Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood, captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Alaska in 1989 and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of oil, died July 21. He was 75.
His family is planning a future memorial service.
The tanker was carrying more than 1.2 million barrels (more than 50 million gallons) of oil when it struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound near Valdez on March 24, 1989. The oil that spilled from the ruptured tanks fouled more than a thousand miles of shoreline and killed or compromised huge numbers of fish and wildlife.
The worst spill in U.S. history ultimately led Congress to enact the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).
Hazelwood was in his cabin doing paperwork at the time of the incident. The third mate, who Hazelwood said had confirmed that he was aware of the course changes needed to bypass the reef, was in charge. But Hazelwood was the one prosecuted.
He was acquitted of felony charges including operating a vessel while intoxicated. But he was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil and sentenced to a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. His Coast Guard master mariner’s license was suspended briefly but never revoked.
Hazelwood, a resident of Huntington Bay on Long Island, told this writer in an exclusive interview after the trial in Alaska that he hoped to return to commanding tankers. But no company would take him on, fearful of a backlash. When he served as an instructor officer on a cruise of the training ship of the State University of New York Maritime College, from which he graduated in 1968, it created an uproar.
Unable to secure a maritime command, Hazelwood worked for a time as a lobsterman before becoming an investigator for his attorney, Michael G. Chalos, in 1992. He retired from that position several years ago.
“Captain Hazelwood was a standup guy who suffered a lot,” Chalos said of his friend. “But he did it stoically and with dignity. I never met anyone with such inner strength and fortitude. As the captain of the Exxon Valdez, he never blamed anyone for the grounding but himself, even though he was let down by others. He is now finally at peace.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the grounding was the failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload, and the master’s failure to provide a proper navigation watch due to alcohol impairment, according to the original report. The agency also blamed Exxon Shipping Company, an Exxon Corp. subsidiary, for failing to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew. The NTSB also identified a lack of effective Vessel Traffic Service and pilotage services as factors.
A U.S. District Court judge in Anchorage in 1991 accepted guilty pleas from Exxon Corporation and Exxon Shipping Company, including a $150 million criminal fine, the largest fine ever imposed at the time for an environmental crime. All but $25 million was remitted in recognition of Exxon’s cooperation during the cleanup and for paying certain private claims. Exxon also agreed to criminal restitution of $100 million and a civil settlement of $900 million.
Exxon fired Hazelwood the day the NTSB revealed blood and urine tests taken about nine hours after the accident showed he was under the influence of alcohol. His blood-alcohol level measured .061 percent. Federal law prohibits operation of a commercial vessel with a blood alcohol level exceeding .04 percent.
Hazelwood always maintained he consumed a few beers in a harborside bar while waiting for departure and was sober at the time of the grounding. •