The National Transportation Safety Board reported Thursday that the captain of the Exxon Valdez was legally drunk when he was tested some 10 hours after his tanker hit a reef last week, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
After the NTSB’s announcement, Exxon officials confirmed that they had fired the captain, 42-year-old Joseph Hazelwood, although investigators could not determine whether he had been drinking on the job.
Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost called it “almost unbelievable” that the Exxon Valdez had strayed from a 10-mile-wide shipping channel to crash into Bligh Reef. “This was not a treacherous area,” he said. " . . . your children could drive a tanker through it.”
Top-level federal officials, meanwhile, reported to President Bush that, in the six days since the accident, only about 2% of the spilled oil has been cleaned up. While coordination of cleanup efforts has improved, they said, most of the 10 million gallons of spilled oil almost certainly never will be recovered from the once-pristine waters of Prince William Sound.
Having given up hope of removing the oil or containing the ever-lengthening slick, officials now are concentrating on a last-ditch effort to barricade key salmon hatcheries against the oil, Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly told reporters after meeting with Bush. Their hope is to protect millions of salmon fingerlings scheduled to be released in about a week.
Bush, calling the accident a “major tragedy” and a “serious disaster,” said that the report he received from Skinner and Reilly was “not all negative.”
“But let’s be frank, there’s a very serious problem up there,” he said during a speech Thursday afternoon to an education group. “The cleanup will not be easy.”
The Justice Department is reviewing the possibility of levying civil or criminal penalties against Exxon stemming from the tanker’s operation, a high-ranking department official said. In addition, the Coast Guard is likely to begin hearings that could lead to suspension of Hazelwood’s license or to criminal charges, officials said.
Third Mate at Helm
At the time of the crash, Hazelwood was not on the bridge of the Exxon Valdez. He had turned the helm over to his third mate, Gregory Cousins, who was not licensed to pilot the vessel in the Valdez channel. No drugs or alcohol were found in tests of the mate, NTSB investigators said.
NTSB investigators cannot yet say whether Hazelwood, who has a history of drinking problems, in fact was drunk at the time or whether he began drinking after the disaster.
However, a radio operator from the Exxon Valdez told investigators that he had observed Hazelwood drinking on board at least once before, according to William Woody, chief of the four-member NTSB team that is investigating the accident. And the pilot who disembarked an hour before the accident told the safety agency that he had smelled alcohol on Hazelwood’s breath.
When Hazelwood was tested some 10 1/2 hours after the accident, the alcohol level in his urine registered 0.09%, while a blood test showed 0.061%, Woody said.
Under Coast Guard regulations, commercial pilots are considered intoxicated if they have a blood alcohol level above 0.04%, according to Lt. Cmdr. Jim Simpson, a Coast Guard spokesman. The standard is considerably stricter than for recreational boaters, who are considered intoxicated if their alcohol level exceeds 0.10%, the level also used in both California and Alaska to determine intoxication for drivers.
Violation of the Coast Guard alcohol regulations can subject a commercial pilot to loss or suspension of his license, civil fines of up to $1,000 or criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and a fine of $5,000, Simpson said. Both Hazelwood and Cousins have refused to cooperate fully with investigators on advice of their attorneys.
In addition to Hazelwood, the Coast Guard radar operator on duty in Valdez on the night of the accident tested positive for alcohol. Radar operator Bruce Blandford showed a reading of 0.2% but told investigators that he had not started drinking until he went off duty. His shift ended two hours before he was tested.
Woody said Coast Guard witnesses reported that Blandford appeared to be sober and “efficient” during his 12-hour shift.
By now, officials concede, the bulk of the oil slick, extending in streamers some 100 miles through the southwestern portion of Prince William Sound nearly to the open ocean, cannot be skimmed out of the water. The oil has mostly turned into a foamy mixture of oil and water--a “mousse,” in the argot of cleanup experts--that is almost impossible to skim up or burn off.
Because of that, Skinner said, “the primary effort” is now to protect “the area that the consensus believes should be protected, and that is the area around the fish hatcheries.” Officials hope that a series of booms and other barriers now in place will keep the oil from fouling the waters that the salmon fingerlings must swim through.
Even if that effort succeeds, however, officials can only wait while the purple-brown goo flows into the Pacific or washes up on rocks and beaches.
As it washes up, the oil will pose a continuing serious threat to wildlife habitat, particularly for sea lions, sea otters and shore birds, Reilly said. Bush, he said, directed him “to do the best job we can for the critters.”
In a meeting with Exxon officials Wednesday, Reilly said he suggested that the company agree to pay to restore the damaged wildlife habitat. Exxon officials seemed “interested” in the idea, he said, although they made no firm commitment.
In Valdez, Exxon spokesman Don Cornett said that the company hopes “to leave Prince William Sound the way we found it.”
Vague on Payment
“We’re going to pick up one way or the other all the oil,” however long it takes, Cornett said. But he and other company spokesmen have been vague in saying for exactly what sorts of damages Exxon intends to pay.
The Justice Department has established two teams to investigate possible civil and criminal penalties against Exxon. A senior federal law enforcement source said that the civil and criminal penalties could add up to millions of dollars, along with prison terms if criminal culpability is established.
“We take this very seriously,” said Donald A. Carr, acting assistant attorney general for the department’s land and natural resources division. “It is obviously an environmental event of tremendous moment which has to receive the most thorough and professional law enforcement response.”
Staff writers Tamara Jones in Valdez and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington contributed to this story.