Hazelwood offers 'heartfelt apology' for oil spill

20TH ANNIVERSARY: Captain of Exxon Valdez included in book.

March 4, 2009 

Joe Hazelwood, captain of the doomed oil tanker Exxon Valdez, is offering "a very heartfelt apology" to Alaskans for the disastrous 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound.

The apology comes at the end of a new, 288-page book commemorating the 20th anniversary of the spill.

The book features 62 "personal stories" from people involved with the spill, from people aboard the tanker to Alaska politicians to cleanup workers to U.S. Coast Guard officers to reporters who covered one of the state's biggest stories.

The piece de resistance is an interview with Hazelwood, a largely reclusive figure since the shipwreck that sank his career as a tanker captain.

Sharon Bushell, a Homer writer known for collecting oral histories, traveled to New York City in February 2008 to record the Hazelwood interview after he agreed to take part in the book project, said Stan Jones, spokesman for the Valdez-based oil industry watchdog group that commissioned the book.

In "The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster," Hazelwood says he now works as an investigator and technical consultant with a maritime law firm in New York.

He doesn't say much about the actual grounding, which occurred just after midnight on March 24, 1989.

The day before, he begins, he and the chief engineer left the docked ship and went into the town of Valdez on some business. On Hazelwood's list was ordering some Easter flowers for his daughter.

"After lunch, we had a couple of drinks," Hazelwood says.

Following the wreck on Bligh Reef, several miles outside the port of Valdez, Hazelwood tells of how he refused to speak with National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

And how, after returning home to New York, he found his house mobbed with reporters.

And how, after a long court fight, he beat all but one criminal charge -- negligent discharge of oil. He would be sentenced to community service in Anchorage.

"I started off by picking up trash along the Anchorage roads," Hazelwood says. "That only lasted one day because the director of community services in Anchorage, as he put it, really didn't want me out on the street somewhere, tying up traffic with people ogling me in an orange jumpsuit."

Hazelwood seems to suggest he was wrongly blamed: "The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts, but that's not the sexy story and that's not the easy story," he says.

In the end, Hazelwood, now in his 60s, says he felt Alaskans always "gave me a fair shake."

"I was the captain of a ship that ran aground and caused a horrendous amount of damage. I've got to be responsible for that," he says.

"I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of."

Hazelwood's story is just one of the book's many colorful accounts about the nearly 11-million-gallon spill and its continuing aftermath.

Otto Harrison, who was Exxon's cleanup manager, tells of the "bad publicity" the company received from putting people to work swabbing oil off rocks with rags.

He explains that was only a way of keeping workers out of bars and out of trouble until a flotilla of landing craft could be equipped for the cleanup.

"We had a little run-in that involved Sen. Ted Stevens," Harrison continues. The village of Chenega Bay asked for food supplies, including Spam, so the village got Spam. Later, Harrison says, Stevens "chewed me out royally for furnishing Spam to the Natives, saying it was an insult."

Tom Copeland, a former commercial fisherman out of Cordova, is one of several people who tell exasperating stories of trying to clean up the spill and deal with oil-covered wildlife.

"The most searing event in my life," he says, "was the two weeks right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill."

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, a congressionally mandated industry watchdog group formed after the spill, commissioned the book. It will sell for $17.95 through publisher Epicenter Press.


Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at adn.com/highliner or call 257-4590.

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