Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker that ran aground and caused one of the worst oil spills in US history, has died, the New York Times reports. He was 75. He died in July after struggling with COVID-19 and cancer, his nephew Sam Hazelwood told the newspaper. Per the AP, the 987-foot Exxon Valdez grounded on Alaska’s Bligh Reef at 12:04am on March 24, 1989, spewing nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Currents and storms carried the crude over 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline. According to estimates, the spill killed a quarter million seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of fish eggs.
An Anchorage jury awarded nearly 33,000 plaintiffs affected by the Alaska spill $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994, but that amount was cut in half by other courts on appeals by Exxon. In 2008, the US Supreme Court cut the punitive damages to $507.5 million. Hazelwood, whom prosecutors accused of being drunk at the time, was the only crew member criminally charged. He was charged with one felony, criminal mischief, and three misdemeanors, including reckless endangerment, operating a vessel while intoxicated, and negligent discharge of oil. The jury ultimately found him guilty of negligent discharge of oil and acquitted him of the other charges. He was sentenced to spend 1,000 hours in community service and ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution.
In June 1999, Hazelwood told the New York Times, "As master of the vessel, I accept responsibility for the vessel and the actions of my subordinates. I’ve never tried to avoid that. I’m not some remorseless oaf." The Valdez grounding, along with other oil spills in 1989 and 1990, prompted passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which strengthened how the US government responds to oil spills. The Exxon Valdez was surpassed as the nation's worst oil spill when Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, releasing 168 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (Read more Joseph Hazelwood stories.)