Over the spring, summer and fall of 1989, news coverage of the Exxon Valdez disaster overshadowed virtually all other other events in Alaska. Many of the names from that period became household words, and a few were media stars. Five years later, most of them have returned to private life and relative obscurity. Here are 17 people and one infamous ship who played prominent roles in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The Exxon Valdez
WHAT IT DID: On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, with more than 50 million gallons of North Slope crude on board, shuddered as it steamed through the shallows of Bligh Reef. It jerked to a halt, impaled on a spire of rock, as the first of some 11 million gallons of oil began boiling from its hull.
WHERE IT IS TODAY: With the name "Exxon Valdez" firmly etched in the public mind as a symbol of environmental disaster, Exxon sought to rehabilitate the ship's image by changing its name to "Exxon Mediterranean" and banishing it to oil hauling far from the United States, in the Mediterranean. Last year, Exxon Shipping, the subsidiary that owned the ship, changed its corporate name to the more mellifluous and organic "Sea|River Maritime," so the Exxon Valdez is now the "Sea|River Mediterranean." Last month, it crept back to North America for the first time since the spill, where protesters from Greenpeace discovered it at anchor in Freeport, Bahamas, and painted its old name on its hull. In nontoxic paint, they claimed. At the moment, the ship that became history on Bligh Reef is tankering oil back in Europe, said Les Rogers, a Sea|River spokesman.
WHAT HE DID: Samuel Skinner was U.S. Transportation Secretary when the Exxon Valdez went aground. That made him the boss of the Coast Guard. Apart from cameo appearances by Vice President Dan Quayle, Skinner was the highest- ranking federal official to monitor the spill and the cleanup.
WHERE HE IS NOW: He later became President George Bush's chief of staff. Soon after Bush left office, Skinner was hired as president of Commonwealth Edison, an electric company serving Chicago and northern Illinois.
WHAT HE SAYS: When the state and environmental groups were criticizing Exxon's beach-cleaning and oil-skimming efforts, Skinner defended the company, saying it had done all it could. Looking back, Skinner said he remains convinced of that. "I still believe that we were very fortunate it was Exxon that was the spiller. They were willing to step up to the plate and spend several billion dollars." He said he thought the spill had resulted in better control of tanker traffic, better spill-response plans and a better understanding of oil in the environment.
WHAT HE DID: As Alaska governor from 1986-1990, he played a high-profile role in the state's response to
the spill. On the morning of March 24, 1989, before even hearing about the spill, Cowper announced to a Fairbanks newspaper that he would not seek re- election in 1990. A few hours later, he flew to Valdez and motored out to the stricken ship, climbing a dangling ladder to reach the deck. What he saw so angered him that nine days later, he threatened to shut down the pipeline and forgo millions of dollars in state revenue if Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and its oil company owners couldn't come up with a workable plan for cleaning up spills.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Despite gaining nationwide prominence, Cowper stuck to his decision to leave politics. He spent some time in California, then returned to Anchorage in 1992, where he works as a business consultant.
WHAT HE SAYS: The spill left Alaska and the oil industry with a "permanent burden of proof" that oil and gas can be developed without jeopardizing the environment. But he also says the spill belongs to history now. "There's been a fixation on the Exxon Valdez. To me, it's time to move away from that. . . . It's time to declare our lessons learned."
WHO HE WAS: Michael Tumey was a volunteer firefighter from Girdwood who became one of the most visible protesters in the months following the spill. In April 1989, he climbed down the side of the Calais II building in Midtown, where Exxon had its offices, and draped a huge sign on the side of the building: "Oil Spilled, Exxon Killed, Remember the Sound!" In October, he interrupted an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce meeting where Exxon USA President William Stevens was scheduled to speak. Standing up with a blackened Sesame Street Big Bird that looked like a large, oiled bird, Tumey said "Mr. Stevens, I have a bird I don't believe you counted on."
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Tumey still lives in Girdwood, where he is a self- employed construction worker and a volunteer firefighter. He remains interested in oil-spill prevention, but now concentrates on issues like ozone depletion and pesticide use. His last major involvement in the oil-spill issue was lobbying Congress to require double hulls on tankers.
