You're Wrong About

Halloween Re-Release: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

October 31, 2020 Michael Hobbes & Sarah Marshall
You're Wrong About
Halloween Re-Release: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
You're Wrong About
Halloween Re-Release: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Oct 31, 2020
Michael Hobbes & Sarah Marshall

What if the scariest thing in America is unfettered capitalism and unaccountable corporations?


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Where else to find us:
Sarah's other show, Why Are Dads
Mike's other show, Maintenance Phase

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Show Notes Transcript

What if the scariest thing in America is unfettered capitalism and unaccountable corporations?


Support us:

Where else to find us:
Sarah's other show, Why Are Dads
Mike's other show, Maintenance Phase

Support the show (

Mike: I just want someday for there to be a movie where like a big city person moves to a small town and finds that its shit.

Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where we set right what we once got wrong.

Mike: Oh, we're back to the original tagline.

Sarah: Yeah well, I just I want to give Quantum Leap more of a chance. Hoping that each leap will be the leap home. That's the other Quantum Leap thing. So it's hoping that each You're Wrong About will be the last. I mean, I don't really hope that because I really like making the show with you.

My name's Sarah Marshall and I'm a journalist for the New Republic and Buzzfeed. And I'm currently in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, because that was the closest place to where I'm staying where I could find enough reception to have this conversation.

Mike: Wow! I am Michael Hobbes, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post and I am cozy in my apartment, which has terrible acoustics as usual. That is the only new thing to report.

Sarah: You need to hang up some scarves or something. Just pretend and be like “n Saturday, I will live as Stevie Nicks”.

Mike: And today we're talking about the Exxon Valdez spill. And the research for this, it was a long time and I was like, oh, it's not that interesting, it's not that interesting. And then I just like, hit pay dirt. And I was        like, “Oh my God”. And then kind of like we were talking about last week. It became this thing where I'm like, we really got this one wrong. Like there's a huge story underneath the Exxon Valdez spill that no one  ever talks about. And it took me a while. It took me like a week of reading to find that story, and then once I dug in, it’s like everywhere. So I'm also really excited to talk about this. I was biking through downtown Seattle this week, listening to a podcast interview with one of the survivors of the spill, and crying on my bicycle.

Sarah: That sounds dangerous.

Mike: Drivers were honking at me like SUV's, I was just like, give me a second. I was like, really, really, really into it.

Sarah: Wow!

Mike: So yeah, I thought this would be like a fun and jaunty episode about like the destruction of a bunch of Marine species, but it turns out it's actually really sad.

Sarah: Yeah, I will tell you what I know about Exxon Valdez, because I knew in my heart that there would be something weird at the center of this. I couldn't imagine what it was, but I guess I knew that it wasn't going to be as easy and breezy of a topic as I sort of understand it to be, because my whole sense of it is

that I guess I don't even know enough about it to ask questions. What I know it as, as there was a an oil tanker in the early nineties.

Mike: That is wrong, it was 1989, but keep going.

Sarah: So I'm already wrong, I guess, in terms of what decade it happened in and had a crash or a leak due to practices that I imagine were later determined to be not ideal and that it inspired like Greenpeace to get more powerful or environmental reforms maybe. What it's really synonymous with in my head is images of all the animals with oil all over them, all these animals kind of suffering in this public way that inspired us to maybe as a culture be like, oh, there are repercussions to the massive scale of toxic material that we're trying to move around.

Mike: My resolution for this episode was not to complain about the media. But one of the things I think is really interesting about this is how deep those images went. Those birds and the seals that’s what seared into my brain from this to, is those black beaches. With these birds that are so covered with oil that they don't even look like birds. It looks like fur because all the feathers are stuck together and there's like limping and trying to fly and they're way down and it's just absolutely heartbreaking. Like, that's what I remember about this too. I remember watching the news, I just remember how the country stopped for like a long time to look at this. I remember this being something that like my parents were like, “Hey, hey, hey, let's eat dinner in front of the TV”, which we never did.

Sarah: Wow!

Mike: But I remember like weeks or a week of like every night, it was like, we learned something new about the Exxon Valdez spill, let's cover this a little bit more.

Sarah: Yeah. And so I'm curious about to start with what was your understanding at the time of how this had happened and like, did you have a sense of somebody being at fault?

Mike: So the original story of this was basically that there's a boat that leaves the coast of Alaska, and right after it leaves it hits a reef and there's a giant gash in the middle of the ship. And so as we all remember from Titanic, many ships have like different containers within them, and if some critical mass of them floods, then the whole boat sinks.

Sarah: I can keep her afloat with four containers breached, but not five, not five.

Mike: Oil tankers are exactly the same thing. There's like, I forget what it is, but it's something like, there's like 11 containers and five of them were ripped open or six of them or something like that. So it's like the majority of them, but it's not all of them. 

So basically just after midnight, March 24, 1989, this  boat leaves the coast of Alaska filled with oil and it goes out of the shipping lane. There's kind of like a specific way that it's supposed to be going. It's on its way to Long Beach, California, where it's going to offload all this oil and it leaves the shipping lane and hits this reef that is very shallow and just gashes open the whole thing and oil just starts shooting out of this thing. So it ends up being 11 million gallons of oil. But there's different accounts and there's different, like you read different numbers in different places and it changes all the time. And I also think one of the weird media aspects of this too, is these giant numbers, like 11 million gallons of oil.

Sarah: Right.

Mike: It sounds like a lot, but is that a lot? Is that like a day worth of oil or a week or a minute, or...

Sarah: Well also that we don't even have a way of picturing that, like I have no concept. I don't even know what a hundred gallons of oil would really look like honestly. I would have to sit down and be like, well, if a gallon of milk is this high.

Mike: Right, like how many gallons are in a swimming pool? Like, I don't even know that. So it's like, I couldn't even begin to know what 11 million gallons actually means. And that's another thing that later on they determined that it's about 1,500 miles of coastline that gets affected by the spill. And that's another one of those things,1,500 miles, is that a lot? Is that a little? And then one of the interviews I was listening to, the person mentioned that it's basically from Seattle to San Francisco, that's how much coastline got covered with oil, which when you think about it is huge. That's like two thirds of the entire west coast. But Alaska is really big. So like 1,500 miles is not that much of Alaska by any other scale, it's like profound impacts. 

