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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Vulture’s Picnic – My Home is Now a Strange Place (Installment 3)


[This is the third installment of Chapter 7, My Home is Now a Strange Place from Greg Palast’s Vulture’s Picnic. Many thanks to Mr. Palast for providing The Mudflats with an exclusive of this story that is so critical to the state of Alaska, and reveals so much about the corporate interests that still dominate here.]

By Greg Palast


State Inspector Dan Lawn, grabbing a fast launch from Valdez, was the first to reach the shipwrecked tanker, risking the ride through the sickening fumes and fountains of crude that could explode with the touch of a match. In the tower, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, three sheets to the wind, greeted the Inspector. Everyone knew The Inspector. “Hell of a way to end a career, huh, Dan? What should I do?”

Inspector Lawn said, “Joe, I’d start by putting out that cigarette.”

* * *

That’s it? Some drunk at the wheel of a tanker drives it up on a reef and ruins a thousand miles of coastline? Just one of those ooops . . . sorry! moments. Human error.

The newspapers, TV stations, government, everyone bought the human error story. Exxon was culpable, but only because they let a known alky take the wheel.

I didn’t buy it. It was too easy, too perfect.

The smoking gun is just left there, right next to the body, oily fingerprints all over the place: “DRUNK SKIPPER HITS REEF.”

We had the perp (Captain Hazelwood) and the weapon (the VLCC Exxon Valdez). Hazelwood was drunk and the drunk driver drove the ship onto the rocks just like your dumb cousin Louie who killed two six-packs and ran his pickup right through the garage door. Simple. Too simple.

And something else was suspicious. Exxon didn’t deny it. Exxon really seemed to like the story: Yep, we had a drunk at the wheel; he cracked up the boat; wasn’t our fault he was drunk but, boy, are we sorry; and we’ll pay for the mess he made. Case closed.

Why was the biggest corporation on the planet so ready to take the blame for its captain? Why were they so ready to say, “We did it—that is, our guy did it—and we’ll pay.”

Did Exxon have a heart? A soul? A sense of guilt and honor?

And was I just some cynical sonovabitch who only thinks the worst of the corporate animal?

Hazelwood was charged and found guilty of operating a boat while intoxicated (a conviction later overturned on a technicality). He paid a fine, lost his license, did penance in a soup kitchen. His employer was guilty of leaving a drunk driver in charge and paid a fine of nearly a billion dollars, no complaint.

Why couldn’t I just drop it there?

Whether Exxon had a heart, I couldn’t say, not having had the pleasure of doing an autopsy. But I knew it had a scheme. And, in the shadows, another company on my own list of suspects, British Petroleum, had, I was sure, an even schemier scheme.


Four plane changes in twenty hours got me to the Alaska Bar in Cordova. Not to drink—I myself wasn’t yet a drunk. (I hated alcohol except for cherry wine at Passover.) I started there because that’s where most things start in Alaska, in a tavern, whether shipwrecks or homewrecks.

At this bar across from the docks, I found Cliff Olsen, an Eyak Native, one of my clients, getting a light buzz on. A navigation map showing the tanker channel was nailed up near the end of the wooden counter. Cliff ran a finger down the map from Valdez to the sea. “Hell, I’ve taken boats through the Narrows stone drunk and never hit a damn reef.”


After leaving the bar, I called the World Trade Center and spoke with Gordon Arnott, a ship’s navigator turned lawyer. Many of the lawyers at the Admiralty firm had experience in the salt, and Arnott had steered tankers through the Sound. “That’s right,” he said. “We always left Valdez after some ‘pops.’ ”

And something else: Hazelwood wasn’t driving the Exxon Valdez drunk. Because he wasn’t driving.  He was nowhere near the helm. He was passed out below-decks, snoozing off the boozing.

Now we’re cookin’.

Exxon and its industry partners paid Father Nicholas a dollar for the inestimably valuable Valdez. But Nick’s signature alone wasn’t enough. For the oil combine to lock down Valdez, Nicholas would have to divide his dollar with other Chugach village chiefs and get their signatures, too.

Their first target: Tatitlek’s chief, George Gordaoff . In 1989, I found him in his log bungalow in the Eyak Natives’ Old Village, located in deep forest, miles from Cordova. George, age showing, was on the couch, not well. His wife, Mary, who’d taken over as Chief, had kept the papers from those meetings with the oil men decades earlier. She got angrier and angrier as she unfolded each document and map.

In 1969, Gordaoff , then a commercial fisherman, knew any tanker leaving Valdez would have to steer clear of Bligh Reef, a hazard right off their village island. Gordaoff worried that if oil hit Bligh or nearby fisheries, it would be the end. So when the oil company honchos came around for his signature, Gordaoff told them, before he’d take their dollar bill, they would have to agree to use the latest in radar, or forget it. The lawyers for Humble Oil told him to put his radar plan in writing. That must have given them a chuckle. They knew Gordaoff was illiterate.

