Criminal charges were leveled after Exxon Valdez spill

Richard Mauer

Exxon faced criminal charges after its 1989 tanker spill in Alaska.

Just under a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a federal grand jury indicted Exxon and its shipping subsidiary on five criminal violations.

Two felony charges accused Exxon of allowing an incompetent crew to leave port. The others were misdemeanors, charging Exxon with killing waterfowl under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and discharging oil under the Clean Water Act and Refuse Act.

Exxon pleaded not guilty. U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said the company faced $600 million in fines.

But when the Justice Department unveiled a plea bargain on the eve of the second anniversary of the spill, Exxon agreed to pay only $100 million in fines and restitution.

U.S. District Judge Russel Holland said the fine was too low to punish Exxon and rejected the deal. A trial date was set. But the parties returned to Holland's courtroom Oct. 8, 1991, with the fine and restitution payment increased to $125 million. This time, Holland called Exxon a "good corporate citizen" and accepted the deal with Exxon's guilty plea.

The only person charged in the Exxon Valdez disaster was the ship's captain, Joe Hazelwood. The state accused him of criminal mischief, operating the Exxon Valdez while intoxicated, and reckless endangerment, all felonies, and a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil.

After a two-month trial, an Anchorage jury convicted him only on the misdemeanor. Hazelwood served his sentence -- 1,000 hours of community service and $50,000 in restitution -- picking up trash along Anchorage roadsides.

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