Exxon Corp. and its shipping subsidiary pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday to criminal charges stemming from the nation's worst oil spill.
Exxon Corp. and the Exxon Shipping Co. each were charged with operating the Exxon Valdez with a "physically and mentally" incapable crew on March 24, 1989, when it left the shipping channel in Prince William Sound and ran aground on Bligh Reef, a charted navigation hazard.
The government charged that at least 36,000 migratory birds and 100 eagles were killed by the 11 million gallons of North Slope crude that spilled from the ruptured tanker. Biologists have estimated that the corpses held as evidence in the government's freezer vans represent 15 to 50 percent of the actual mortality, though Exxon has disputed those figures.
Exxon and Exxon Shipping Co. were charged with two felonies under federal maritime law for the alleged incompetent crew. They face a misdemeanor count for violations of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and two misdemeanors for discharging the oil under the U.S. Clean Water Act and Refuse Act.
At the arraignment Monday, U.S. Magistrate John Roberts noted for the record that as corporations, Exxon and its subsidiary are not entitled to the same Fifth Amendment rights against selfincrimination as a person, which means the government can subpoena company records.
Outside the courtroom, Exxon Shipping Co. lawyer James Neal, of Nashville, Tenn., said the government's charges were a "novel" application of federal law. He said criminal charges were inappropriate under the circumstances.
"We recognize this was a tragic accident, but we didn't intend to spill any oil," Neal said.
When he announced the indictment in Washington on Feb. 27, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said Exxon could face fines of at least $600 million if convicted. A judge could also order Exxon to pay full restitution to the victims of the spill.
More than 1,000 miles of shore were tainted by the oil spill. In addition to the bird deaths, thousands of sea otters were believed to have been killed.
Exxon said it has spent $2 billion in the cleanup so far, and paid an additional $200 million in claims. The company is the defendant in some 170 lawsuits filed to recover additional damages.
The only individual to be charged as a result of the disaster was the skipper of the Exxon Valdez, Capt. Joseph Hazelwood. Last month, an Anchorage jury convicted Hazelwood of negligently discharging oil, but acquitted him of more serious charges of criminal mischief, operating the vessel while intoxicated, and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to spend 1,000 hours cleaning up Prince William Sound and pay $50,000 in restitution. His attorneys said they will appeal.