And so the original narrative of this was that the captain of the ship, Joseph Hazelwood, was drinking. So that's how the boat ended up out of the shipping lane, was basically this guy who's had I think four DUIs, his driver's license was revoked at the time that he was driving their ship. He's from New York and he had had his license suspended in New York, a bunch of times for DUIs.

There's internal company memos where like they know that he's drinking and has a drinking problem, but they don't care. They're like, he's a really good captain and he's like certified and he's like, he's actually really good at his job. He just happens to have this huge alcohol problem. And so they didn't really do anything about it. And so the original narrative of the spill is that basically this dude was really drunk and just kind of like reckless driving on this boat, going like six miles an hour, and ended up running into ground.

Sarah: So if that's the original narrative, was he perhaps somewhat more of a patsy than we realized at that time.

Mike: You already know how these things work. I wonder if there are structural forces behind this.

Sarah: I wonder. If something that went wrong on a massive tanker, controlled by a massive company, employing many people in charge of determining logistics and making decisions, if something going terribly wrong could not be entirely the fault of one person.

Mike: Right? Exactly, like huh! It is actually true about the DUIs.  I think the first debunkable thing is that he wasn't driving when the boat ran aground. So what really happened was the captain of the ship, Joseph Hazelwood, went to bed early and he put the third mate in charge. And it's not like this really absolves him of guilt, so one of the explanations is that he was drinking and he was tired, so he put the third mate in charge. Another explanation is just that he was tired, and he put the third mate in charge. But what happened, and there's been a million government EPA investigations of the sense is that the third mate was put in charge 10 to 15 minutes before the crash, the third mate never should have been in charge. This was the least experienced captain on the entire ship. So there's four different people that are kind of in charge of driving on these ships. There's like the first mate, and the second mate, and the captain, like there's this whole hierarchy. And basically the guy at the bottom of the hierarchy, kind of like the intern, was essentially put in charge.

Sarah: So a lot of our narratives so far are about interns being given too much responsibility and how that doesn't work out well for anybody.

Mike: Yeah, one of my favorite random details on this is that 10 hours after the crash. So it crashes, there's all this oil leaking out into the Bay. Everyone's losing their minds, somebody breathalyzers Joseph Hazelwood, the captain, and it's like you've got a history with alcohol we need to breathalyze you. He blows up 0.61, which in many states is too drunk to drive and this is 10 hours after the crash. So like he's wasted. However later on, when he's in a negligence trial, he says he was drinking after the crash because he was like, “Oh, we've crashed, my career is over, I'm going to drink my sorrows away.” So it's like a weird, he like makes a weird argument like, yes, I'm extremely negligent, but after the crash, I'm not negligent before the crash.

It's still not quite clear whether or not his alcohol contributed to this and it is also clear that whether it's because of alcohol or not Hazelwood putting the least experienced guy in charge in like a very tricky driving situation, like what is actually supposed to happen is that a special person is actually supposed to board your ship, drive it out of the difficult parts, like someone who really knows the terrain and then that dude is called a pilot. The pilot gets off the ship and then the captain takes over once you're in open waters. But that didn't happen.

Sarah: Isn't it interesting that you can have a whole job and it's like being able to fly a plane, but not land one?

Mike: Right, it's like, that's the only thing, you know, how to get these ships out of this one, particular area. Like every one of these kinds of major crashes, this of course is the story of like 10 different fail safes. So the coast guard was supposed to be watching the ship and should have notified them, like pinged them, that you're out of the shipping lane. But they didn't.

Sarah: This does remind me of the best description I've heard of Titanic sinking, which is that there really was only one fairly specific way that Titanic could sink and that was just exactly what happened. Like it had to be at a time where there were an unusual number of icebergs because they were going on a route that was known for its lack of icebergs. It was April, it was way too late for them to have expected to encounter one. They didn't have the binoculars for the lookouts. They instead of ramming it,

which actually they would have been able to get to New York if they just hit it head on because, they would have had only one compartment breach. They scraped alongside it not very hard, but for almost the whole length of the ship. And also because it was colder than the materials in the ship were really made for, they were really brittle and say that they were more prone to breakage because of the temperature of the water. So all these very specific things had to happen all at once and it's just that they did.

Mike: Right, it's like this with airplane crashes too, that there's always like 10 things that go wrong and there's some percentage chance of any one of those things going wrong, right? So it's like compound risk of like, there's a 2% chance of the insurance failing. There's another 2% chance of the pilot being asleep. There's all these kinds of 2% chances that if they all happen at once, something really catastrophic is going to happen. But what happens, I think it's like a corporate governance thing. What happens is that over time, each of these 2% chances get bigger. It's expensive to keep all of these risky things low risk. 

So it's like over time, those 2% risks become 4% risks, become 5% risks. And that has a compounding effect. 

So one of the interesting things about this, and the really the very structural explanation of this, is that that type of boat never should have been in those waters anyway. In one of these EPA reports, I saw one of the defenses that the coast guard offered for why they didn't ping the ship and say, “Hey, you're out of the shipping lane”, is because they did that all the time. They're like, “Oh, well, six hours before some other ship was out of the shipping lane and we didn't tell them”. It just goes to show that they had basically been getting more and more and more negligent over time that they're like, oh, well, the boats want to go faster. Like Exxon is pushing us to be more efficient, they'll get to Long Beach an hour earlier so let's just let them go out of the shipping lane. And then after a while it becomes normal. They're like, oh, well they're all out of the shipping lane, so whatever. Or like not having the pilot on the ship. They're like, well, we only do that every once in a while.

Sarah: Just go a little faster than safe.

Mike: Yeah. And that's like, that's really what happens is that every single one of these tiny, low risk events just slowly over the years had become more and more risky. Like the, all of the safeguards had gotten more and more lax. So the real story of this actually begins in 1968. This is before the oil embargo when oil is pretty cheap, they find they strike oil in Prudhoe Bay which is North of Alaska.

