Just after midnight, 28 years ago today, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez collided with a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
The 1989 wreck spilled 11 million gallons of crude into glacial waters, and is remembered as one of the worst environmental catastrophes in American history. But its anniversary also recalls a knock-down fight between Exxon and government scientists over the accident's lasting effects on wildlife and human communities.
The oil spill was messy in every possible way. It took years for polluted beaches to be scrubbed clean, and up to 20,000 gallons of subsurface oil still remain, according to federal estimates. A quarter of a million seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals, and 22 orcas were killed as a result of the spill. Exxon Valdez also crippled the region's herring fishery—the fishing industry lost $400 million over 21 years due to herring alone—since oil debris impacted the animals on an embryonic level, stunting their ability to successfully spawn.
Transcripts of phone conversations between Exxon executives, released during civil lawsuits filed against the corporation, revealed that Exxon cared far more about sanitizing its reputation than any environmental damages.
It "doesn't matter if they are really picking up a hell of a lot of oil, at this point—it makes a real bad impression with the public, without any activity going on," Don Cornett, a top Exxon official, said just hours after the spill.
Exxon's modus operandi for saving face was to discredit science that provided evidence for oil's long-term toxicity. The company hired its own experts and funded studies whose results conveniently posed no risk to its profits. But it didn't stop there. Using its considerable wealth, Exxon launched a targeted harassment campaign against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), a government science agency focused on marine and climate issues, which was tasked with cleanup and research efforts.
According to journalist Steve Coll's investigation into Exxon's corporate domination, which was documented in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, the company spared no expense to accuse federal scientists of fraud.
NOAA laboratories were bombarded with FOIA requests for documents related to the Exxon Valdez. The company wanted to "access data before we'd even published it, which put us in the position of giving data before we interpreted it—giving them, in theory, the chance to write up papers before we did," Jeffrey Short, a former NOAA chemist, told Coll.
Scientists were harassed at conferences where Exxon would plant officials for the sole purpose of heckling them. The apex of these events was when David S. Page, a scientist who had been contracted by Exxon, published criticisms of NOAA's research methodology that culminated in an internal investigatory review, after which the agency's scientists were eventually exonerated.
By 1989, Exxon was already mired in another disinformation campaign. The company knew about CO2's impact on climate change as early as 1977; a fact it kept hidden to justify its existence. Since then, Exxon has threatened climate science, sued attorneys general over legal probes, and flexed its political alliances to once more silence federal scientists.
"The Bush administration placed oil industry lobbyists and climate deniers in high-level positions, and what resulted was an epidemic of political interference in the scientific work of federal government researchers," Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace, told me.
"The Trump administration is similarly packed full of oil industry people and the administration has shown shockingly little regard for science or truthfulness."
History repeats itself, but this time, Exxon is closer to the White House than it's ever been. Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is now Secretary of State, and President Trump has lauded the company as the future of American business. Meanwhile, NOAA is set to suffer deep cuts from a loss of funding—an approximately 18 percent budget reduction.
A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce, which oversees the agency, did not respond to a question about the fate of NOAA's disaster relief program, which would respond to any future oil spills.
"One difference now is that President Obama put in place Scientific Integrity policies in many agencies that enshrine protections for science and scientists," Donaghy added. "We will see if those policies are a strong enough guard against political meddling."