WHAT HE SAYS: Oil companies are better prepared for a spill than they were five years ago. "I think more and more the oil industry realizes it's only good public relations nowadays to walk their talk and to protect the environment." But unless the public and the press remain vigilant, the industry will once again "try to save a dollar instead of putting it into prevention." His remaining image of the spill is how people came together to protest and to clean up.
WHAT HE DID: As a special assistant to Gov. Steve Cowper at the time of the oil spill, Ernie Piper became the governor's chief spokesman on spill matters. Straight-talking and quotable, Piper was a frequent critic of the early cleanup effort led by Exxon and the U.S. Coast Guard. In September 1990, Piper was named "on-scene coordinator" for the spill, but news reports generally referred to him as the state's "cleanup chief." Although his credentials were solidly Democratic, Gov. Wally Hickel, Republican turned Alaskan Independence Party standard-bearer, asked Piper to stay on, citing his advocacy for the state's interests. Piper also served on the Department of Environmental Conservation restoration team, wrote a history of the spill for DEC and, last summer, ran a shoreline survey for the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Piper is serving as campaign manager to former Anchorage mayor Tony Knowles' gubernatorial bid.
WHAT HE SAYS: "The thing that stands out most for me is the fact that, not just in government but also in industry and the general public, there are some fundamental misunderstandings about science and about technology and about the environment. Science and technology cannot do everything that people think they can do, and at the same time the environment can be more resilient and more complex than we like to think."
WHAT HE DID: A disgruntled oil broker and investor in North Slope leases, Chuck Hamel became the biggest
critic of the Alaska oil industry. Four years before the March 1989 spill, Hamel had warned that Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and its oil-company owners were systematically dismantling the spill-response program to cut costs. After the spill, Hamel was in Valdez working with commercial fishermen and helping arrange for congressional hearings. Hamel later became a conduit for Alyeska whistle-blowers reporting persistent problems along the pipeline. His criticism of the oil industry made him the target of a 1990 spy investigation by Alyeska and the Wackenhut Corp. Hamel settled a damage lawsuit against the two companies last December for an undisclosed sum.
WHERE IS HE TODAY: After the settlement of his lawsuit, Hamel has virtually stopped his self-created role as the Alaska oil industry's biggest and most effective critic, as he was once described by a House committee that investigated the spill and the spy operation. Operating out of his home in Alexandria, Va., Hamel is now pursuing a variety of business opportunities and he said he may get back into the oil transportation business.
WHAT HE SAYS: Alyeska and its owner companies "dismantled the spill- response system because of greed. The spill demonstrated that cutting corners hurts everybody."
Cmdr. Steven McCall
WHAT HE DID: As the federal on-scene coordinator and captain of the Port of Valdez, he was the point man
who tried to keep the federal, state and oil industry groups working together to clean up the spill. This put him in the middle of fierce infighting that broke out between different agencies and between agencies and Exxon over how to proceed with the cleanup.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: McCall has retired from the Coast Guard and is working with Maritime Overseas Corp., a tanker operator, as manager of environmental affairs. Maritime operates tankers under charter to British Petroleum, including some that ply the Alaska trade. McCall's job is to develop oil pollution contingency plans that meet federal requirements developed in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill.
WHAT HE SAYS: The spill came in McCall's fourth and final year in Valdez, an unusually long tour of duty for a Coast Guard officer and one that he did not expect. "By all rights I shouldn't have been anywhere near Valdez on March 24. . . . But being there that long helped me because I knew all the people and who I could rely on and who I couldn't rely on, and who was twisting the truth and who was talking on both sides of their mouth."
WHAT HE DID: As Alaska's commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Dennis Kelso was the
state's chief oil regulator at the time of the spill and the cleanup that followed. Quotable and telegenic, he became the state's chief spokesman and a major oil company critic. In one East Coast press conference, he called Alyeska Pipeline's cleanup plan "the biggest piece of American maritime fiction since Moby Dick."
