Ship Master Joseph Hazelwood had had too many drinks that night and had gone to bed, leaving the huge vessel in the very tired, inexperienced hands of Third Mate Gregory Cousins.
The Exxon Valdez, loaded with 53 million gallons of crude, had to avoid the icebergs that were blocking the usual rout out of Prince William Sound, in Alaska. After several maneuvers and thinking that danger was behind them, Cousins engaged the automatic pilot, and at 12:04 AM on March 24, 1989, this oil leviathan hit the Bligh Reef.
The ship started bleeding through a huge gap that would let go 11 million gallons of crude. The clumsy hesitation by Exxon -- the owner of the tanker -- in reacting to the spill and the remoteness of the area contributed to worsen what would become America's worst ecological catastrophe.
With a deadly cloak, the spill covered 1,300 miles of some of the most pristine, biologically rich coastline in the Western Hemisphere, triggering ruin for the local fishing industry and also the death of up to 500,000 sea birds, billions of fish eggs and hundreds of larger animals, such as orcas, seals, otters and bald eagles.
A federal investigation concluded that Exxon and its employees committed a long list of mistakes that led to the disaster, including failing to supervise a drunken shipmaster or acknowledging that the crew was overworked and exhausted. Exxon was also blamed for its dismal reaction to the disaster.
On this 20th anniversary, Exxon (now known as ExxonMobil) has long ago turned the page. For the Alaska residents, especially the fishermen, the nightmare continues.
According to the federal government, 26,600 gallons of crude oil are still lingering below the surface of area beaches. It's no wonder the fisheries at Prince William Sound never quite returned to their glorious past. The herring population that supports the fishery food chain in that region, for instance, has never recovered.
ExxonMobil, on the other hand, has since become the world's richest corporation. Last year, in the midst of a recession, the company reported a jaw-dropping $45 billion in profits. Each minute of each day of 2008, it made more than $75,000 in profits. Let's keep in mind American's average salary is a little over $40,000 per year.
Even so, ExxonMobil keeps refusing to compensate those 30,000 Prince William Sound fishermen to the tune of $5 billion as ordered by a court in view of the terrible devastation it caused to the region's economy. During this time, 6,000 fishermen have aged and died without seeing a single cent of what the company owes them.
Also, the company acts as if the Exxon Valdez disaster were an isolated case and that we should not worry any recurrence. The Minerals Management Service, however, reports that offshore oil operations around the country spill almost 300,000 gallons of crude into the ocean every year. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone spilled some 9 million gallons.
These should be overwhelming reasons to look for alternatives to 19th-century energy solutions. Nevertheless, ExxonMobil and the rest of the oil and gas industry insist on continuing their drunken ride without thinking about the inevitable hangover.
Last year, this industry increased its lobbying expenses in Washington, DC, by an astonishing 64 percent, from $82 million in 2007 to $128.6 million in 2008. Of course, the leader of the pack was ExxonMobil, with $29 million.
Industry observers consider this spectacular increase a symptom of panic in an industry that no longer has its best friend in the White House. Instead, they see a new president, Barack Obama, determined to look for and establish clean and renewable sources of energy.
It has also realized that President Obama is convinced that we must take urgent, effective action to fight global warming.
Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, this industry, drunken with profits, perhaps is also about to hit a reef called arrogance and perhaps has realized that its days are numbered.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit www.sierraclub.org/ecocentro.