It's like the Northern tip, the Northern side of Alaska. So they discovered oil up there, but that bay the oil is underwater and that bay is frozen a lot of the year. So there's no way to get oil out of that bay. Most of the year, it's frozen solid, so you can get the oil out, but you can't actually put it on a ship and send it down to the rest of the country. So in 19, in the early seventies, they start wanting to build a oil pipeline. They're like, well, the only way we're ever going to get this oil out of there is with a pipeline that goes all the way across Alaska. Just imagine like drawing a straight line through Alaska from the top edge to the bottom edge and that's where they want to put the pipeline. And there's this whole history of when they were building the oil pipeline, the whole idea was to run the oil pipeline across Alaska and then put it on

a boat as they do, and then run it down to California. The fishermen in this Bay are like, this sounds really reckless. There's going to be a spill like you can't just have like 1.5 million gallons. I think every day or every year again, I have no idea what these volumes are, but a lot of oil is going to be going through this pipeline.

Sarah: And also like if an Alaskan fisherman, whose job is going out in inclement conditions, in the freezing cold to maybe capsize and drown just sort of as an occupational hazard is like, this is too risky.

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: You should listen to them.

Mike: And so these people in the 1970s are basically predicting exactly what would happen, like there's a lot of shallow reefs. You'll probably be doing this in the dark because you'll want to be doing it 24 hours a day. A lot of people are not trained and are not good at these reefs. The water level changes, like it's an actually difficult task, and it's inevitable that one of these boats is going to run aground and this is literally our livelihoods. Like this is, we are dependent on the fish, the entire half of most of these coastal towns, about half the population of all those towns is directly engaged in commercial fishing. And then the rest of the towns are sort of support networks, right? It's like schoolteachers and restaurants and stuff like that. 

So the entire coastline of Alaska is completely dependent on fishing. So these fishermen communities are like, guys, this is a really bad idea. And so Exxon, which of course is wanting to develop these oil fields, is like, “Look, you're absolutely right. You have a really good point. We're going to run shifts with double holes so that if it gets cut, there's an extra layer of protection. We're going to have pilots on our ships. We're going to have tugboat escorts that drive us through the channels. We're never going to deviate from the shipping lanes. We're going to be really careful.” 

Congress in their infinite wisdom is like, let's trust the oil company on  this. Like, forget these like fishermen who live up there, let's go with Exxon like Exxon's definitely telling the truth about this. So none of this stuff gets written down. So Exxon makes all these promises about the way they're going to run their operations and none of it is codified into law.

Sarah: Let's not ask the police to transcribe their interrogations. Let's just trust that what they say is, is what happens.

Mike: And it's not as if they have any incentive to lie. Right, so we can, we can 100% trust them. Like, they're fine. They're a private sector actor with like shareholder responsibility. So like, yeah let's trust them. And so Nixon approves this pipeline. And then this is the most bananas thing. So on these double hold vessels, obviously these ships with double hulls are much heavier, so they require more fuel              to run and they go a lot slower, so they cost Exxon a lot more. So Exxon stops using them after a little bit of time, they just like quietly stopping using them.

Sarah: It is like any way that you behave, if you like, don't want to get caught like you're really careful at first and then you're just like, you know, what if I just quietly stopped trying very hard. I don't think anyone will notice.

Mike: It was the bananas thing. In the early eighties, Alaska passed a law saying that all vessels have to be double hold. Exxon sues the state of Alaska saying that's an undue burden and they never promised to do that, like that's how brazen this company is. So one by one, every single thing that they've promised goes away. By the time we get to the 1980s, they're just like going as fast as they can. This Hazelwood guy, this is another thing that didn't end up in any of the reports at the time, the captain of the ship was in a labor dispute with Exxon at the time because he was concerned that they were pushing him harder and harder to go faster and faster. And so he had actually complained to the company, “Guys, you're making me go too fast. I'm not comfortable with this.” And the company was like, “No, no, you need to produce, produce, produce”. So it's really, it's a story of pressure from above and then pushing all of these little, tiny risks higher and higher.

I listened to a bunch of interviews with this woman named Riki Ott, who was a Marine Toxicologist, who happened to get a summer job on an Alaskan fishing boat the summer before the oil spill. So like this Marine Toxicologist and the city of 2,500 people happens to be living there and just like is a fishermen lady and she starts looking into all this stuff. And so the night before the Exxon Valdez spill, she was giving a presentation to Alaska lawmakers. The title of the presentation was It’s Not a Matter Of, It’s a Matter of When, where she was saying kind of as a toxicologist she had been looking at all this. She knew how devastating the impacts would be on the entire economy there and on the ecosystem and the people there. And she knew that the company was cutting corners. So she was trying to ring the alarm, like guys, this is going to happen, you need to really aggressively regulate this company.

The next day she gets a knock on her door from somebody saying the big one happened. And that was how people refer to it, everyone in this little city Cordova, they called it ‘the big one’ because they kind of  knew it was going to happen. I mean, one of the most wild things about this, so the boat runs aground, March 24th. Another area where the company was cutting corners was cleanup. So one of the things they had promised to the state was like, look, we're going to have all kinds of fail safes. We're going to have people in place and experts and like clean-up crews ready, like lifeguards, in case anything bad happens. And of course this costs money to have people stationed there, so they had cut and cut and cut.

Sarah: And where they secretly like, look, nothing bad is going to actually happen.

Mike: It's like the lifeboats it's like the lifeboats on the Titanic. They're just like, it’s never going to happen, it's indestructible, don't worry about it. This Riki Ott woman, who is like my role model now. She's super cool, she's written like five books about this.

Sarah: I think it's important that in every show we have a hero in a nemesis, and this time Riki Ott can be our hero, yeah.

Mike: She points out that the boat runs aground on the 24th, the oil leaks out of the boat, the boat basically gets emptied of oil and then it just sits there. So for three days, this oil is just sitting there and everyone's like, well, what should we do? And the company is like, well, we're flying in people. But there

had never been a cleanup of this scale in the United States before. And there really wasn't science to back up how to clean up one of these spills.

This was another thing that she had presented to lawmakers in her presentation. She was like, if this happens, we don't know how to clean it up. Like, the best cleanup technology we have recovers 10% of oil that spills in the water. Like that's the best we can do is 10%. So like if there's an oil spill, 90% of the oil is going to just sit there. And that's actually true. Like by now, 8% of the oil was recovered. This is however many years later, 8% of the oil was recovered. So all of us is still there in Prince William Sound. 

