|Workers cleaned a beach in Alaska|
after the Exxon Valdez supertanker
spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in 1989.
credit: John Gaps (AP), NY Times
In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling enough oil to deface the beaches and inlets of Prince William Sound. A year and a half later, Congress spoke, passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. And twenty years later, the Supreme Court enunciated a new bright-line rule for punitive damages in maritime cases, closing out the long years of litigation that had followed the spill. For seafarers, however, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez only marked the beginning. It heralded the advent of an era in which the global criminalization of mariners would become the rule. Putting out to sea had always been risky business. But making landfall, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, could prove more perilous to mariners than any ocean journey. Against the judiciary’s successive interpretations of the tanker’s accident, this Article argues that the grounding of the Exxon Valdez can only be properly understood within its maritime context. It demonstrates that the real punishment for the spill was imposed not on Exxon, but on the men and women who choose to live and work at sea. Finally, it exposes the unfair legal climate in which mariners must now operate, and urges the seafaring community to act to change the law.