`WE'VE fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef. And evidently, leaking some oil and we're gonna be here for a while."
Those words, radioed by Joseph Hazelwood minutes after the Exxon Valdez supertanker rammed a reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, have relieved the former tanker captain of criminal blame for the nation's worst oil spill.
In a decision released Friday, the Alaska Court of Appeals overturned Hazelwood's sole conviction for his role in the 11 million-gallon spill. The four-judge panel ruled that federal immunity laws designed to spur quick response to environmental accidents protect those who report oil spills.
An Alaska Superior Court jury convicted Hazelwood in March 1990 of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor. He was acquitted of felony criminal mischief and the misdemeanor charges of operating a vessel while intoxicated and reckless endangerment. Judge Karl Johnstone had sentenced him to 1,000 hours of beach cleanup work and up to $50,000 in restitution; the sentence went unserved as Hazelwood awaited the results of his appeal.
The Appeals Court decision appeared apologetic, admitting that Hazelwood's immunity would be a "bitter pill for many Alaskans to swallow" in the wake of a spill that polluted more than 1,200 miles of beaches.
"The unparalleled environmental devastation wrought by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez is hardly lost on this court," the decision said. "But while we may feel sorely tempted, as individuals, to recast the law in a mold better suited to our personal sense of justice, we are bound, as judges, to resist this temptation: our sworn duty is to uphold the law as it is, not as we would have it be."
Alaska officials were stunned by the reversal. Alaska Attorney General Charles Cole and Anchorage District Attorney Edward McNally vowed to appeal the case to the State Supreme Court.
"In essence, an atom bomb was detonated on Bligh Reef, and the notion that it wouldn't have been discovered if not for this radio report is simply illusory," McNally said.
Some environmental advocates, too, were upset at the ruling.
"I do think that reversing the conviction is pretty outrageous," said Lloyd Miller, an attorney for Alaska Natives suing Exxon. "He wasn't reporting a spill. He was reporting his ship was aground."
The hundreds of remaining civil cases against Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company - the operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline and its Valdez marine terminal - should be unaffected by Hazelwood's successful appeal, Miller said.
Hazelwood's attorneys, who have characterized him as an innocent scapegoat in the disaster, said further criminal prosecution was purely political. They pointed out that the state and federal governments have settled their cases against Exxon.
"My sense is that a group of people who, in an election year, don't look like a bunch of environmentalists can go ahead with the prosecution of Captain Hazelwood but not go after the companies that are dumping toxic chemicals on the North Slope," said Rick Friedman, one of the fired skipper's Anchorage attorneys. The North Slope is the site of Alaska's major oil fields.
The state and federal governments in October signed a $1.025 billion out-of-court agreement settling civil and criminal charges against the oil giant. Under the pact, Exxon paid $50 million each to the state and federal governments in criminal restitution, $25 million to the federal government in criminal fines and promised to pay $900 million over the next 10 years into a restoration fund to settle civil claims.
Environmentalists have blasted the deal as a sell-out by the pro-oil administrations of President Bush and Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel. The spill's true damages, they claim, are greater than previously estimated and total up to $15 billion.
Whether Hazelwood's radio report would have immunized his employer from criminal prosecution remains a subject of debate. Both Hazelwood and Exxon had raised the defense early in the criminal proceedings. State prosecutors, anticipating the immunity argument, had been careful to use only evidence they claimed would have been gathered in the absence of Hazelwood's radio report.
New federal laws passed in the spill's wake, local attorneys said, have eliminated a loophole that might have let Exxon off the hook.
Much of the criminal case against Hazelwood was weak because of then-lax spill laws. The sobriety tests that revealed a .06 percent blood-alcohol level, for example, were taken more than 10 hours after the grounding, too late to be useful. After the seven-week trial, jurors concluded the United States Coast Guard's inept tanker monitoring made the federal agency more culpable than Hazelwood for the spill.
The continued battle over Hazelwood's role came as no surprise to former Assistant District Attorney Brent Cole, the Attorney General's nephew and the prosecutor in the 1990 trial.
"I really expect this to go all the way to the US Supreme Court because it's an interpretation of what Congress intended," he said.
Meanwhile, oil is expected to linger for years on some beaches, even though the Coast Guard last month formally discharged Exxon of its cleanup duties. Studies show several wildlife species were severely reduced by the spill and may not recover for decades.