Daily Archives: April 24, 2012

A Well-Designed Disaster: The Untold Story of the Exxon Valdez

Greg Palast

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez broke open and covered twelve hundred miles of Alaska’s shoreline with oily sludge. The official story remains “Drunken Skipper Hits Reef.” Don’t believe it.

In fact, when the ship hit, Captain Joe Hazelwood was nowhere near the wheel, but below decks, sleeping off his bender. The man left at the helm, the third mate, would never have hit Bligh Reef had he simply looked at his Raycas radar. But he could not, because the radar was not turned on. The complex Raycas system costs a lot to operate, so frugal Exxon management left it broken and useless for the entire year before the grounding.

The land Exxon smeared and destroyed belongs to the Chugach natives of the Prince William Sound. Within days of the spill, the Chugach tribal corporation asked me and my partner Lenora Stewart to investigate allegations of fraud by Exxon and the little-known “Alyeska” consortium. In three years’ digging, we followed a twenty-year train of doctored safety records, illicit deals between oil company chiefs, and programmatic harassment of witnesses. And we documented the oil majors’ brilliant success in that old American sport, cheating the natives. Our summary of evidence ran to four volumes. Virtually none of it was reported: The media had turned off its radar. Here’s a bit of the story you’ve never been told:

  • We discovered an internal memo describing a closed, top-level meeting of oil company executives in Arizona held just ten months before the spill. It was a meeting of the “Alyeska Owners Committee,” the six-company combine that owns the Alaska pipeline and most of the state’s oil In that meeting, say the notes, the chief of their Valdez operations, Theo Polasek, warned executives that containing an oil spill “at the mid-point of Prince William Sound not possible with present equipment”—exactly where the Exxon Valdez grounded. Polasek needed millions of dollars for spill containment equipment. The law required it, the companies promised it to regulators, then at the meeting, the proposed spending was voted down. The oil company combine had a cheaper plan to contain any spill—don’t bother. According to an internal memorandum, they’d just drop some dispersants and walk away. That’s exactly what happened. “At the owners committee meeting in Phoenix, it was decided that Alyeska would provide immediate response to oil spills in Valdez Arm and Valdez Narrows only”—not the Prince William Sound.
  • Smaller spills before the Exxon disaster would have alerted government watchdogs that the port’s oil-spill-containment system was not up to scratch. But the oil group’s lab technician, Erlene Blake, told us that management routinely ordered her to change test results to eliminate “oil-in-water” readings. The procedure was simple, says Blake. She was told to dump out oily water and refill test tubes from a bucket of cleansed sea water, which they called “the Miracle Barrel.”
  • A confidential letter dated April 1984, fully four years before the big spill, written by Captain James Woodle, then the oil group’s Valdez Port commander, warns management that “Due to a reduction in manning, age of equipment, limited training and lack of personnel, serious doubt exists that [we] would be able to contain and clean up effectively a medium or large size oil spill.” Woodle told us there was a spill at Valdez before the Exxon Valdez collision, though not nearly as large. When he prepared to report it to the government, his supervisor forced him to take back the notice, with the Orwellian command, “You made a mistake. This was not an oil spill.”

Slimey Limeys

The canard of the alcoholic captain has provided effective camouflage for a party with arguably more culpability than Exxon: British Petroleum, the company that in 2001 painted itself green (literally: all its gas stations and propaganda pamphlets now sport a seasick green hue). Alaska’s oil is BP oil. The company owns and controls a near majority (46 percent) of the Alaska pipeline system. Exxon (now ExxonMobil) is a junior partner, and four other oil companies are just along for the ride. Captain Woodle, Technician Blake, Vice President Polasek, all worked for BP’s Alyeska.

Quite naturally, British Petroleum has never rushed to have its name associated with Alyeska’s recklessness. But BP’s London headquarters, I discovered, knew of the alleged falsification of reports to the U.S. government nine years before the spill. In September 1984, independent oil shipper Charles Hamel of Washington, DC, shaken by evidence he received from Alyeska employees, told me he took the first available Concorde, at his own expense, to warn BP executives in London about scandalous goings-on in Valdez. Furthermore, Captain Woodle swears he personally delivered his list of missing equipment and “phantom” personnel directly into the hands of BP’s Alaska chief, George Nelson.

BP has never been eager for Woodle’s letter, Hamel’s London trip and many other warnings of the deteriorating containment system to see the light of day. When Alyeska got wind of Woodle’s complaints, they responded by showing Woodle a file of his marital infidelities (all bogus), then offered him payouts on condition that he leave the state within days, promising never to return.

