reputation? ” he said.


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