But Mary encouraged him to dictate his detailed plans, including what he knew of Loran-C radar and radio tower placement. So the oil companies were stuck, and the demand for radar was typed into the deal for Valdez. That was Promise #1: radar. Gordaoff also demanded escorts. He said there would be no deal unless the tankers had escort boats to guide them around the reef. The Natives knew it like the backs of their hands, so they offered to pilot the guide tugs. The oil companies added Promise #2: escorts with experienced pilots.

The company lawyers then ran off with the Natives’ signatures to a Democrat controlled Congress that was about to vote down the Pipeline. Congress favored an all-land route for North Slope oil, safer than tankers from Valdez but a heck of a lot more expensive to construct. But now that the Natives, the ancient stewards of the land, were A-OK with shipping oil—sprinkled with radar and stuff —who the hell is the Sierra Club to say it’s unsafe?

The oil companies who would own the Pipeline, a consortium including Exxon, ARCO, Shell, and Sohio (British Petroleum’s American cover), put the radar, equipment, and pilot promises into their congressional testimony and into pledges to the Department of the Interior. That gave the oil companies’ promises to the Natives the force of law. The oil company executives swore in their permit filing,“Sophisticated navigation equipment and highly trained ship personnel should eliminate any probability of groundings in the Prince William Sound.”

On the night of March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez did indeed have the most sophisticated radar you could buy, the Raycas Fairways system, the first GPS. Today you could buy it for maybe two hundred bucks, but back then, it cost millions to install and required special training to operate. So Exxon had it turned off .

Another seaman turned lawyer, Terry Gargan at Hill, Betts, figured that one out. The radar had been busted since the ship’s maiden voyage two years earlier. The company decided, hey, why blow money on a system the crew didn’t know how to use anyway. The “highly trained personnel” were clueless about working the Raycas system.

With radar equipment out of business, the ship was not legally fit to sail. Exxon knew it, but the ship sailed anyway. The oil industry did live up to its promise to sail the Sound escorted by an emergency pilot tug—twenty years after they made the promise, after the Exxon spill, and then, only under threat of legal sanctions.

* * *

With the documents Chief Mary and George handed me, we now had the oil company promises in writing. But so what? A promise made by one oil corporation to another oil corporation is a contract. A promise made to a Native is a what? A treaty? A statement of goodwill you can wipe your ass with?

I knew what it was: a crime. The crime was racketeering. RICO: The federal crime named after Johnny Rico, the movieland mobster played by Edward G. Robinson, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. I had to convince a judge and jury, as well as our own lawyers, that Exxon and its partners were a mob equivalent to the Cosa Nostra, to the Mafia, against which the RICO law was aimed.

There is a difference of course. Unlike the Mafia, Exxon and partners had a huge advertising budget and a Texas oilman named Herbert Walker Bush in the White House.

But I had this: Exxon and its partners had suckered the Natives into giving away something valuable in return for a lie. That smelled an awful lot like “fraudulent inducement,” the first “predicate act” needed to bring a RICO case.

I had these scraps of paper from a Native woman in the woods. To charge the world’s biggest corporations as gangsters, I would need a whole lot more: It required reviewing thousands of pages of supporting documents we’d have to somehow uncover. And it would require my best and soberest years.



13 Responses to “Vulture’s Picnic – My Home is Now a Strange Place (Installment 3)”
  1. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    mike, no, I did not mean to imply that there was any real confusion, but when you are dealing with people who wantonly lie about what you said and generally can get away with it, do you think anyone listening to the background is going to split hairs as finely as you do, or just dismiss the statement as a blunder that in neocon world translates to total lack of credibility?

    • mike from iowa says:

      That is exactly what I try to get across regularly-rwnj don’t care about public perceptions. Every critique is dismissed as the liberal media distorting the record for political points. They are accused of the exact same thing nutters do. I’m with you 100% on this.

  2. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    I hate to say it, but it has to be said. It does the end purpose a disservice if any hint of sloppy work or mis-statement of fact is allowed to be enshrined in a written indictment, particularly when the indictment is against a monolith the size of Exxon, the oil industry in general, or their regulators. So I have to agree with Carol to that extent, shoddy work on details will not pass muster.

    It is true, there is a double standard. It is true that such a double standard is grossly unjust, but the fact of its injustice does not in any sense mitigate the even worse fact that all such minor details will be siezed upon and magnified out of proportion to smear the accuser. Does this sound at all familiar?

    Frankly I tripped over the reference to Herbert Walker Bush. Wait a minute!

    So that said, I sincerely hope that this book has not yet gone to press, if it has it has probably doomed itself because it will be picked apart with the same avidity that true vultures have for eaking every last morsel of nourishment from the carrion on which they live. And that would be a pity.

    It is bad enough that the supreme court has already depricated the consequences of this disaster to the extent that they did, arbitrarily I might add. They cannot tell the difference between a lake and an artificial impoundment, they are themselves obviously corrupt and on the take as the saying goes, and worst of all, they are liars, Roberts claimed he would be an umpire, but Citizens United was an exercise in coaching.

    What can we do against this kind of obscene and blatant corruption?

