SI Vault
Edited by Robert Sullivan
August 07, 1989
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 07, 1989


View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue


The disclosure last week of an internal Exxon memorandum pertaining to the 11-million-gallon oil spill from the Exxon Valdez caused a furor in which Alaska officials accused Exxon of breaking its promise to clean up the mess, and two members of the Bush Cabinet quarreled over the oil company's obligations. Even after a clear-the-air hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee last Friday, the future course of the cleanup remained uncertain.

The memo, written on July 19 by Otto Harrison, Exxon's senior official at the spill site in Valdez, called for the termination of current cleanup efforts in mid-September, when winter weather arrives in Alaska. Next spring, according to the memo, the company would survey the coastline and decide its next move. There was no assurance that Exxon would finish the cleanup.

" Exxon promised Alaskans that the company would stay until the job was done," said the incensed governor of Alaska, Steve Cowper. "It's not enough to declare victory and go home."

That's particularly the case since victory is nowhere in sight. Exxon, which estimates it has spent $650 million on the cleanup, said last week that it has already treated almost 500 miles of the 730 miles of contaminated coastline. This figure is "absolutely at odds with what local officials are telling us," said Jeff Petrich, aide to House Interior subcommittee chairman George Miller (D., Calif.). State officials said that as of last week, Exxon had treated only one sixth of the oiled beaches. Furthermore, said Petrich, as oil from the spill continues to wash ashore, "some of the treated coast has been reoiled."

As Alaska and Exxon argued over the status of the cleanup, two federal agencies sparred as well. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan joined with Cowper in insisting that Exxon keep its promise to finish the job. But Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, who administers the Coast Guard and therefore is the government's chief overseer of the cleanup, defended the company's plan to stop work on Sept. 15. " Exxon basically has done everything they told the government and me they would do," said Skinner. At the Interior subcommittee hearing, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Clyde Lusk testified that the goal was to treat all shoreline segments "to a stable level...before the expected onset of severe weather." He said Exxon would be told in the spring where more work was needed. But he also said, disconcertingly, that if Exxon balked at Coast Guard suggestions, the cleanup would fall to the federal government. That is, to the taxpayers.

Exxon president William Stevens distanced himself from the offending memo. "We will follow through on any reasonable request that is made," he told the subcommittee. But he also said he couldn't make "an unequivocal commitment" to a cleanup plan, since there could be disagreements about what constitutes a clean shoreline.

Exxon's latest pledge is clearly less than rock solid. Nevertheless, referring to the memo, Petrich said, "The company had a policy, it took the heat for that policy, and it backed down." He said the subcommittee stands ever more vigilant, because "the last few days haven't inspired confidence that everyone is dedicated to doing the right thing."


Are aluminum bats the inevitable wave of the future, as SI suggested is the case in its July 24 issue? Since then, the question has been batted around widely. It has been asked in the editorial pages of The New York Times and USA Today . It has even been raised in the halls of Congress. All America, it seems, is going batty about baseball bats.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4