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Now enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, studying energy and resources. He returns to Alaska during the summer and works as a consultant and occasional wilderness guide.
WHAT HE SAYS: The people of Prince William Sound "experienced the Exxon Valdez spill as a direct and frightening threat to their whole way of life, but they never gave up. . . . They believe there are still adverse effects of the spill, on salmon returns, physical lesions on herring, anomalies with salmon behavior." On learning the Alaska Legislature is considering a bill to cut back on tax collections for its oil-spill response fund, Kelso said, "Five years out of the box, are we already forgetting that the time to prepare for a spill is before there is one?"
WHAT SHE DID: As an established resident of Cordova and a commercial fisherman with advanced
degrees in marine pollution, Riki Ott was well-known around Prince William Sound before March 24, 1989. But she leaped into prominence on a much broader stage during the press conferences that followed the oil spill, asking tough, technical questions about oil-spill cleanup plans, particularly those involving chemical dispersants. She later helped form the Oil Reform Alliance, which brought environmentalists and commercial fishermen together to work.
WHERE SHE IS TODAY: Ott says she is still doing the same work. She is reviewing, questioning, interpreting and commenting on the government's and Exxon's scientific findings. She has done some consulting work for Greenpeace. She is doing volunteer work for Alaska Clean Water Alliance and is habitat chairman of the United Fishermen of Alaska. She is also a fiber artist whose work focuses on marine ecology themes. The Oil Reform Alliance she helped form was dissolved earlier this month, but has been replaced by other grass-root groups made up of commercial fishermen and environmentalists, Ott said.
WHAT SHE SAYS: "The tragedy now is the incredible manipulation by Exxon to make us think that the spill is not as bad as we think," Ott said. Without the spill, she added, "I wouldn't be who I am today. They (Exxon) created me."
WHAT HE DID: Don Cornett was Exxon's manager of Alaska operations and was one of those on the front line of the press conferences and company public relations efforts. With his rich drawl, he fielded thousands of tough questions about the slow progress of the spill cleanup.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: After the spill he was promoted and returned to Exxon Co. USA headquarters in Houston. He is now Exxon's manager of public relations. An Exxon spokesman said Cornett couldn't talk about the spill because of pending litigation.
Adm. Paul Yost
WHAT HE DID: Adm. Paul Yost, the national commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, was President
Bush's man on the scene in Prince William Sound a month after the spill. Stung by criticism that the federal government wasn't doing enough, Bush dispatched Yost, a gruff-talking, take-charge guy. In Valdez, Yost fended off suggestions that the Coast Guard take over the spill response, saying that would absolve Exxon of liability. He forced Exxon to come up with a much- delayed beach cleanup plan, but some of his other pronouncements, such as a swift decision that beaches should be cleaned with hot-water spray, were shelved as the jockeying over who should do what continued. The following year, in May 1990, he retired.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Yost is president of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, a federally funded agency in Washington, D.C., that awards student fellowships to high school social science and history teachers. Funded with a $20 million endowment from Congress, the agency's aim is to increase teachers' understanding of the Constitution.
WHAT HE DID: The man at the helm when the tanker failed to negotiate a simple turn and ran aground, Robert Kagan testified at Joseph Hazelwood's trial that the tanker captain had told him later that night he had done "a hell of a job." Third Mate Gregory Cousins testified that what Hazelwood actually said was, "Damn fine job, Bob." Cousins said he interpreted the remark as an attempt at black humor.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: According to an Exxon spokeswoman, Kagan continues to work for Sea|River Maritime Inc., the new name for Exxon Shipping Corp. The spokeswoman declined to say where and in what capacity Kagan is employed.
WHAT HE DID: A Cordova marine biologist, he helped organize fisherman to protect three fish hatcheries in the hectic days following the spill and became a
leading spokesman for local interests. Later, he came up with the idea to use Exxon settlement funds to conserve forests in Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park and Kachemak Bay by buying out loggers.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: He is still working for the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program, and still devoted to oil-spill issues, particularly tanker safety. He helped organize a conference in Anchorage this week marking the five-year anniversary.
