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Exxon Valdez tanker captain behind infamous 1989 Alaska oil spill dies of COVID and cancer

The captain at the helm of one of America’s worst environmental disasters, which spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s pristine waters and cost about $1.85 billion to clean up, has died at age 75.

The name Joseph Hazelwood has become synonymous with the Alaska oil spill, which covered 1,500 miles of Gulf of Alaska shoreline in March 1989, killing wildlife and destroying ecosystems.

News of Hazelwood’s death was first confirmed by a trade publication in July, but was not picked up by national outlets for six weeks.

The 75-year-old sailor who lived in Huntington, New York, on Long Island was struggling with COVID-19 and cancer at the time of his death, his cousin told the New York Times.

Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef and was found to be intoxicated.

 

Joseph Hazelwood (pictured in 2014), the captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on a reef in Alaska in March 1989, has died aged 75

Joseph Hazelwood (pictured in 2014), the captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on a reef in Alaska in March 1989, has died aged 75

 

Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez (pictured right) when it ran aground on Alaska's Bligh Reef and was found to be intoxicated at the time of the spill.

Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez (pictured right) when it ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef and was found to be intoxicated at the time of the spill.

 

The 75-year-old sailor (left) who lived in Huntington, New York, on Long Island was struggling with COVID-19 and cancer at the time of his death

The 75-year-old sailor (left) who lived in Huntington, New York, on Long Island was struggling with COVID-19 and cancer at the time of his death

An investigation by the National Council for Transport Safety (NTSB) said the likely cause of the run aground was the failure of the third mate to maneuver the ship properly due to fatigue and excessive workload.

Hazelwood had not been on the bridge at the time of the incident, but the investigation found that his failure to provide a proper navigation watch was due to alcohol deficiency.

The Exxon Shipping Company, a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation, also failed to provide a suitable captain and an equipped and sufficient crew.

The NTSB also noted a lack of effective Vessel Traffic Service and pilotage services.

 

Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground on Alaska's Bligh Reef and was found to be intoxicated at the time of the spill (pictured)

Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef and was found to be intoxicated at the time of the spill (pictured)

 

The spill has wiped out wildlife along the Gulf coast, spanning 1,500 miles

The spill has wiped out wildlife along the Gulf coast, spanning 1,500 miles

 

Thousands of people helped clean up, but it was still one of America's worst environmental disasters to date

Thousands of people helped clean up, but it was still one of America’s worst environmental disasters to date

 

The oil slick covered rich fishing grounds and destroyed habitats prompting Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

The oil slick covered rich fishing grounds and destroyed habitats prompting Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

A jury acquitted Hazelwood of a charge of driving a vessel while drunk, but convicted him of a felony charge for negligence in discharging oil.

Hazelwood was fined $50,000 and forced to do 1,000 hours of community service while the Coast Guard suspended his license for 9 months, but he never returned to sea.

Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 because of the spill that streamlined and strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills.

Thousands of workers and volunteers helped clean up after the oil spill, but despite desperate efforts, the spill wiped out much of native wildlife, including salmon, herring, sea otters, bald eagles and killer whales.

In an interview with CNN in 2014Hazelwood said he had requested permission to cross the separation zone and that there had been ice in the track.

“Two ships before me would have done it,” he said.

“I went to my office, I had some paperwork to fill out and had to look at the latest weather, the turn had started, it had just started late.”

Speaking to the New York Times in 1999, Hazelwood said that while he was sorry, the crime rate was the lowest you could get in Alaska.

 

A jury acquitted Hazelwood of a felony for operating a vessel while intoxicated, but convicted him of a felony for negligence in discharging oil

A jury acquitted Hazelwood of a felony for operating a vessel while intoxicated, but convicted him of a felony for negligence in discharging oil

 

Hazelwood was fined $50,000 and performed 1,000 hours of community service after the spill (pictured) while the Coast Guard revoked its 9-month permit, but never returned to sea

Hazelwood was fined $50,000 and performed 1,000 hours of community service after the spill (pictured) while the Coast Guard revoked its 9-month permit, but never returned to sea

 

Native fauna including salmon, herring, sea otters, bald eagles and killer whales were affected

Native fauna including salmon, herring, sea otters, bald eagles and killer whales were affected

 

The spill covered the shoreline with a greasy oily residue that blackened the region

The spill covered the shoreline with a greasy oily residue that blackened the region

“As captain of the ship, I accept responsibility for the ship and the actions of my subordinates,” he said.

‘I never tried to avoid that. I’m not a ruthless jerk.

“But the crime I’ve been convicted of is a B-crime. There is no lesser crime in the state of Alaska. The judge had to come up with a sentence. I can understand. I don’t have to agree.’

Born on September 24, 1946, in Hawkinsville, Georgia, Hazelwood 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.

At age 32, he was the youngest captain to work for Exxon.

The maritime school hired Hazelwood as a teacher aboard the training ship Empire State V a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

While living on Long Island, he later worked as a paralegal and maritime consultant for Chalos & Brown, which had represented him in his lawsuits.

 

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