As to Hamel, the oil shipping broker, BP in London thanked him. Then a secret campaign was launched to hound him out of the industry. A CIA expert was hired who wiretapped Hamel’s phone lines. They smuggled microphones into his home, intercepted his mail and tried to entrap him with young women. The industrial espionage assault was personally ordered and controlled by BP executive James Hermiller, president of Alyeska. On this caper, they were caught. A U.S. federal judge told Alyeska this conduct was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”

Cheaper Than Manhattan

BP’s inglorious role in the Alaskan oil game began in 1969 when the oil group bought the most valuable real estate in all Alaska, the Valdez oil terminal land, from the Chugach natives. BP and the Alyeska group paid the natives one dollar.

Arthur Goldberg, once a U.S. Supreme Court justice, tried to help the natives on their land claim. But the natives’ own lawyer, the state’s most powerful legislator, advised them against pressing for payment. Later, that lawyer became Alyeska’s lawyer.

The Alaskan natives, the last Americans who lived off what they hunted and caught, did extract written promises from the oil consortium to keep the Prince William Sound safe from oil spills. These wilderness seal hunters and fishermen knew the arctic sea. Eyak Chief-for-Life Agnes Nichols, Tatitlek native leader George Gordaoff and Chenega fisherman Paul Kompkoff demanded that tankers carry state-of -the-art radar and that emergency vessels escort the tankers. The oil companies reluctantly agreed to put all this in their government-approved 1973 Oil Spill Response Plan.

When it comes to oil spills, the name of the game is “containment” because, radar or not, some tanker somewhere is going to hit the rocks. Stopping an oil spill catastrophe is a no-brainer. Tanker radar aside, if a ship does smack a reef, all that’s needed is to surround the ship with a big rubber curtain (“boom”) and suck up the corralled oil. In signed letters to the state government and Coast Guard, BP, ExxonMobil and partners promised that no oil would move unless the equipment was set on the tanker route and the oil-sucker ship (“containment barge”) was close by, in the water and ready to go.

The oil majors fulfilled their promise the cheapest way: They lied. When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, the spill equipment, which could have prevented the catastrophe, wasn’t there—see the Arizona meeting notes above. The promised escort ships were not assigned to ride with the tankers until after the spill. And the night the Exxon Valdez grounded, the emergency spill-response barge was sitting in a dry dock in Valdez locked in ice.

When the pipeline opened in 1974, the law required Alyeska to maintain round-the-clock oil-spill-response teams. As part of the come-on to get hold of the Chugach’s Valdez property, Alyeska hired the natives for this emergency work. The natives practiced leaping out of helicopters into icy water, learning to surround leaking boats with rubber barriers. But the natives soon found they were assigned to cover up spills, not clean them up. Their foreman, David Decker, told me he was expected to report one oil spill as two gallons when two thousand gallons had spilled.

Alyeska kept the natives at the terminal for two years—long enough to help Alyeska break the strike of the dock workers’ union—then quietly sacked the entire team. To deflect inquisitive inspectors looking for the spill-response workers, Alyeska created sham emergency teams, listing names of oil terminal employees who had not the foggiest idea how to use spill equipment, which, in any event, was missing, broken or existed only on paper. When the Exxon Valdez grounded, there was no native spill crew, only chaos.

The Fable of the Drunken Skipper has served the oil industry well. It transforms the most destructive oil spill in history into a tale of human frailty, a terrible, but onetime, accident. But broken radar, missing equipment, phantom spill personnel, faked tests—all of it to cut costs and lift bottom lines—made the spill disaster not an accident but an inevitability.

I went back to the Sound just before the tenth anniversary of the spill. On Chenega, they were preparing to spend another summer scrubbing rocks. A decade after the spill, in one season, they pulled twenty tons of sludge off their beaches. At Nanwalek village ten years on, the state again declared the clams inedible, poisoned by “persistent hydrocarbons.” Salmon still carry abscesses and tumors, the herring never returned and the sea lion rookery at Montague Island remains silent and empty.

But despite what my eyes see, I must have it wrong, because right here in an Exxon brochure it says, “The water is clean and plant, animal and sea life are healthy and abundant.” Go to the Sound today, on Chugach land, kick over a rock and you’ll get a whiff of an Exxon gas station.

