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Former Gov. Cowper on Exxon Valdez: 'We couldn't just throw in the towel'

  • Author: Steve Cowper
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 6, 2012

Editor's note: The Alaska State Archives' Exxon Valdez Litigation Project has recently added 500 images of the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Alaska's Digital Archives website. Then-Gov. Steve Cowper's official photographer took 2,000 photographs in the early days of the spill. Below, Cowper recalls the chaos of that awful day in 1989.

Other historical resources from the spill are available on the State Archives web page. An index to all of the governor's images and the remaining 1,500 slides are available for use at the State Archives.

The State Archives Oil Spill Project has now reached its halfway point. Next, the project will sift through about 2,600 boxes in Anchorage generated by litigation from 1989-1993, and the more recently decided Oil Spill Reopener case.

The excerpt below of former Gov. Steve Cowper's recollections are one chapter in "The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster" by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones.

The day of the oil spill, I was having a day off at home in Fairbanks. Sam Bishop was going to interview me for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at 7:30 a.m. When I walked into his office he said, "What about the oil spill?"

I said, "What oil spill?"

When he told me what had happened, I immediately called Juneau to arrange the quickest way to get to Valdez.

Denny Kelso, the head of DEC, and I flew down from Anchorage. It was shocking for everybody who saw the extent of the damage for the first time. We were directly over the spill, and I thought, "Boy, this is the worst mess I've ever seen."

We got to Valdez late in the morning. There were dozens of foreign press people already there. Apparently the story was on the news wires at about 2 or 3 a.m., so they must have hopped on airplanes and flown straight from Europe to Anchorage over the top.

Denny Kelso and I and a couple other guys, including a TV reporter, took a boat over to Bligh Reef. It was low tide, the ship was listing heavily, and there was a Jacob's ladder hanging down from the deck quite a way, maybe 30 or 40 feet. I'd gone up and down Jacob's ladders a lot in my life, so I hopped on it and up I went. I looked back and there was the TV guy, hanging onto his camera for dear life. He was looking down as the ladder was swinging back and forth and for a minute there I thought maybe we were going to lose him.

'Where's the skipper?'

But we all got on deck safely. The first thing you do is report to the captain if you're coming on board. I said, "Where's the skipper?"

Someone said, "He's down in his quarters."

I said, "In that case I'll go down there."

He said, "No, he's not going to talk to you."

I thought, "That's strange." I had been on maybe a couple hundred ships in my life and I'd never seen that happen before. I asked about alcohol because I had heard there was a rumor about Hazelwood's drinking.

Dan Lawn, who had a lot of first-hand knowledge and been one of the first persons to board the vessel said, "He may have been drinking, but I'm not sure that had anything to do with it."

We talked to as many people as would talk to us. As I said, I've had a lot of experience on ships, and for the skipper to leave the bridge and go down to his quarters when the ship was outside the shipping lanes was a thing that was rarely done. Then too, he left the ship to a guy who didn't have very much experience. Making a quick assessment, I felt that that was it right there; that was the cause of it.

One thing that angered me more than just about anything was the fact that there was no effort whatsoever being made to clean up. Alyeska was the party that was responsible for the cleanup, and my thought was that their lawyers had told them not to do anything because it would be an admission of fault. I was absolutely furious, and my anger was directed to Alyeska more than Exxon.

Being onboard the vessel was a dangerous situation. As the tide got lower and lower, we were starting to think that it might break in half. People kept their survival suits close at hand. Fortunately, the tide didn't go as low as it could have, and when it came back up, it supported the ship's weight as before.

Denny and I then went to Valdez where a town meeting was getting under way, the famous town meeting that has often been referred to, that movies have been made about. I kept looking at the Exxon guys, realizing that they didn't know how to handle a crisis. Exxon produces and ships oil, they sell and refine oil, but they don't do crisis management. Consequently the meeting was a disaster for them, especially for Don Cornett. Which was really a shame, because Don's a good guy and he didn't have anything to do with it. He was just the most conspicuous target.