So this oil sits there for three days, nobody does anything, and everyone's like, um, are you going to like send in people like, is anything going to happen? And then day four a storm happens and this is how all of this oil, all 11 million gallons or whatever it is, gets blown to the West and that's how it just like scrapes the entire coastline of Alaska is the storm sends it.

Sarah: So it's another little misfortune thrown on the pile.

Mike: Yeah. It’s just like, if they had acted earlier, they wouldn't have. I mean, obviously they wouldn't have been able to get all of it, but they would have been able to do more than just leaving it floating on the top of the water and like waiting for like a big storm surge to come and then to just like spread it around.

Sarah: And instead the only response they're capable of having is like, we didn't plan for bad things to happen so we don't know what to do.

Mike: And like the state regulators were asleep at the wheel. Like no one took it seriously that this would ever happen, and no one took like the technology of cleanup particularly seriously. So they were literally,  they were testing cleanup methods on this cleanup. Because nobody had really tried to clean up a large scale oil spill before. So, they're just like, oh, I wonder if we can like use sponges. Like I wonder if we can  use chemicals that will seek it to the bottom. But they're testing things out as this is dousing all the killer whales and all the birds. They're just like picking it up as they go along.

According to Riki Ott, and also according to some of the EPA documents I read, to this day on a lot of the coastline in Alaska, if you dig down 18 inches and you put your hand into the sand, it will come out black.

Sarah: Oh my God!

Mike: I don't understand anything about chemistry or oil, but eventually the oil gets hydrated somehow and the oil basically sinks to the bottom. So what's happened is some of the fisheries have recovered, but that's not because the oil has like gone away. It's because the oil is just sunk to the bottom of the sound. So it's still there and like, presumably having some sort of impact. I mean, I don't think that you can have millions of gallons of oil at the bottom of a bay not fucking with things

Sarah: Right! I'm no chemist or gasologist, and yet it just seems like it would have some effect on something.

Mike: Yes.

Sarah: Yeah.

Mike: So by all accounts the cleanup effort was just kind of janky. It took three years, but then after three years they stopped the cleanup effort. I don’t know, which seems weird because they've only recovered 8% of the oil.

Sarah: Isn't it kind of weird how we don't talk about AIDS anymore in America, really? Because we got to this point where people weren't dying constantly and in public all the time and we were like, okay, we're just, we're tired.

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: We're, we're like lower than bubonic plague levels and so we're just going to focus on other diseases right now. We just don't have it in us, we cannot keep talking about the same thing for as long as it happens.

Mike: Yeah!

Sarah: Well, this gets into our continuing conversation about what makes the news, news. Because is there something about like Exxon Valdez was news for as long as it was a disaster.

Mike: Right!

Sarah: And then like, do you think that it, it maybe to an extent became more of a narrative of, oh hey, we fucked something up and this is what the Alaskan coastline is now and maybe we'll be for the rest of our lives and we can continue to try and clean it up. But this is bigger than all of us and it will outlive us, and we can't see ourselves as heroes and that kind of a story, so like let's just give up.

Mike: I think so. I mean, it also stopped producing as many of the dramatic images, or we got used to the dramatic images. You can only see so many pictures of a seagull covered in oil before you're like, eh, you just don't, it doesn't have the impact anymore.

Sarah: The compassion fatigue thing happens.

Mike: I mean, we'll get to this, but the biggest and most interesting impact of the Exxon Valdez spill barely got commented. They were all like page 32 news and the newspapers. The other thing I want to debunk about this was that the Exxon Valdez spill wasn't that big of an oil spill.

Sarah: Really?

Mike: Yeah, at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it was the worst oil spill in American history. But in world history, it was the 36th worst.

Sarah: That's like how we don't even have like a top 32 in the world team in soccer, and we just don't pay attention to things that we don't rank highly at. We're just like, soccer isn't real, this is the biggest oil spill in the world, the end.

Mike: Well, that's the thing. It's like, I think people don't think about the fact that like other countries are affected by industrial accidents. So the Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million gallons spilling into the sound. The largest oil spill in the world was 240 million gallons. Huge. So this was after the first Gulf war, a bunch of oil people there started just shooting oil into the Persian Gulf.

Sarah: Wow!

Mike: They put it out and then they set it on fire to keep Americans from coming.

Sarah: You know if they had been in America, they could've just polluted a river enough that it caught spontaneously on fire like the Cuyahoga.

Mike: One of the most bananas ones, which I had never heard of before I started working on this, in 1979 two oil tankers ran into each other in the Caribbean and then caught fire and sank. And so that was 88 million gallons.

Sarah: OMG!

Mike: So that's another one where like, it also killed way more people. It killed 26 people because these boats exploded after they rammed into each other. And so this is like a fucking huge deal, but it's like, it's just not like the country of Tobago is not one that we spend a lot of time thinking about and like the Caribbean Sea is not a body of water that we're particularly concerned with. But like 88 million gallons is hella. It's also worth noting that now, you know, the deep water horizon, the BP spill, that's now the second biggest in world history.

Sarah: Well at least we edged in there. Thank goodness.

Mike: Now we're finally in the league tables.

Sarah: The corporate forces that allowed Exxon Valdez to happen. Remind me so much of a film that I recently saw for the first time, which is the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough. Have you seen that?

Mike: Oh my God, no, but it looked terrible, Sarah, why did you? It looked so bad!

Sarah: You know what is interesting about Enough?

Mike: What?

Sarah: It's really bad and then it gets really good in the last 20 minutes, and then it gets really bad again. But there's a very satisfying part where you're watching Jennifer Lopez just getting ready to kick the shit out of her abusive ex, like taping up her knuckles and like putting tape on over all her rings, and it's great. But Enough is the sort of classic abuse dynamic being set up narrative. So like this guy swoops in and he has all this money and he buys Jennifer Lopez her dream house and she is like, why would I ask

questions about this? This is great. Yeah, you know that you're entering into a power dynamic where you're surrendering your control and you just have to believe that the entity you're surrendering your control to whether it's TV's Billy Campbell or Exxon. They just have to keep wanting to keep your best interests at heart.

