Almost twenty years after the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska the citizens of the town of Cordova are still dealing with the environmental and social impacts, as well as the financial and legal fallout of the spill. Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez is a poignant reminder that the effects of North America's biggest environmental catastrophe are still with us. Over the years they have profoundly altered the lives of tens of thousands of people, reducing many of them to poverty and despair.
Shortly after midnight on March 24th 1989 the supertanker, Exxon Valdez, ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, a wilderness, immensely rich in marine life. Millions of litres of the tanker's crude oil escaped into the sea. Most of it would never be recovered. Flying over the disaster site Riki Ott witnessed the tragedy firsthand.
Almost instantly dramatic images of the disaster crisscrossed the planet: aerials of the tanker surrounded by an enormous black oil slick, seabirds desperately trying to flap their oil covered wings, dying seals, and viscous black waves of oil rolling towards the shore. The black wave would contaminate 2,000 kilometres of pristine shoreline.
The media soon had a culprit - the captain. Captain Joe Hazelwood's blood alcohol level showed that he was seriously intoxicated. But was he just a scapegoat who obscured the fact that this disaster was preventable? For years biologist and fisherwoman, Riki Ott and many others in Prince William Sound believed that a major supertanker accident was just waiting to happen and that Exxon was not prepared to deal with it.
A few days after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Exxon launched a cleanup operation along with an unprecedented public relations campaign. According to Exxon one irresponsible individual - Captain Hazelwood - was to blame. Exxon presented itself as a responsible corporate citizen that was doing its best to repair the damage. An Exxon spokesperson stated at the first community meeting - "We will make you whole".
Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez follows the saga of what happened once the story was no longer front page news and after the journalists had gone home. In 1993 both the salmon and the herring runs collapsed. Some species, like the herring, have failed to recover, creating a permanent economic crisis for the Sound's fishermen. As the bankruptcies began, a wave of social problems followed - alcoholism, high divorce rates and even suicides have swept through the Sound's small towns.
Eventually a successful class-action suit, involving 32,000 people, brought the plaintiffs a huge victory when the jury ordered Exxon to pay five billion dollars in compensation. That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn't. Battalions of Exxon's lawyers started a drawn-out judicial war that dragged through the U.S. legal system. When the case finally ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, it reduced the award to one tenth of its original amount. The decision, a victory for ExxonMobil, was a bitter defeat for the people of Cordova who are still trying to rebuild their lives.