Joseph Hazelwood, The Captain Of Exxon Valdez During The Massive 1989 Oil Spill, Passes Away At 75

Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of a tanker that reportedly ran aground in 1989 off Alaska and resulted in one of the worst oil spills in history, has passed away at 75 after a battle with cancer.

Hazelwood’s family informed The Washington Post and The New York Times that the former captain passed away in July 2022 after his fight with COVID-19 and cancer.

An experienced sailor, Hazelwood navigated the Exxon Valdez when the vessel abruptly ran aground in Prince William Sound off Alaska on 24 March 1989.

The accident reportedly tore open the vessel and spilt about 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The spill devastated the area, killing wildlife that lived there, especially those that inhabited Prince William Sound.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Image for representation purpose only

It impaired approximately 1,500 miles of the Gulf of Alaska Coastline, killing almost 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, nearly two dozen bald eagles, and many killer whales.

Hazelwood was initially under suspicion of being intoxicated when the spill happened. Still, he was cleared in a trial that took place in 1990 in which eyewitnesses mentioned that he appeared to be sober when the ship ran aground.

Following the colossal spill, Exxon’s chairman said that the firm had made a “bad judgment” by allowing Hazelwood, who had been treated for alcoholism, to become the captain of the Valdez.

The chairman said someone in management should’ve been informed at that time. The policy wouldn’t have allowed the person to be back on the vessel.

The Exxon Valdez mishap led to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which strengthened the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to and prevent oil spills.

Had a spill of an extent as the Exxon Valdez disaster has taken place off the US East Coast, the devastation would have stretched to the Chesapeake Bay from Cape Cod, Walter Parker, Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s head, wrote following the spill.

At that time, Hazlewood was acquitted of a felony charge for operating a ship when intoxicated but was reportedly convicted of his negligence. The court asked him to do 1,000 hours of community service and pay $50,000 as a restitute.

Thousands of plaintiffs later sued Exxon and claimed they were massively affected by this disaster.

Five years following the spill, an Alaska jury rewarded them with about $5 billion as punitive damages. The amount was, later on, cut in half.

The US Supreme Court again reduced the award to about $507 million in 2008.

Hazelwood was not on the bridge as the vessel ran aground, as he had left the third mate in charge.

The National Transportation Safety Board discovered that the third mate had failed to manoeuvre the ship owing to fatigue and extreme workload.

Investigators also said that Hazelwood was unsuccessful in offering proper navigation. Hazelwood was the only individual who was charged for the disaster criminally.

The Exxon Valdez spill was the worst in US history for over 20 years until it was surpassed by the disaster of Deepwater Horizon that took place in 2010, which again spilt nearly 170 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico — over 15 times the amount the Valdez spilt off 21 years ago off Alaska.

References: LA Times, UPI, NewYork Post

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