Mike: Well, one of the weird blind spots that kept occurring to me as I was reading about this was that every kind of smart and savvy American is like, well, you can't expect companies to have a conscience because companies are not social actors, right? Their profit maximizing CEOs cannot go to their shareholders and say like, we're doing this because it's good for the community. If that's our guiding principle and if that's the rule behind the way that the capitalist economy is structured, fine. But then that has to suffuse every stage. If we know that at the end of the process we're like, look, we can't expect Exxon to clean up all this oil. Well, shouldn't that also inform the way that we set up regulations. Like this company will keep its promises. No, no, their word is their bond. No, no use writing all this down. The fundamental thing is that if a company's profits are at stake, it will lie to maintain them, it will sue to maintain them, it will act in bad faith to maintain them. And all of that is fine. We can all be savvy and accept the fact that that's the system we've created. But we have to make that part of the system at every stage, not just at this end stage.

Sarah: To bring in another very fraught metaphor. Isn't this reflective of the fact that America just is Jennifer Lopez? The thing happens and in a domestic abuse dynamic is that you have tension building, acute battery incident, and then loving contrition. And it feels like we have these moments, like the Exxon Valdez spill, that are in acute battery incident. And then we have loving contrition and we're like, okay, we're going to take our shoes off, we're going to have double hold tankers, we're going to fix this specific problem.

Mike: Right.

Sarah: You're never going to be nice, you're not capable of it. That's not who you are.

Mike: Well this leads perfectly into what I think is the real story of the Exxon Valdez spill, and the one that we don't tell as often. To me, it feels like the real story of the Exxon Valdez is about the lawsuit that was filed. So right after the spill, obviously people are destroyed, people everybody depends on commercial fishing in these small towns and commercial fishing is gone. It just literally doesn't exist anymore. All the fisheries are closed, all of the fishing stops. The entire backbone of the economy of these places is completely decimated. So after the spill, I think it's 90 or 91 people filed a class action lawsuit against Exxon for the damages that have been caused; for short-term damages, for long-term damages.

This lawsuit ends up going on for 14 years, ends up going to the Supreme court, and it sets a precedent for the next time this happens, it's going to be so much worse. So basically the first thing that happens is the company makes everybody prove that there were damages. So the first sort of traumatic component of this is that to prove that you've been harmed by the oil spill, you have to document that your livelihood depends on commercial fishing and that commercial fishing was damaged. And so of course, because again, we live in a capitalist system with shareholder value as paramount, the company begins

this campaign of questioning everything, questioning was commercial fishing really damaged by the spill?

Sarah: How short of a skirt was commercial fishing wearing that night?

Mike: Like literally. And then there's all this documentation stuff, so the process of discovery is bananas because we've got hundreds of thousands of people that are affected. So it's like, well, are you really in the commercial fishing industry, I'm going to need to see every pay stub for every month you've ever worked on commercial fishing, I need to see your bank statements. And of course the company has the resources to question everything. That they're like, well, you say you began as a commercial fisherman January 13th, and this other record says it's January 14th. So I just don't believe that you're a commercial fisher. They just do this nickel and diming, just questioning everything. And one thing that Riki Ott and other people mentioned is just so broken about the legal system is that it's an adversarial system.

So their role, Exxon's role, in this process is to question literally everything, because that's the way that the legal system is supposed to work, right? One person is opposing, and one person is advancing, but of course the opposing team has way more resources and way more patience then the advancing team, right? If you have just lost your livelihood, you need relief now you're on the hook and the company can just wait and wait and wait.

Sarah: I’m sure that all of the poverty wage earning fishermen in Alaska can afford to stay locked in a legal battle for 14 years. Like I'm sure that they have completely equal footing with Exxon.

Mike: And of course the legal system is not set up for power imbalances like this, right? So they go through the original trial. There's a jury trial in Alaska where they're assessing the claim. So Exxon somehow manages to narrow it down to 32,000 claims because they've thrown out all the other claims for compensation. They think that they should only be paying people, I think it's something like $11,000 each for each of these claims, they're only going to pay back the actual fisher. I don't want to say, I'm trying to, I'm trying to talk around the word fishermen, but like fisher people, because like they're of course gender mixed.

Sarah: The fisher humans.

Mike: The fisher humans. But basically Exxon is making these completely insane claims, so they, at some point want to limit, they argue to a judge that they want to limit the total compensation. Again, 1,500 miles of coastline, tens of thousands of people affected. Exxon wants to limit the total compensation to $25 million dollars. They're like, look, we don't care how it's distributed, but we just think $25 million is about right. And they refuse to pay for any long-term consequences. They're only paying for short-term consequences. Basically we ruined like this one summer for you so whatever you would do in this summer, that's what we're going to pay back. So if only the fishermen, none of the teachers, the restaurants, but I mean, tourism is decimated, right? So the people that rely on tourism are just as decimated as the fisher people, but they don't get any compensation because, oh, sorry,

those are indirect impacts and there's no proof that tourism wouldn't have gone to zero people that summer anyway, so we just don't see the evidence.

Sarah: You could have had a black fly infestation, it is not because of the oil spill necessarily.

Mike: It's 100% disingenuous. But the way that the legal system is set up is that you have to take every claim seriously, even if on its face, it's disingenuous, right? There's no, there's no like release valve.

Sarah: Don't you think you should be able to, instead of standing up and saying, “I object” in a trial, there should be some sort of maneuver where you stand up and go “Really? Really?”, where he gives me a signal that like, look, this is in bad faith.

Mike: And that is what's so frustrating about this whole system and really the whole corporate accountability mechanism in general is that the company files 22 motions to dismiss. During this original trial, it's already been five years. This is 1994, the company filed 22 motions saying, look, this shouldn't even be a case at all. We don't see why we don't see why these people are even filing for compensation. It's total bullshit, but there's no release valve for the legal system to just say, no, fuck you. 

So this trial ends up taking years. The jury, to their huge credit, say compensation to these 32,000 people, compensation is $287 million total, which is only about $7,000 each. Bananas. But punitive damages are going to be $5 billion. That's one year of Exxon's profits. You have destroyed an entire ecosystem and entire economy.

Sarah: That is a really beautiful verdict.

Mike: Right? It has like a nice brownish to it and it's punitive damages. The whole purpose of punitive damages is so that you don't do it again. Like the concept, this is how consequences work, right. Is that you don't like the consequences? And so to avoid consequences, you behave differently in the future. Like this is what every five-year-old understands and what the entire system of corporate accountability pretends doesn't exist.

