Exxon Valdez: Ten Years After
By Jessica Moore, Justice No 29 March-May 2002
Paper of Socialist Alternative (US-CWI)
The toll of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is a sadly familiar one: 250,000 dead birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals – all victims of the oil tanker that ran over a reef late one April night and drained 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. But most people are unaware that the tragedy did not only affect wildlife: many of the thousands of workers who helped clean up the spill have suffered serious health problems ever since. These are the workers that stood in the brown foam 18 hours a day, slept with oil matted in their hair, breathed in the thick hydrocarbon haze, and ate food speckled with oil.
More than a decade after the spill, hundreds of them say that they are suffering from problems ranging from nausea and nosebleeds to kidney problems and cancer. Lawyers believe the actual number of injuries may be far greater than what has been reported so far. Many, they said, have never associated things like headaches, cancer, rashes, liver and kidney problems to a chemical exposure that happened more than a decade ago. "Chemical poisoning can cause . . . health problems that manifest as many different symptoms," Los Angeles legal investigator Erin Brockovich said (Grist Magazine, 11/6/01).
Crude oil contains hazardous metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, some of which are known carcinogens. The Valdez cleanup also involved strong solvents, which give off extremely hazardous fumes when used. These materials could have entered workers' lungs as a mist or been absorbed through their skin when they hosed down contaminated beaches, some experts say (LA Times, 11/5/01).
Confidential documents unearthed years later in court records showed that a large number of workers visited clinics with upper-respiratory complaints – a potential warning flag of chemical exposure (Anchorage Daily News, 5/13/99). Exxon concluded that they were a result not of chemical poisoning but a viral illness – eliminating any obligation to report the cases to the government and set up a long-term health-monitoring program. In all, there were 6,722 patient visits for respiratory illness. While some workers may have gone to the clinic more than once, it means that potentially 40% of the work force had respiratory problems severe enough to see a doctor.
Exxon lobbied successfully to avoid having the spill designated as a hazardous waste cleanup, which would have required them to provide workers with 40 hours of training in how to manage the dangerous materials they would be handling. Exxon also failed to provide proper protective suits (instead issuing rain slickers), and had only paper masks available.
This is a classic example of how big corporations put profits before workers' safety (not to mention the environment). We need an alternative system that will work on behalf of workers and the environment – and that system is socialism.
Courts Protect Exxon
Meanwhile, a federal appeals court recently overturned the 1994 jury verdict forcing Exxon to pay punitive damages to the fishermen, residents, property owners, and Native Americans affected by the Valdez spill. A three-judge panel said $5 billion was too much and should be reduced by a lower court. These impoverished commercial fishermen were crushed by hearing that after seven years of waiting, they're no closer to collecting what Exxon owes them, and might ultimately have to settle for far less.
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