HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989



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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 04/01/89
Day: Saturday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

VALDEZ- Larry Dietrick was a frustrated man as he walked into the Valdez Coast Guard station Friday afternoon. He is state director of environmental quality, and oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez was making a mockery of his job title Friday.

In an impromptu huddle with a Coast Guard officer, Dietrick and Bill Lamoreaux, a regional supervisor for the DEC, said the state was going to start cleaning island beaches covered with thick, gooey North Slope crude.

"I don't know how we're going to do it, but we can't wait," Dietrick said. "We can get people out there and pick it up with buckets, pots, whatever. But we've got to get going. It's right there on the beach."

Later, outside the Coast Guard station, Dietrick tried very hard not to badmouth Exxon. But finally he shook his head.

"We just can't get a time line out of them," he said. "And we've got a lot of exposed shoreline, and there's just nothing happening.

"We aren't waiting anymore. Hey, you know how long we've been here. What day is this?"

It was Day 8 of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and at least Day 71| 2 of failed attempts to contain and clean up the more than 10 million gallons of oil spilled March 24 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef about 25 miles southwest of here. The company is supposed to be spearheading clean up efforts because its their oil, dumped in the Sound when their tanker hit a wellcharted and wellmarked reef just after midnight, with an unqualified third mate at the helm and ship's captain Joseph Hazelwood in his cabin.

Federal investigators have since said Hazelwood was not sober enough to have legally been master of his vessel.

Exxon, which is legally responsible for cleaning up the mess, has flooded this small port town with an army of highlevel corporate officials, public relations people, lawyers, engineers and scientists. Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi has left his Houston, Texas, office empty for a week to be here. Exxon's top man in Alaska, Don Cornett, is also in Valdez. Both have been appearing regularly at daily press conferences that have been open to the general public. The public relations battle caused by the spill obviously has a high priority.

The general public has been showing up, too, along with worried fishermen, angry environmentalists, officials of other government agencies and the press. The press conferences, which have been broadcast on public radio throughout the state, were a combination of town meeting and press briefing. That combination produced a verbal minefield through which Exxon officials danced twice daily.

But as the week progressed, the meetings started to resemble other press conferences of another war: Highranking officials quoting statistics and citing skirmishes won; disbelieving listeners responding with questions based on things they've seen and stories they've heard from the front lines.

Friday there was a 1960sstyle protest.

Exxon holds the conferences at the Valdez Civic Center, a big, nearly new, building with a large, carpeted auditorium. The television cameras are set up about 10 feet from the portable stage and podium, rows of chairs behind them.

Until Friday, anybody could sit anywhere he wanted. But a rope appeared to cordon off the first four rows for reporters and photographers.

A few minutes after 11 a.m., Iarossi, Cornett, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company president George Nelson and Alice Berkner of the International Bird Rescue Center, filed on stage from the side. Until Friday, the speakers had walked in the front door, like everyone else.

Then Cornett, tall and crevassefaced, with a full head of silver hair, stood up. He began his spiel of statistics: 196 people on the Exxon Response Team, including 60 highlevel Exxon experts; 350 workers hired to clean up beaches; 200 boats to carry them; 12 oil skimmers to suck sheen off the water.

He went on: more than 28 million gallons pumped from the grounded tanker, being sucked up by 10 pumps at 12,000 barrels per hour and transferred to the the Exxon San Francisco.

The only figure he didn't have was the exact number of gallons of oil retrieved by the skimmers. The last estimate, between 200,000 and 250,000 gallons, had been given a day earlier.

Iarossi, shorter, with thinning black hair, was up next. He described the management structure: a cleanup committee, a cleanup methods committee, a logistics support committee, a waste disposal committee. Then his finale: a $10 million assistance fund, filled with Exxon money to buy immediate relief for anyone who can prove they need it.

Next, Berkner took the lectern and tried to satisfy reporters' demands for oiledbird numbers, which weren't really accurate yet.

Then a short, sandyhaired man named Jed Whittaker stood up behind the rope. Whittaker had driven down from Anchorage and had been hanging around Valdez all week trying to get a job on a cleanup crew. He was angry.

"This is a violation of our Constitutional rights," he screamed from the back of the auditorium. "You're separating us off like this. You people were supposed to be hiring and you're not. And now you say I can't even ask a question here by separating us like this."

At the same moment, Greenpeace's Alaska regional director, Cindy Lowry, walked to the door of the civic center lobby. Lowry, a small, thinframed woman with long, thin, dirtyblonde hair, was carrying a large, forest green backpack.

Acting Valdez police chief Joe Michaud stopped her at the door and asked her what was in the pack. Video cameras, not belonging to any reporters, were poised.

Lowry refused to show him the contents of the pack. Michaud asked her to leave. She walked forward. Michaud and another officer started to push her back. The cameras were rolling, and Lowry started screaming.

"What's in my bag?" she said. "Look, don't you touch me!"

"Cut her off," shouted another cop.

Inside the auditorium, Whittaker was still yelling. Cornett was shouting back, saying if the yelling didn't stop, he would end the press conference. A woman shouted from the auditorium door that the police were arresting a woman in the lobby. Reporters and photographers rushed to see, filling the narrow lobby. In the auditorium, Whittaker kept yelling.

Cornett dropped his notes and motioned to the others on the stage. They left by a back door, chased by a throng of reporters.

The lobby scene settled, except for the crowds of other reporters queuing up for sound bites of Lowry giving her account of the police run in.

Later, Michaud said his department had gotten tips that a Greenpeace member would come to the press conference, "with an oiled bird or a sea otter or something and was going to throw it on the stage. We couldn't allow something like that to happen. That's why we asked to just look in her bag.

"I think we were set up, sure. It was a nowin situation. But what are you going to do?"

Lowry said she had only dirty laundry in the pack. She said she didn't know who would have spread the rumor about Greenpeace trying to disrupt the press conference.

Environmentalists working with Greenpeace had tipped Daily News reporters earlier that the birdthrowing stunt was planned.

The incident was consistent with the random, circuslike turn events have taken here, caused at least in part by local frustration at Exxon's slowness.

The oil Exxon spilled is still spread all over the Sound a 100squaremile sheen west of Naked Island, a 1,200squaremile slick in the middle of the Sound, heavy oil around Knight Island, Green Island and emerging in the Gulf of Alaska through the Hinchinbrook Entrance.

The spill is so large that a boat can start at one end, motor all day and still not reach the other end.

Yet, instead of making it easier for people to find out what's going on, Exxon has apparently made it harder. Boat skippers, helping to ferry cleanup crews, bird rescue crews and others, have been asked to sign a contract that restricts them from talking with the press.

The state is supposed to be in the decisionmaking loop, but it seems they are having nearly the same problems as everyone else.

"We don't see anything coming from Exxon," said state environmental director Dietrick, whose concern is cleaning the land. "I know, well, they seem to be trying. But we can't ever get an answer from them."

Daily News reporters David Postman and George Frost contributed to this story.

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