JUNEAU — The ship formerly known as the Exxon Valdez, responsible for one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history, appears destined for the scrap heap in a shipyard along the Indian Gulf of Cambay.
Such an end for the ship that spilled millions of gallons of crude in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 is fitting, says at least one person directly involved with the disaster’s aftermath.
“My first reaction when I heard the boat is getting scrapped was ‘good riddance,”’ Stan Jones said.
Jones was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News at the time of the spill. He now works as a spokesman for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, a foundation set up after the spill with the goal of preventing similar disasters.
“It’s a symbol of a really dark day in Alaska’s history. But then my second thought is that the boat alone is nothing. The problem was man and machine together. ... The good thing is that, today, the spill wouldn’t happen that way, or it would have been much smaller because of changes we’ve made.”
The tanker ran aground at Alaska’s Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, and spewed 11 million gallons of crude oil into the rich fishing waters of Prince William Sound.
The shoreline was coated with petroleum sludge. Towns like Cordova that relied on fishing the sound were devastated. An incalculable amount of damage was done to marine species and the surrounding environment.
An Anchorage jury in 1991 called for Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay $5 billion in punitive damages, thought the U.S Supreme Court later reduced that to $507.5 million. Some litigation related to the spill is still ongoing.
Exxon maintained at the time that it should not be liable for the actions of the supertanker’s skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, when the nearly 1,000-foot vessel ran aground with 53 million gallons of oil in its hold.
According to prosecutors, Hazelwood was drunk, but he denied it and was acquitted of the charge in criminal court.
Hazelwood apologized to Alaskans in a 2009 book, “The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster.”
Changes that came after the spill include a federal law that has phased in double-hulled tankers, a requirement for tanker escorts into Port Valdez, creation of regional citizen councils that act as industry watchdogs, and storage facilities in Alaska fishing communities where spill response gear is cached.
The Exxon Valdez was engineered in San Diego and commissioned in 1986 to carry crude oil.
In the years since, the ship has been rebranded a few times with different names. It is now called the Oriental Nicety.
Though widely reported as purchased by a Baltimore-based company, Hong Kong-based Best Oasis Ltd. actually bought the ship recently for an undisclosed price.
Best Oasis is a wholly owned subsidiary of Priya Blue Industries in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Company spokesman Gauray Mehta confirmed the purchase to The Associated Press on Friday, but he said he “can give no details till we take delivery of it.”
The company would not disclose the purpose of its purchase, but it buys old ships solely to dismantle them, reuse salvageable material and discard the rest.
India has one of the world’s largest industries for breaking down old ships and oil tankers in the town of Alang, and workers in the coastal town are expected to process the ship to salvage scraps of metal and parts that retain value.
News of the sale comes a few days before an odd-year anniversary of the spill that will feature no elaborate commemoration in Alaska communities affected by it. But people who have been around for a while and those still helping with cleanup efforts are breathing a sigh of relief as the ship meets what they consider a symbolic end.
Scott Pegau, who manages research efforts of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, said boats there would historically be gearing up for herring season this time of year.
Because the herring population has yet to rebound to a fishable level, the town now primarily fishes salmon, which comes into season late in April. Otters, sea ducks and a killer whale pod are also still impacted by the spill, he said.
“The Supreme Court’s decision on the settlement had a huge impact on the community,” said Pegau, who was a student in Fairbanks in 1989. “I suspect (scrapping the ship) will help end the story for a lot of people. They’ll be able to say, ‘It’s finally gone, it doesn’t exist anymore.”’