The Exxon Valdez Disaster

Published 17 Jan 2017

Many factors have been seen and people have been blamed regarding the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. One, the incapability of the third mate to properly maneuver the ship is said to have caused the spill (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, n.d.). According to the reports submitted, workers during the disaster were guilty of fatigue and excessive work load (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, n.d.). This, and the lack of training of the third mate is just one possible cause. Other issues that have been brought up and said to have contributed are

“…the failure of the master to provide a proper navigational watch because of impairment from alcohol, two, the failure of the Exxon Shipping Company to provide sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez, and three, the lack of an effective Vessel Traffic Service because of inadequate equipment and manning levels (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Spill, n.d., par. 1).”

In addition, the master is said to have been drunk during the operations. Among the reasons, the center of the blame is being pointed to the deemed negligence of the master (Exxon Valdez, 2007). The main question now is: why, of the many possible factors that have contributed to the disaster is the master’s one-time negligence being put on the spotlight?

The master of a vessel, once he gains the title of “master” becomes an authority. The answer lies on the invisible reward or curse put on the head of the master immediately after his acceptance of the role as “master”. This invisible reward or curse is what people call “authority” or in this case, “responsibility”. If the spill did not happen and the cargo was delivered successfully, still with the master’s admitted drunkenness, still with the third mate’s ineffective maneuvering of the vessel, still with the lack of manpower and ineffective Vessel Traffic Service, the only cause would have been the master’s capability to maneuver the vessel effectively and lead his crew with such experience.

Unfortunately, the circumstances led to the oil spill and all others put aside, even the ineffective Vessel Traffic Service, what would always be viewed and put on spotlight is the master’s inefficient monitoring of the vessel, with his drunkenness only adding seriousness and giving more reason for the blame.

The Exxon Valdez disaster is said to have happened because of the negligence of the people who were responsible for it. As implied earlier, this would not have been noticed if the vessel was able to drop of its cargo successfully. It is important to note that what circumstances that have caused the situation, particularly the master’s drunkenness and his allowing a third mate to maneuver the vessel seem to have had been only a natural occurrence with respect to the vessel’s operations.

Note, that in the transcripts of the events prior to the grounding, there was no indication of the third mate’s anxiety to do the master’s job:

“The master left the bridge after explaining to the third mate that he wanted the ship to pass between the ice flow and Bligh Reef at 2352. Shortly thereafter the third mate turned off the automatic pilot in preparation to turn the vessel and took a bearing of Busby Island Light. The third mate then ordered the helmsman to apply 10 degrees right rudder and informed the master the the turn had began. Two minutes later the third mate ordered 20 degrees right rudder when he saw that the vessel was not turning. Again two minutes later he ordered hard right rudder due to the reading of the radar that the ship was still traveling at a heading of 180 degrees (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Grounding, n.d., par. 7).”

The third mate was not asking questions and he acted as if the master’s drunkenness and absence happen regularly. Such regularity of circumstances only made an impression of “correctness,” that is, if a situation happens all the time, there is an implied meaning that there is nothing wrong with it. If an inpidual likes to eat breakfast in the afternoon, then it is only correct and proper, and the society to which this inpidual belongs would not and will not try to notice any wrong if nothing uneventful happens.

In the case of Exxon Valdez, if the master had been used to leading the vessel drunk, and allowing a crew member to take hold of the vessel without his guidance and had been successful in directing his assigned vessel to its destination prior to the disaster, then the crew members would not see anything abnormal or incorrect. And even if they did, who are crew members to point out a master’s behavior when it was not doing anything harmful, then? As it was, the erroneous behavior was only noticed after the disaster.

The comfort in regularity could also be applied to the Exxon Company. Although it may not be guaranteed that the disaster could not have happened if only the master was not drunk, the lack of Ethics program could have reduced the possibility that the master would have allowed himself to lead the vessel in such disposition, which, given that this specific disposition of the master is the center of blame, could be said to have prevented the disaster.

Prior to the Exxon Valdez disaster, the company had not experienced any major problem regarding their employees and their cargo disposal (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, n.d.). Their operations had gone with all their cargoes being delivered successfully with every shipping. For a company which objective is only to be able to deliver a cargo at the right time in the right quantity, it is not surprising that operational and ethical errors were overlooked if this objective is met regularly.

In cases when ends were being met, the means were almost always left unnoticed, sometimes, deliberately. And since the company had always been successful, the need for an Ethics Program had never been felt. At present, that view may have already changed, only after much judicial procedures and penalties have been imposed on the company. Exxon had been held legally responsible and not the consumers (Exxon Valdez, 2007).

The cargo is always the responsibility of the shipper as long as it is within its premises. The Exxon Valdez, being an “asset” of the company, along with its cargo should be considered its responsibilities. In this case, since the oil was in Exxon Valdez, the oil was their responsibility. The oil spill, whether it was a result of sheer negligence on the part of Exxon as it is still believed today, or a result of a mere accident, should be considered as a responsibility of the Exxon. It then follows, that cleaning up should be pioneered as well as financially supported by the company.

Undoubtedly, the oil spill had resulted in heavy losses, mostly to the environment and in effect, to the people, who depend on the environment. Thus, the oil spill had resulted to losses as well as the incurring of heavy opportunity costs. It can be said that the accident, if not for the negligence of the company had taken away possible opportunities from the citizens. Placing the responsibility on the citizens through taxes and price increases is then out of the question. Increasing the taxes and the prices would be allowing the citizens to pay doubly for an accident that they never wanted nor had something to do with. Putting the burden to the citizens would similar to having a victim pay for object that that been robbed from him.

In order to compensate or at least partially restore the previous lives of the victims, direct or indirect, efforts should be directed on restoring the environment and compensating for the environmental costs. As it is, the fishing community had been directly affected by the oil spill. The other citizens were affected by changes in the air and the environment (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, n.d.).It would be inevitable that oil companies would increase their prices and the citizens could not do something about it no matter how improper it would be. After all, Microeconomics has a law of its own. The case being put on scale, now is the prioritization of the environment and increasing the prices of gasoline or, putting the desires of the citizens for low gasoline prices and risking the environment.

Putting the environment as priority over the desire for low-priced gasoline would produce a better long-term effect. Restoring the environment could also restore the previous livelihood of the fishing community as well as the citizens’ previous lifestyles. Such restoration would be priceless. However, price increase in gasoline would still be undesirable. But maintaining the low prices of gasoline without restoring the environment would also maintain the losses incurred by the accident to the citizens. This may not be accounted for in the books but economically speaking, the effects would be the same or possibly worse.

The government should then impose laws to protect the citizens either by subsidizing or putting the burden on those who are responsible for the disaster. In any case, the citizens were the victims and should not suffer.

The Exxon Valdez Disaster is a case of morals since the beginning. The actions of the master and all those who were involved are results of a failure, of not just properly maneuvering the vessel but of realizing the consequences of the acts. This failure had been inculcated by the lack of recognition of the errors, lack of expectations by the company to the employees, undefined principle orientation and thus, the lack of punishment appropriated to the errors. The occurrence of the disaster had cost the citizens much but it had also paved way for the start of proper imposition of punishment, in the form of responsibility. Part of this responsibility is liberating the citizens from the costs that the disaster had burdened them.

Works Cited

  • Exxon Valdez. (2007, February 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (n.d.). In Thinkquest. Retrieved 13 February, 2007, from
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Grounding (n.d.). In Thinkquest. Retrieved 13 February, 2007, from
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Spill (n.d.). In Thinkquest. Retrieved 13 February, 2007, from
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