Everyone’s heard of the big jury verdict against Exxon: a $5 billion award. What you haven’t heard is that ExxonMobil hasn’t paid a dime of it. It’s been a decade since the trial. BP painted itself green and ExxonMobil decided to paint the White House with green: It’s the number-two lifetime donor to George W. Bush’s career (after Enron), with a little splashed the Democrats’ way. The oil industry’s legal stalls, the “tort reform” campaigns and the generous investment in our democratic process has produced a Supreme Court and appeals panels that look more like luncheon clubs of corporate consiglieri than panels of defenders of justice.

In November 2001, following directives of the Supremes, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury verdict on grounds the punishment was too dear and severe for poor little ExxonMobil.

The BP-led Alyeska consortium was able to settle all claims for 2 percent of the acknowledged damage, roughly a $50 million payout, fully covered by an insurance fund.

And the natives? While waiting for Exxon to make good on promises of compensation, Chief Agnes and Paul Kompkoff have passed away. As to my four-volume summary of evidence of frauds committed against the natives: In 1991, when herring failed to appear and fishing in the Sound collapsed, the tribal corporation went bankrupt and my files became, effectively, useless.

The Tombstone Blues

Bob Dylan

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous.

The ghost of Belle Star she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce.

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food.
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, “My advice is to not let the boys in.”

Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to be bride
“Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it’s not poison.”

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food.
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken.”

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food.
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.

The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Put jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle.

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he bums out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle.

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food.
I’m in trouble
With the tombstone blues.

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.

Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after.

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.

Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps or the soul
To the old folks home and the college.

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.

LUV News on Social Security, Reich

Trustees of the Medicare/Social Security systems are crying wolf again in their never ending battle to persuade the public that the programs are running out of money so that benefits will be cut. We’ve run several articles over the years showing it is easy to fix whatever problems the trust funds have, but our government leaders really don’t want to fix them.

President Obama has more than once tried to convince Republicans to put Medicare and Social Security “on the table” for negotiations, but we don’t expect him to do this again prior to the election, he is in full campaign mode now and understands these programs are popular with the American people. The attack on the programs will come after the election.

The real fear of those in power is not that the Social Security Trust Fund is running out of money, their fear is they will soon have to repay all the money they’ve borrowed from it to provide corporate welfare like stealth bombers to their campaign contributors, meaning there will be less available for the top priority of our government — corporate welfare and privatization schemes to enrich the wealthy.

NPR this morning interviewed an economist from the Wharton School who said of money borrowed from the Trust fund “The money has already been spent,” with no counter viewpoint to claim that money was borrowed from those who contributed to the Trust fund with the belief it would be paid back, typical of NPR’s selling out the public interest.

* * *


The nutty Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has called Robert Reich a “communist.” There is a lot of this going around these days, with the extremely ignorant Congressman Allen West having declared earlier this month that there are eighty communists in the Congress.

Corporate media are responsible for this, often employing terms like “far left” to describe people like President Obama, who would have been seen as very conservative in the 1960s, certainly more conservative than President Nixon, who gave us OSHA, the EPA, the ABM Treaty and several other public interest policies Obama wouldn’t even consider.

Reich would have been seen as a mainstream liberal in the 1960s, a centrist. But with the entire left half of the political spectrum censored out of our controlled mass media today, the left-most people allowed into the mass media are the centrists, as most Americans stumble about like zombies, diverted by mass media from anything of importance to understanding how they are controlled.

Reich challenged O’Reilly to debate him “person-to-person, like a man,” adding, “But he doesn’t have the guts to debate.”

To join the Liberty Underground news service email libertyuv@hotmail.com with “join” for a subject.

Mario Piperni on “Ike” Romney

Romney’s Weirdness

April 24, 2012 By

I’m not sure what one does with information of this sort but I thought it important you know. An excerpt from Alex Pareene’s new ebook, The Rude Guide To Mitt.

Every good Romney profile has a “Romney says something bizarre” moment. In Sridhar Pappu’s 2005 profile for the Atlantic, Romney produced a commemorative plate featuring the likenesses of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, and announced: “Not only was Eisenhower one of my favorite presidents; when we became grandparents, you get to choose what the kids will call you. Some call you Papa. I chose Ike. I’m Ike, and Ann is Mamie.

Leaving aside that Eisenhower worship is not particularly widespread in the modern GOP (he failed to kill the New Deal programs and didn’t particularly love Israel), it is not “a thing” that you can make your grandchildren call you by the name of a random dead president.

And he wants to be leader of the free world. I know. Disconcerting.