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25 Years After Exxon Valdez, BP Was the Hidden Culprit

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Posted on Mar 23, 2014

    A crew cleans up oil six years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Photo by James McAlpine, © Palast Investigative Fund.

By Greg Palast

Two decades ago I was the investigator for the legal team that sold you the bullshit that a drunken captain was the principal cause of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the oil tanker crackup that poisoned over a thousand miles of Alaska’s coastline 25 years ago on March 24, 1989.

The truth is far uglier, and the real culprit—British Petroleum, now BP—got away without a scratch to its reputation or to its pocketbook.

And because BP’s willful negligence, prevarications and fraud in the Exxon Valdez spill cost the company nothing, its disdain for the law, for the environment and for the safety of its workers was repeated in the Gulf of Mexico with deadly consequences, resulting, two decades later, in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Just this month, the Obama administration authorized BP to return to drilling in the Gulf.

It would be worth the time of our ever-trusting regulators to take a look at my Exxon Valdez BP files. They would see a decades-long pattern of BP’s lies, bribes and cover-ups that led, inexorably, to the Deepwater Horizon blowout—and that continue today within BP’s worldwide oil operations.

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Here is a sample from my files on BP from the original Exxon Valdez fraud and racketeering investigation:

Fraud No. 1: The Emergency Sucker Boat fraud

Containing an oil spill—preventing spilled crude from spreading to the shore—is not rocket science.

As the principal owner of the Alaska Pipeline and Terminal, BP, not Exxon, was designated by law to prevent oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez from hitting the beach. It was BP’s disastrous failures, more than Exxon’s, that allowed the oil to devastate Alaska’s coast. 

To contain a spill all you need are rubbers and suckers. It works like this:

If a tanker, oil rig or pipe bursts open, you surround it with a giant rubber skirt known as “boom.” Then you suck the oil out through vacuum hoses on board special “containment” ships. The containment ship, which lays out the boom and skimmer hoses, is the firetruck of oil spills. You simply don’t let tankers out of port unless a containment ship is ready to roll. It’s against the law.

But the law has never meant much to BP. 

In May 1977, as the first tankers left Valdez, BP executives promised the state of Alaska that no tanker would leave port unless there were two containment barges at the ready and loaded with boom, with one placed near Bligh Island.

In fact, on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, right at Bligh Island, the containment barge was far away in Valdez, locked in a dry dock, its boom and hoses under Alaskan ice. As a result, by the time the emergency oil spill vessel got to the stricken ship, the oil slick was a hundred miles in circumference and beyond control.

Two decades later, I watched fireboats uselessly spraying the burning oil on the Deepwater Horizon. Once again there were no BP skimmer barges, no boom surrounding the rig. Just as in Alaska, the promised spill containment operation was a con. By the time the Navy set out 400 miles of rubber boom days later, the slick was already as big as Cuba and slathering the Gulf shores.

Recently, Chevron and other big oil giants, now drilling the Gulf, have printed a series of full-page ads in papers across America touting their new state-of-the-art oil spill containment operations. Hey, thanks. But these are the same vessels BP and its fellow Gulf drillers promised before the Deepwater Horizon blew apart.

Fraud No. 2: Ghost Crews

There’s no sense having a firetruck without firemen. And so, years before the Exxon Valdez grounding, Alyeska, the oil company consortium headed by BP, promised the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Congress, under oath, that the oil shipper would employ a trained and equipped crew around the clock to jump from helicopters, if needed, to contain an oil spill. My clients, the Chugach Natives of Alaska, agreed to give up ownership of the land under the Port of Valdez to the oil companies in return for those jobs.

The night the Exxon Valdez grounded, Chugach Natives watched from the beach at nearby Tatitlek Village as the tanker headed into the reef. They could have prevented the disaster—but they were helpless: BP had fired them.

In my team’s investigation for the Chugach, we discovered that, to save money, BP’s Alyeska simply drew up lists of nonexistent emergency spill response workers or wrote down names of untrained, unequipped dockworkers: an imaginary crew to man phantom emergency ships.

Fraud No. 3: Phantom Equipment

And the rubber boom? That was a phantom as well. BP’s Alyeska had promised that too, in writing. The equipment was supposed to be placed along the tanker route including Bligh Island—exactly the spot where the Exxon Valdez grounded.

And so, it was no surprise to me that 21 years later in the Gulf there were neither skimmers nor boom at the site of the Deepwater Horizon. The equipment was there, as in Alaska, only on paper.

Indeed, part of BP’s Gulf Coast response plan was a photocopy of the Alaska plan, including ways to wash down Arctic seals.


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