Sarah: Right. And it's like that thing of trying to get someone to apologize and by constantly trying to get  all these dismissals, the corporation is just like, I'm sorry, you feel that way.

Mike: Right, I’m sorry for the witch hunt that you're on, apologies for your witch hunt. So the company, of course, like this is not going to be a happy ending, right? So the company obviously appeals.

Sarah: This is why Erin Brockovich ended before the appeals.

Mike: Right and this is also, I mean, we, we covered this in our sexual harassment episode that like the entire thing of punitive damages is just so fucking broken. There’s these victories and then they always get overturned on appeal. So Riki Ott talks about how this eventually gets appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where basically the judges say, well, the community wants 5 billion and the company wants       zero. So why don't we just award 2.5 billion? So Riki Ott says this hasn't happened before, like one side of that equation is people, and the other side is a company that is transparently acting in bad faith. So why would you just give them equal weight and cut the difference? That makes no sense. And so then of course the company then appeals because this company is terrible. So they appeal up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then cuts it to $500 million.

Sarah: Oh God!

Mike: The Supreme Court doesn't even cut the punitive damages to $500 million, they cut the entire damages. So what the Supreme Court comes up with is this preposterous formula in which punitive damages can never be more than equal to the compensatory damages.

Sarah: What?

Mike: So because the company has paid $287 million in compensation, the punitive damages cannot exceed $287 million.

Sarah: So it sets a bad legal precedent, in fact, after 14 years.

Mike: Essentially, it becomes the inability of regulators and judges to hold companies to account that if companies are going to nickel and dime the compensation down as low as they possibly can, they're going to nickel and dime down to $7,000 for people that have lost literally their entire livelihoods. Then, oh, on top of that, we can only put one more X of that on top to punish the company so that they never do it again. We're now down to, it was a year of the company's profits. By the time this        $500 million verdict comes down, it's four days of profit for the company.

So what punitiveness is that they've removed all of the incentive for the company to behave any differently. The court, I don't, I mean, you knew more about courts than I do, so I don't know of courts ever do this, but basically the Supreme Court in the decision is like, “We don't think this should be a precedent. This should only apply to maritime cases.” So that the Supreme Court is like, this only applies to maritime law, which like why? Like, what is, what, what the fuck are you talking about? Who cares if it is maritime or not? And they cite all these precedents. 

They cite a precedent of a BMW lawsuit to justify this, that like punitive damages are out of control, but then they say, oh well, it only applies to maritime law, but a lot of legal scholars since this have pointed out that circuit courts and lower courts are using this as a precedent. This idea of one-to-one punitive damages has become a precedent, despite the Supreme Court super disingenuously being like, oh, we're a court, which, you know, runs on case law. But like, don't consider this case law, like what lower court judge is going to be like ,oh, well the Supreme Court told me not to, so I'm not going to use it. No all the lower court judges are using this bullshit one-to-one formula. So what this case really represents is just the carpet being pulled out from under any mechanism to hold companies to account. Like, why would Exxon behave any differently now?

Sarah: I mean, it has the ring of logic, but no actual content. It's like, well, punitive damages can't be more than compensatory damages. And that's like when your friend is like, “Well, you can't come to the slumber party because I only have four sleeping bags”. And it's like, that's not a real reason, that's just something that you say to avoid saying your actual reason, which is like, I don't want you at my slumber party. Or for whatever reason, we have become a near to the fact that we cannot expect corporations to actually be held financially accountable for the extent to which they're destroying the entire world. Like, it's just, we've given up on the idea, but only in maritime law.

Mike: You're exactly right because the Supreme court says they make it seem like there's some crisis of punitive damages in America today. They're like, you know, punitive damages have gotten like really arbitrary. Like some cases have like $5 million in punitive damages and some of them have like $1 million, like that's bad. And it's like, is it? Or like, is it bad that companies aren't being held to account. 

I think it's punity for companies that do bad shit to me, is so much worse than punitive damages being arbitrary.  Like this idea that we have to have a formula for punitive damages. It's dumb. We don't have a formula for anything else. Like this is how jury trials work. There's not a perfect formula for like, if you kill your wife, you will get exactly 27 months in prison. No, we look at the individual, we look at their circumstances, we look at whether it was premeditated.

Sarah: Right.

Mike: This is how the legal system works and they also, this was like the part that I was like in my notes. I was like, in all caps, like you are fucking kidding me. So one of the things that the Supreme Court mentions is that this arbitrariness of punitive damages violates the due process rights of corporations.

Sarah: Doesn't it do the opposite, in fact? Because by saying that they're going to evaluate it individually, doesn't that guarantee them more due process?

Mike: Oh yeah, that is a good point, I hadn't thought about that actually.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

Mike: I was more just offended at the idea that like poor little Exxon, you're right, we need to protect Exxon.

Sarah: And the due process clause was written to protect entities like Exxon, surely. Like that is what was on her mind.

Mike: Yes, the most powerful actors in society definitely need their due process rights. And so this gets to the crying on my bicycle part. Which is Riki Ott, she was living in Cordova, Alaska at the time when all of this was going on. She talks about how this entire process, not just the spill, but also the litigation tore the city apart. Suicide rates went up, depression rates went up, divorces went up, kids got worst grades in school, crime rates quadrupled. There's actually academic literature on this. 

One of the most interesting studies I found was after the spill, the sociologists went up to Cordova, Alaska, and ended up living there and documenting everything that was going on in the community afterwards. There's a real thing, it's called ‘disaster trauma’ or ‘collective trauma’, where communities destroyed themselves after these events. What's really interesting is that communities that are hit with an act of God and like an earthquake or a storm, they don't do this. It's only when it's man-made disasters that people tear themselves apart. And they give three reasons for this. 

The first thing is that people lose trust in institutions. That there's so much government failure here and corporate failure and people failure that you get mad and you stop trusting in the system. And obviously, how could you not hate the court system? If you live in Cordova, Alaska, and you're waiting for 14 years for your $15,000 check for your lost life savings. This lack of trust starts to infect your relationships with everybody. 

And then also there's  like a compounding mental and physical health problems. So people start getting depression, they get a lot of anxiety. They start fighting with their wives. One of the things that's really bad is the ambiguity that six months after this bill, you start getting like a hacking cough, right? And you're like, well, is this a spill? Is it not this spill? Some of your neighbors are like, fuck Exxon, this spill did it. And then some of your neighbors, like, no, we need to hear them out. It's not that bad. So this ambiguity, they call it, the research is called ‘ambiguity of harm’, it creates an ‘us versus them’. 

