Hawaii & Alaska
The tanker Exxon Valdez lists to starboard as it rests on a reef on March 27, 1989. The tanker at left is unloading the remaining oil after the Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled about 11 million gallons of oil. Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the tanker, has died at age 75. (Craig Fujii / The Seattle Times, file)

AK - Joseph Hazelwood, Captain of the Exxon Valdez, Is Dead at 75

The tanker spilled millions of gallons of oil when it ran aground, causing one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters. He accepted responsibility but was demonized.

Former Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood is shown in a 1990 file photo. Hazelwood has died at age 75. (Nick Ut / The Associated Press, file)

Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on a reef in the icy waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989, dumping at least 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in one of America’s worst environmental disasters, has died. He was 75.

The death was confirmed on Friday by his nephew, Sam Hazelwood, who said his uncle had been struggling with the combined effects of Covid-19 and cancer. He added that he did not know the exact date or location of his uncle’s death. Mr. Hazelwood lived in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island.

The shipping news website gCaptain.com reported his death on July 22 but did not identify who had confirmed it, saying only that it was a person close to the Hazelwood family.

The Exxon Valdez spill blackened 1,500 miles of the Gulf of Alaska coastline, home to rich fishing grounds and wildlife. It contributed to the passage by Congress of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which streamlined and strengthened the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills.

(The Seattle Times in 1990 won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its coverage of the oil spill and a series on oil-tanker safety.)

The spill killed 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and as many as 22 killer whales, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a joint federal-state monitoring agency.

A jury acquitted Hazelwood of a felony charge of operating a vessel while intoxicated but convicted him on a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil, resulting in a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. The Coast Guard suspended his license for some nine months. He never returned to the seas.

A federal court in Anchorage ordered Exxon to pay heavy fines, but the company appealed, and the extent of the fines was ultimately reduced.

The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef a few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989. “Evidently we’re leaking some oil and we’re going to be here for quite a while,” Hazelwood radioed the Coast Guard in what turned out to be a vast understatement.

The captain had not been on the bridge when the accident occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the ship’s third mate had failed to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload, and that Hazelwood had failed to provide a proper navigation watch because he was impaired by alcohol. The Exxon Shipping Co. and its Exxon Corp. subsidiary were found to have failed to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew.

In June 1999, as the legal case dragged on, Hazelwood was taking time off from his job at a New York law firm and heading to Alaska to begin his community service, picking up trash in the city of Anchorage’s parks, when he told The New York Times in an interview, “As master of the vessel, I accept responsibility for the vessel and the actions of my subordinates.” He added: “I’ve never tried to avoid that. I’m not some remorseless oaf.”

“But,” he continued, “the crime I was convicted of is a B misdemeanor. There’s no lower crime in the state of Alaska. The judge had to come up with a sentence. I can understand it. I don’t have to agree with it.”

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