Here's How Exxon Tried to Avoid Paying for Its Massive Oil Spill -- Let's Not Allow BP to Do the Same
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I remember the words, “We’ve had the Big One,” with chilling clarity, spoken just over 21 years ago when a fellow fisherman arrived at my door in the early morning and announced that the Exxon Valdez had run aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and was gushing oil.
For the small fishing community of Cordova, Alaska, where I lived and worked as a commercial fisherma’am, it was our worst nightmare.
That nightmare is reoccurring now with BP’s deadly rig blowout off the Gulf Coast – with haunting parallels to the Exxon Valdez.
I was not at all surprised when officials reported zero spillage, then projected modest spillage, and then reported spill amounts five times higher than their earlier estimates.
As the spill continues, I imagine that even the newly reported amounts will continue to vastly underestimate the actual spillage.
Underreporting of spill volumes is common, even though lying about self-reported spill volume is illegal – and a breach of public trust.
Still, penalties are based on spill volume: Exxon likely saved itself several billion dollars by sticking with its low-end estimate of 11 million gallons and scuttling its high-end estimate of 38 million gallons, later validated by independent surveyors.
Sadly, it’s a foregone conclusion that BP’s promise to “do everything we can” to minimize the spill’s impact and stop the oil still hemorrhaging from the well nearly one mile under the sea off Louisiana’s coast will fade as its attention turns to minimizing its liability, including damaged public relations.
BP will likely leverage the billions of dollars it will spend on the cleanup to reduce its fines and lawsuit expenses, despite later recouping a large portion of the cleanup cost from insurers or writing it off as a business expense as Exxon did.
Such tactics saved Exxon billions of dollars in the civil settlement for damages to public lands and wildlife (in which damages were estimated at up to $8 billion; but for which Exxon paid just $900 million) and in the class action lawsuit filed by those whose livelihoods were curtailed by the spill (for which the original jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages; but which Exxon fought for 20 years until the Supreme Court lessened its burden to just $507 million).
That Supreme Court decision strictly limited corporate liability and essentially removed the ability of future oil spill victims to hold corporations accountable to the people and the law.
A friend in New Orleans is concerned about the oil fumes now engulfing the southern part of town. He says it “smells pretty strong–stronger than standing in a busy mechanics shop, but not as bad as the bus station in Tijuana.”
State health officials are warning people who are sensitive to reduced air quality to stay indoors, but anyone who experiences the classic symptoms of crude oil overexposure–nausea, vomiting, headaches, or cold or flu-like symptoms–should seek medical help.
This is serious : Oil spill cleanups are regulated as hazardous waste cleanups because oil is, in fact, hazardous to health. Breathing oil fumes is extremely harmful.
After the 2002 Prestige oil spill off Galicia, Spain, and the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea, medical doctors found fishermen and cleanup workers suffered from respiratory problems, central nervous system problems (headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc.), and even genetic damage (South Korea). I have attended two international conferences the past two years to share information with these doctors.
During the Exxon Valdez spill, health problems among cleanup workers became so widespread, so fast, that medical doctors, among others, sounded warnings. Dr. Robert Rigg, former Alaska medical director for Standard Alaska (BP), warned, “It is a known fact that neurologic changes (brain damage), skin disorders (including cancer), liver and kidney damage, cancer of other organ systems, and medical complications–secondary to exposure to working unprotected in (or inadequately protected)–can and will occur to workers exposed to crude oil and other petrochemical by-products. While short-term complaints, i.e., skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, pulmonary symptoms, etc., may be the initial signs of exposure and toxicity, the more serious long-term effects must be prevented.”