Biggest unsung hero

There were a lot of people who contributed to the cleanup, but in my opinion the most unsung hero is Bill Deppe. He was flown in by Exxon to replace Hazelwood, and he immediately went to work transferring the remaining oil out of the ship, which was an incredibly tricky deal. There were about a million barrels of oil still aboard and about 240,000 in the water. Over a period of ten days, Deppe was able to transfer those million barrels onto the Exxon Baton Rouge and a couple other ships. Considering all the problems, the bad weather, the fluctuation of tides, it was practically a miracle that more oil wasn't lost. Deppe deserves most of the credit for that.

I went back to Juneau, where the legislature was still in session. I started calling people I knew could be useful, as did Denny Kelso. People in the DEC knew some old hands. I thought we had gathered a pretty good crew on fairly short notice to organize a response, but one of the problems was that the federal statutes that govern oil spill responses were really garbled. At various points they indicated that the state was in charge. In other places the Coast Guard was supposed to be in charge. Various federal and state agencies also claimed turf. In essence, everyone said, we're in charge. And of course there was Exxon.

Anything but FEMA

We (the state) sent word to Washington saying that we wanted the Coast Guard to take the lead. They balked at that because somewhere in the statutes it said that Exxon, as the spiller, was in charge. Amidst all that, President Bush's chief of staff called and said, "We want FEMA to come out there and take charge."

That's when I really hit the roof. I said, "No way, at any time, is FEMA going to come up here and take charge of this spill. People working on this thing are not going to report to some guy in Washington who's never been here and has no earthly idea what to do. Do not send FEMA under any circumstances." Even in those days, FEMA had a reputation.

In the meantime the oil had broken loose and was headed for the hatcheries. We gave the fishing boats all the stuff we could scramble and they mobilized with booms and skimmers. I also called Admiral Hardisty, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, and asked him to send everything he could send up to us, and he did.

We were beginning to have some competent gear, but, of course, the oil was scattered by that time. It had smashed into Green Island and all the many other places. As the oil headed for Evans Island and the hatcheries, we basically said, "We're going to turn these fishermen loose because they know what they're doing."

The state's lawyers didn't like that one bit, but I told them I didn't care about the risk of lawsuits or if it took Exxon off the hook. We were going to do what we were going to do, and, if there were lawsuits, we would take care of them later.

Then there was talk that the federal government was going to arrest the fishermen. You can imagine the response to that, arresting the fishermen who were trying to clean up the mess when nobody else was. The media would have had a field day with that.

Robin McNeill called me early one the morning to say, "The chairman of Exxon has just made a statement saying that in fact, the state of Alaska caused this oil spill."

I said, "Excuse me? He said what?"

Robin urged me to be a guest on the McNeill Lehrer news program, which I did. I said Exxon needed to fire their public relations firm, and send chairman Larry Rawl to Prince William Sound, where we would give him some boots and a shovel and he could have a go at cleaning one of the oiled islands.

Iconic event

One of the really frustrating things about the whole situation was that only a few people believed there was a solution to this problem. Obviously, there was a horrendous amount of damage that could not be undone, but we couldn't just throw in the towel. We had to remedy as much damage as we could.

Exxon didn't know how to proceed, so they handed it off to Bill Allen, CEO of Veco, and those guys had at it. Veco did a good job, the best that could be done under the circumstances. No doubt there were some mistakes, but you have to remember that there were plenty of people saying it would have been better not to do anything at all. That was never an option.

I'm sure this has been said many times before, but the grounding of the Exxon Valdez was an iconic event. People have used it as proof of whatever prejudices they had to begin with. It has played a major part in all the hatred of the oil industry in this country, something that has done a lot of damage, in my opinion.

Steve Cowper was Alaska's governor from 1986-90, including during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Cowper's recollections are one chapter in "The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster" by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones, published in 2009 by Epicenter Books with support from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council. Used with permission.

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