So Ott talks about the community dividing itself between the purists and the Exxon whores. So members of the community start accusing each other. Some people are saying like, you know what we knew this was going to happen, we shouldn't be asking for compensation at all. And other people are kind of trying to lead the March for, we need to take this company down, we need to sabotage their operations. If we see their employees in town, we should throw drinks on them.

Sarah: These are the spectrum of approaches that you can take in the aftermath of sexual assault, can also go to the responses of like, I'm going to throw a brick through that guy's window, or it's my fault.

Mike: Right.

Sarah: Everything's my fault somehow.

Mike: In one of the interviews this podcast interview with her I was listening to because she's a marine toxicologist, so the interview is asking her about, like, tell us about the seabirds and tell us about the killer whales. And she's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, what really happened was the community got really depressed and it became a really sad and hard place to live for a really long time. And she talks about just like, as a human living in a place that becomes defined by this disaster. 

Another thing that I think would be so hard about this is the population of all these coastal towns doubled, almost overnight. So all of these researchers start to arrive, and all the cleanup crews start to arrive. So not only have you lost your livelihood, but then rents go nuts because there's all these people moving there and there's no extra houses. The prices of food go nuts, the prices of everything goes nuts. So you lost your livelihood and you've got all these new people. You don't necessarily trust, and you have less money, and everything costs more. And so that also creates this us versus them of like, there's all these interlopers. 

I read a report from the state of Alaska on the economic impact of the spill and people at the time were earning $16 an hour to be cleanup workers, which in today's money is like $28, which is like, that's a good salary. And so some of these fishermen got jobs doing that, but then some didn't and that also created a lot of stress for them that some people are actually benefiting from this spill.

Sarah: Yeah. And that like this force came in and destroyed your livelihood. And then the compensatory industry is based on cleaning up the thing that ruined your whole life.

Mike: Right, for which you have not been compensated. So that human element of it just sounds so sad to me and so awful. And she says domestic violence rates went crazy. I just think of it as like, you know, you've injected oil into this community, but you've also just injected anxiety. Where there's all these people that they don't know. I mean, some of them after the spill, some of them ended up getting    good jobs for a couple of years as cleanup workers, but they didn't know that. So for all these people, this was March, so all they knew was that this summer, maybe I can fish, maybe I can't. My livelihood is destroyed. Like imagine how much anxiety you'd have. They live in a community that doesn't have a road. So it's a very remote community. A lot of them have been fishers for years. So it's not clear that there's really anything else for them to do in this particular city. And they're thinking like, well, do I have to move? Do I have to retrain? Just the anxiety of injecting all this anxiety into every single family in a community all at once just seems like, of course it would be disastrous. 

And it's, it's interesting to me that just that we haven't heard that much about this, that like I looked at all these ‘Exxon Valdez 25 years later’ types of things, and very few of them mentioned the human toll.  It was mostly about the ecosystem, which like the ecosystem is fucked. Like I'm not saying we shouldn't care about the ecosystem, but this idea that like disaster trauma and collective trauma is a real phenomenon. And I'm sure that it will be happening like can you imagine what Puerto Rico it's like right now?

Sarah: I literally can't imagine what it's like right now.

Mike: I mean that was like why I think I was crying on my bike was partly because of just like how sad it sounds, but then also like how that should have occurred to me anyway. When you hear about something like this, it should be really obvious to you that like, oh my God, imagine what it's like for those people, not the day after or the week after, but like a year after, in 10 years after, like it leaves this scar that probably never heals.

Sarah: I think this is a way of thinking that we have to teach ourselves and sort of reinforce as a practice because it's, I think something, again, something that's societally enforced, but that we do as a species of, you know, my description of what is Exxon Valdez as well. It was this disaster and the wildlife was affected. And then we ended up with, you know, setting precedents that would make it less likely to happen again, happen again. In fact, we ended up setting a precedent that made things worse.

Mike: Right?

Sarah: If we're talking about assigning punitive damages to people whose lives are destroyed by the risky business, I guess, of major corporations. And it did not occur to me to think of this as a tragedy that happened to people because it wasn't presented to me that way and I haven't trained my brain sufficiently to be like, everything that happens on this scale is going to have this kind of a footprint.

Mike: I'm going to end with the darkest finding from all of this.

Sarah: Great!

Mike: In these communities, people who were involved in the litigation had higher rates of depression than people who weren't involved in the litigation.

Sarah: Interesting.

Mike: So what these researchers are finding about disaster trauma is that the litigation itself is a source of stress. They call it a ‘secondary disaster’. The first wave of harm happens with the oil. The second wave of harm is the lawsuit itself. This process of discovery, this process of proving that you're a fisherman, being divided against your neighbors, all of the organizing that takes place is itself hugely stressful. 

And    so one of the things that Ott says was that a lot of people, by 2008, even though they were only getting   $0.10 cents on the dollar, what they were expecting to get and what they feel like they should have gotten, a lot of them were actually happy that it was over. Getting a tiny payout is almost better than another five years and a small chance of getting a larger payout. Like it's just for these people, it feels like it's over.

Sarah: This reminds me also of how I read something recently that I found fascinating, debunking the  marshmallow test. Do you remember the famous marshmallow test that was done?

Mike: It was like kids who waited to eat the marshmallow the longest ended up being like the most successful kids, because they could resist their own temptations long enough. So they became like lawyers and doctors because they studied harder or whatever.

Sarah: And the test was, you can have a marshmallow now, or you can have two marshmallows in three minutes, but you have to sit there and look at your one marshmallow and not eat it. And they did this with preschoolers.

Mike: Right!

Sarah: And so this new study is complicated, if not outright debunking, that original study was like, hmm, isn't it interesting that most of the students here were in the Stanford preschool, And so their parents were in the Stanford community. And so we're talking about kids largely being drawn from a demographic of middle to upper middle class, professional, college educated, white people. Not entirely,  but to a great extent. And then they looked at the corresponding data about which kids ate two marshmallows in which kids ate one and found that in fact, regardless of how many marshmallows you ate, you were on a trajectory to become a doctor or a professor or whatever. If you had college educated parents and sectioning come into your household and the marshmallow thing was perhaps kind of a red herring. 