WHAT HE SAYS: "We know that oil, fish and wildlife don't mix," Steiner says. "We know that oil is harmful. We know we can't fix what we've done. . . . That says to me that at least 90 percent of our effort should be prevention" of oil spills. Tanker safety has been improved in Prince William Sound, he said, but there are still improvements to be made here and around the world.
WHAT HE DID: Dan Lawn, the state regulator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation,
had warned that Alyeska was unprepared for a big spill long before the Exxon Valdez ran aground. On March 24, 1989, he was the first DEC official to reach the stricken Exxon Valdez. Later, in a BBC-Home Box Office docudrama, he was portrayed as one of the few heroes in the spill.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Lawn still works for the DEC in Valdez, but was stripped of his oil-industry watchdog duties in August 1989. In January 1992, an independent arbitrator ruled that Lawn should not have been demoted, but the DEC has kept him in a job overseeing sewage and drinking water systems. Lawn is suing to get his old job back.
WHAT HE DID: As president of Exxon Shipping Co., the subsidiary that operated the tanker, Iarossi flew from Houston to Valdez the morning of the grounding. He was the top and most visible Exxon official in Alaska during the spill's early days, appearing at a series of noisy Valdez press conferences. Early on, he admitted the oil had slipped beyond Exxon's control, despite years of industry assurances that it could handle a major spill. He also acknowledged that Joe Hazelwood, the captain of the grounded tanker, had a history of drinking known to the company. He received praise from some Prince William Sound fishermen for his willingness to work with them during in the spill's early days.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Iarossi left Exxon about a year after the spill to become chairman and chief executive of the American Bureau of Shipping, a nonprofit corporation that inspects and classifies ships to make sure they are seaworthy. Both Iarossi and Exxon have maintained his leaving the company had nothing to do with the Exxon Valdez. Iarossi splits his time between Houston and New York.
WHAT HE SAYS: Iarossi is traveling in Asia and could not be contacted; Publicly he has had little to say about the oil spill. But in an interview last year with the Houston Post, Iarossi said his top priority was fulfilling the shipping bureau's mission of promoting safety at sea. An aging fleet, he said, means substandard vessels must be identified and upgraded or removed from service. "I think I understand the consequences of an unsafe ship like very few people in the world do," he said. "If I let myself, I could become a crusader."
WHAT HE DID: The skipper of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood ordered the tanker to shift position to dodge icebergs, then left the bridge. With Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge, the tanker failed to make a second turn and ran aground on Bligh Reef. Hazelwood was acquitted of three charges, including operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol, and convicted of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor. The conviction was overturned by the Alaska Court of Appeals, but the Alaska Supreme Court last December directed the lower appellate court to reconsider.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Since the spill, Hazelwood has worked as an oysterman in Long Island Sound, an instructor at the State University of New York Maritime College and, presently, as a maritime consultant for the New York law firm of his defense attorney, Michael Chalos. Hazelwood, who has an unlisted telephone number, did not return messages left with his parents and with the law firm, Chalos and Brown.
WHAT HE DID: As third mate on the Exxon Valdez, Greg Cousins was in charge on the bridge when the ship hit Bligh Reef five years ago. In October 1989, he pleaded no contest to civil charges of failing to navigate the tanker properly. A Coast Guard judge suspended his license for nine months.
WHERE HE IS TODAY: Cousins is no longer with Exxon. As of six months ago, he was working on a freighter, according to his Anchorage attorney, Bob Richmond. "The last I heard, he was sailing from Portugal to South Africa," Richmond said. "I couldn't tell you much more than that." Cousins may be back in the spotlight soon, however. He is one of the defendants in a civil lawsuit stemming from the spill. It is scheduled for trial in Anchorage federal court in May.
Ernie Piper checks a map while looking for a test pit from an earlier oil- spill survey on Seal Island last summer. He led a team of researchers who evaluated cleanup progress.
Greg Cousins testifies in court.
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