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 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. Hazelwood lived in Huntington, New York, 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 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.”
Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood was born on Sept. 24, 1946, in Hawkinsville, Georgia, a son of Joseph and Margaret Hazelwood. His father was an airline pilot. He graduated from Huntington High School and received a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation from the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx in 1968.
By age 32 he was the youngest captain working for Exxon. According to The Anchorage Daily News, at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill his New York state driver’s license had been suspended after an arrest for DUI in September 1988.
The maritime college hired Hazelwood as a teacher aboard the training ship Empire State V in 1992. While living on Long Island, he later worked as a paralegal and maritime consultant for Chalos & Brown, which had represented him in his legal cases.
Hazelwood is survived by his brother, Joshua; his wife, Suzanne; their daughter, Alison; and two grandsons.
Asked by the Times in 1999 if he was haunted by the fact that he had been drinking alcohol on the day of the spill, something he had admitted to, Hazelwood said: “No. As far as I was concerned — and as every jury that’s ever heard the facts in this case has found — alcohol had nothing to do with this grounding.”
But his notoriety endured. He was ridiculed on late-night television and in the comic strip “The Far Side.”
“I have no idea why my name has persisted,” Hazelwood told The Times in 1999. “Do you know the name of the captain of the Titanic? Maybe my name rolls off the tongue better than Smith, who was the captain of the Titanic. Demonizing me works for people. It’s an easy way to personalize this catastrophe.”
In an interview for the book “The Spill: Personal Stories From the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” by Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones (2009), Hazelwood offered a “heartfelt apology” to the people of Alaska while suggesting that his notoriety was not deserved.
As he put it, “The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts, but that’s not the sexy story and that’s not the easy story.”