And the argument that the author of this article that I read about that debunking put forth also is that if you're a kid from a low income home and someone puts a marshmallow in front of you, where are you getting the faith that they're eventually going to be more marshmallows? Like if you're raised with food insecurity, or with like, maybe you get a little treat now, but there's really no point in waiting for a bigger treat later because there are no bigger treats in the world. Like you eat your  marshmallow when it is in front of you. It's just a different way of seeing the world.

Mike: And this leads to like one of the weirdest and saddest things about the spill is that again, this Riki Ott woman, who's like my hero now. She was sort of, after she wrote a book about this, she was kind of making the rounds to Alaska lawmakers and saying like, “We need to pass a law. Like there's lots of other oil shit going on in Alaska. And like, we need to be really careful about that shit”. And a lot of the lawmakers said, well, look, that spill pumped $3 billion into our economy. And that brought us out of the recession. 

So the unemployment rate in Alaska single-handedly in one summer due to this spill, went from 7.2%, which is really high, to 6.8%. So 0.4% unemployment rate drop for this one spill. So this is another thing like the incentives for these spills is that you think of all the economic activity that's been lost now, like the tourism sector has been decimated. Fishing has been decimated, these communities have been decimated, but that's all long-term effects. The short-term effects were like an injection of money into the state. And so the lawmakers don't really have an incentive to change anything because they're like, well, If something bad happens, we'll just get like a ton of federal money and like, whatever, we’ll  lose some seabirds, fine. But we'll get this Keynesian boost to our economy.

Sarah: Right? Well, it's like your husband beats you to a pulp and then he pays for your hospital stay and buys you a new Mercedes.

Mike: I mean, so I worked in human rights for 11 years, so I feel very strongly about this. And not only did I work in human rights, but I worked in corporate human rights, trying to hold companies accountable for human rights violations. I mean, this to me, it really demonstrated to me why I left corporate human rights work. I did all these projects with so many companies. Like I did all these consultancy projects directly for companies where they would like show us their data and we would like tell them what their human rights risks were. And it seemed like Exxon, if you go on Exxon's website, they have a human rights statement. They have like a human rights sustainability report that they  put out with all of their like values and their diversity systems and we're supporting the arts and all this like human rights stuff. And you just know that the next time there's a spill, the next time anything happens, their lawyers are just going to become junkyard dogs. That is the model that we have. 

And so it happens so many times to me when I was doing that kind of work that I would do one of these human rights projects and the companies would say all the right things, things, and like, oh, we're like consulting with communities and we're doing all these like women empowerment grants that we're giving out in Zambia. And then the minute something goes wrong, they're like, oh fuck Zambia, fuck these women. Like, no, these women are liars.

Sarah: These women were manipulating us.

Mike: But literally this is what companies always say, like, “Oh, we're being targeted by the enemies.” I always hear this that the communities are gold diggers. And like, this does actually happen. Like I've been in African communities where something bad happens and people do kind of come out of the woodwork for compensation. But I also think that that's a much, much, much smaller problem with a much smaller impact than companies destroying people’s health.

Sarah: Yeah, it's a power dynamic where as an individual, you're not going to win. It's so stacked against you. It's like going to Atlantic City to win your rent money for next month.

Mike: I'd rather have a system that's like, you know what, we wasted a couple thousand dollars on like a fishermen in Alaska or a farmer in Zambia. Rather than, we allowed a company to completely distort the process. Like I think there's always going to be errors in any system, but it's like, who do the errors benefit? And companies are always arguing that any looseness in the system should benefit them, and I just do not agree with that. I mean, I've written essays about this with my feeling really fucked up about all the years I spent doing that of just like, this is how it works. Companies say all the right things and the minute anything is on the line, they completely reverse. And they say in court that everybody else is a liar and that they have no social obligations at all. I just think we should start to trust their lawyers rather than their marketing.

Sarah: I mean, that reminds me of like a moment that was really decisive for me, just sort of realizing what companies are. I guess it was, I saw this amazing ad that was just one of those beautiful ads where it's like sweeping music and the face of a young woman, and fields, and farmers, and the sun rising. You're like, wow, the world is a beautiful place, and we all get up in the morning and do our best. And then it was an ad for Dow chemical. And I had recently learned that Dow manufactured Agent Orange.

And I was like, ‘huh’. I think I was a teenager at the time and there was that moment of being like, oh, so you can literally have a campaign of selling good feelings.

Mike: Ever since I moved back to the States, I'm just so cognizant of how much more luck plays into my life here. That basically we've now set up a system where the next Exxon Valdez spill is not going to be done very well. Like there's BP who had to put $20 billion into a fund after the deep water horizons bill, which is good, but then they're also doing the same nickel and diming stuff and making people justify every single one of their claims. They're low-balling everybody, they're basically behaving terribly. Well, I feel like my life is going okay, but it's like I'm just one accident away from everything being gone and having no recourse.

Sarah: And I will turn that into one of my bizarre last minute twists into Optimism and Pollyannaism. If the people who are supposed to be protected by fishermen in Alaska having their lives destroyed, if that's like done for the benefit of the blind Siddharth and middle-class. If that goes away and no one's really benefiting, except for like these few crazed, road warrior, conglomerate types. Eventually the balance is going to shift. I mean, this was what I took out of interning at the Georgia Innocence Project, where I realized that I was looking at this criminal justice system that had been set up the entire time with this argument of like, look as a middle-class white woman, you are the person who we are wrongfully convicting all of these people for. it is for you. This whole system is for your benefit.

Isn't that nice? And I was like, you know, first of all, I did not ask for this. And second of all, I'm living in a time in America when all of these systems that are abusing every other demographic so that my life can be nicer, are not working for me. I can't get a job, I'll never own a home. Like there's no point in me being complicit in all of this.

Mike: I'm glad that we're back to having super depressing episodes.

Sarah: Yeah, I know, I mean, we did Jonestown last time, but that was a fun one.

Mike: We're back to just like revolution and disaster now, great.

Sarah: And so in conclusion, the only way we can possibly learn from this and be right about it, is to destroy all corporations.

Mike: Burn it down!