    The answer is apparently under present circumstances, not much. But it is short sighted to give in to that cynical viewpoint. It is easy and facile to compare corruption to a cancer, there are certainly some apt parallels. But the distinguishing feature that make the analogy false is that corrupt individuals are not necessarily vital elements of the body politic. They are both easier to identify and easier to excise. And that is what must be done with them. We cannot and may not ever be able to stop, let alone reverse biological cancer, but we know full and well how to end political corruption. It is really very very simple. Take away the money.

    I can’t take the time to elaborate much more but I will throw this out there for the purpose of discussion. What if political office was more like Jury duty? Now please do not jump on me for the many shortcomings of that concept, I am already aware of them, not all but most. However, the one thing that stands out is that a jouror is required to make a sacrifice to fullfill the duty. The same could be true of all other political offices. Instead of being a pathway to boundless lucre, getting elected should be a period of humility and penance and austerity.

    Just a concept to chew on some, with enough refinement it might actually be made workable.

    Until we admit and then eliminate the influence of money in politics and government, we will not have a fair government that acts in the best interests of the majority. It is that simple.

    • Zyxomma says:

      Krubozumo Nyankoye, have I told you lately that I LOVE the way you think?

      • mike from iowa says:

        What seems to be the tripping point over Bush? He was certainly firmly ensconced in the White House,he was a Texas oilman and he was certainly in the pockets of big bidness,as Molly Ivins would say. And big bidness was the Awl Industry.

        • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

          Simply the fact that he is George Herbert Walker Bush, not just Herbert Walker Bush. Such a minor error in an indictment would result in no indictment. If you can’t get the names right, how reliable are you with respect to the arcane details and facts?

          Just today I saw another allusion to a prepublication chapter, maybe the same one and maybe not to this book that raised the issue of seismic qualifications for nuclear plants. This is certainly a ripe area for discussion given recent history, but instead of a well reasoned outline of what is wrong with the lax regulations and unrealistic expectations all that came across was a claim that there was a) a conspiracy to hide failures, and b)an assertion that the limiited evidence for that in one case could be applied across the board to every nuclear plant ever built. I could argue a fairly good case that the nuclear industry in the US is an economic and technological disaster, but without even a hint of some vast conspiracy. So I am not impressed.

          Zyxomma – thanks for the kudos. But isn’t the actual issue here how we all think? It shouldn’t be that difficult to come to a consensus if we just have and use the same tools. They are not arcane secrets. Nothing I do is unique or special. But on the other hand it is not either “common sense”. It is reason applied to moderately complicated problems. Common sense is a euphemism for taking a wild guess at a multiple choise question where the choices number in the thousands.

          The world is big and complex and full of ugly stuff. We need to #1 be aware of as much as we can be, and #2 learn how to prioritize between the things that are sensational and the things that are so fundamentally wrong that the whole system could unravel if they are not managed properly.

          • mike from iowa says:

            There has only been one Herbert Walker Bush in the White House and one Walker Bush. If this was an actual indictment I could understand being more formal. Bush was also referred to as Bush 41 and Poppy and a slather of names not suitable for public exposure. Could there be any serious doubt in anyone’s mind,who the article was referring to? Just saying.

  3. carol says:

    Palast takes considerable literary license. The old Eyak Natives village, deep in the forest, miles from Cordova? Don’t think so. If he means Tatitilek, he should say so. I’m not getting good vibes from these excerpts. I was born and raised in that area, altho I moved out years ago, I still remember and have some contacts there. I’ll just say he takes considerable license. I have many books on the Spill and this one isn’t going to be one of them. Now, Riki Ott’s books are worth buying and reading.

    • Zyxomma says:

      I understand your points, Carol, and they’re good ones. However, this book isn’t just about the Exxon Valdez spill. It’s about oil company misdeeds and coverups all over the globe, including the still-in-ruins Gulf of Mexico. It’s about corruption, money, and power. These are Palast specialties all.

  4. Zyxomma says:

    That’s it. I’m not just buying the book, I’m buying a ticket to see Palast on December 5th.

  5. WakeUpAmerica says:

    I cried when this happened. AKM, I am so glad that you are sticking to this tragic event like stink on poo. It shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should it be minimized. I hope you will keep taking and publishing pictures showing just how ineffective their “clean-up” of the Sound was. Most people think everything is back to normal their and the Sound returned to its pristine state. My anger has never diminished since the event occurred. I will copy this link and send it to everyone I can.

  6. I See Villages From My House says:

    “Hell of a way to end a career, huh, Dan? What should I do?”

    Inspector Lawn said, “Joe, I’d start by putting out that cigarette.”


    That is a money line if I ever read one.

    I’m glad this book is written, I’m glad this is ‘out’ there. I was in High School when this happened, I wrote my Senior paper on it. Even I knew Hazelwood was the prefect fall guy and a drop-dead-drunk-fall guy.

    All the other oil companies piled on the blame of Exxon while they secretly snuck in clean-up equipment and stashed it away in tucks and corners to say that they would have done it differently.

    RICO against Valdez Natives. . .it’s a modern day beads and blankets for billion dollar access. Oh my head and heart.

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