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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS
Oil and Water: The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez
Aired March 25, 2014 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Try to imagine the seismic force that pushed Alaska's mountains to the skies or the enormity of the glaciers that melted to fill the sea. It looks indestructible.
But on an overcast March night 25 years ago, the supertanker Exxon Valdez hit a wreath in the pristine water of Alaska's Prince William Sound.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eleven million and 300,000 gallons of crude oil have spilled into the calm waters up in Alaska.
DAN LAWN, ALASKA ENVIRONMENTAL OFFICIAL: You don't run aground in Prince William Sound without it being a big goddamn deal.
PHILLIPS: It was the biggest tanker spill in American history.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Once you get oil out, you don't get it back.
PHILLIPS: The oil slick polluted the shore, killed wildlife...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just remember this pool of black.
PHILLIPS: ... and threatened the livelihoods of thousands of people, including this man, the Exxon Valdez captain, Joseph Hazelwood. Vilified as a drunk, and silent for years about a disaster many people believe he caused, Captain Hazelwood speaks out...
JOSEPH HAZELWOOD, EXXON VALDEZ CAPTAIN: I don't want to bury the past.
PHILLIPS: ... and opens up about what happened that fateful night.
(on camera): Why did you decide to talk to me?
HAZELWOOD: It's something I have had to live with for 25 years.
PHILLIPS: I'm Kyra Phillips in Valdez, Alaska.
For years, there were warnings. And then it happened, a complete breakdown in a system that was supposed to prevent catastrophe.
Now, 25 years later, we're asking the question, could it happen again?
(voice-over): It began in the Port of Valdez, like thousands of other routine voyages, if there's anything routine about shipping 53 million gallons of flammable toxic crude.
(on camera): How many times had you done that route?
HAZELWOOD: I think over a hundred times, in and out.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Forty-two-year-old Captain Joseph Hazelwood was highly regarded by his crew, including chief engineer Jerzy Glowacki.
JERZY GLOWACKI, EXXON VALDEZ CHIEF ENGINEER: I would sail globally with him across the Atlantic.
PHILLIPS: And the Exxon Valdez was no rowboat. Only two years old, it was the length of three football fields.
HAZELWOOD: It certainly wasn't the Love Boat. It was industrial strength, utilitarian, but it was top notch.
PHILLIPS: And that night 25 years ago, it was loaded with Alaska crude.
HAZELWOOD: The weather wasn't too bad. It was spitting a little snow.
PHILLIPS: It entered one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, Prince William Sound, thriving with schools of herring and salmon, now in the path of complete disaster. It was just after midnight.
(on camera): Take me to that moment, the moment of impact. What do you remember?
HAZELWOOD: I was sitting at the desk in my office, and it just started to shake, not a violent shaking, but a very strange vibration.
At that moment, the phone that was hanging on the bulkhead next to my desk rang. It was the third mate. He said, "We're in trouble," and then I took off.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Hazelwood's ship had hit a two-mile underwater ridge, Bligh Reef.
(on camera): Were alarms going off?
HAZELWOOD: When I got up to the bridge, they started off, yes. loud bells, sirens.
PHILLIPS: When you heard those alarms, were you thinking, oh, my God?
HAZELWOOD: Well, I had a pretty good idea we had run aground. I threw up in -- the toilet that adjacent to the bridge when I got up there.
PHILLIPS: Why did you throw up?
HAZELWOOD: I felt like I had been kicked right in the stomach.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Hazelwood checked to make sure the crew was safe, and calmly notified the Coast Guard.
HAZELWOOD: We've fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef, and, evidently, leaking some oil, and we're going to be here for a while.
GLOWACKI: So everybody knew we were in trouble.
PHILLIPS (on camera): While the crew saw oil bubbling to the surface here at Bligh Reef, they had no idea how bad it was down below, until the first diver went in.
RICK WADE, DIVER: I was the eyes of everybody else. Yes, this is one of our old housings.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Exxon hired Rick Wade to survey the damage. It was catastrophic.
WADE: And, in fact, that was what I told the captain when we got on the radio. He said, well, how big is the hole? I said, well, it's big enough to drive our boat through.
PHILLIPS: And it was getting worse.
WADE: We could hear it crackle, hear it groaning. We could watch the sides of the ship starting to spread right up the side like a tuna can.
PHILLIPS: Eight of the 11 cargo tanks were ruptured. Millions of gallons of oil were billowing out. And no one yet knew why.
(on camera): At that point, are you still calm?
HAZELWOOD: Well, I'm trying to be calm. I'm trying to figure out, what do I do next?
PHILLIPS (voice-over): When we come back: Investigators learn about a dark secret from the captain's past.
HAZELWOOD: I abused alcohol, yes, but I wasn't addicted to it.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): The Exxon Valdez had collided with Bligh Reef.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're approaching the Exxon Valdez. She's hard aground.
LAWN: You could see oil like a boiling cauldron.
PHILLIPS: Dan Lawn from the state environmental agency raced to the scene.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The vessel has lost 105,000 barrels of oil so far.
LAWN: It's coming up so fast, it's shooting five feet above the surface.
(on camera): So did you ever worry about shallow water?
HAZELWOOD: Not in Alaska.
Should be turning.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): We asked Captain Hazelwood to walk us through the events of 25 years ago...
HAZELWOOD: She's coming up in speed.
PHILLIPS: ... in a simulator at his alma mater, the State University of New York Maritime College.
(on camera): Take me back to that moment.
(voice-over): Back to a chain of events after the Exxon Valdez left port with Hazelwood's decision to change course.
Hazelwood was worried about ice from the Columbia glacier. Large chunks had broken off and floated into the shipping lanes.
(on camera): Where would it have been on the radar?
HAZELWOOD: It would have been coming out of here in this position here.
PHILLIPS: What did you tell the Coast Guard at this point?
HAZELWOOD: I said, there's ice in the lanes. I request permission, the protocol, to cross over the separation zone.
I'm going to alter my course to 2-0-0. Once we're clear of the ice, we will give you another shout. Over.
PHILLIPS (on camera): And Coast Guard said, roger that?
HAZELWOOD: yes, no problem. Two ships prior to me had done it.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Although the Coast Guard was listening, it was not watching. Even though its radar could have tracked the ship, there was no requirement to look more than six miles out. Exxon Valdez was eight.
(on camera): So you didn't even know you were off the Coast Guard radar?
HAZELWOOD: I assumed I was. I'm not sure where their range went to, but I assumed I was on it. I assumed they had that range.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Captain Hazelwood then made a decision that would doom the ship. He turned the bridge over to the third mate, with instructions to turn back into the shipping lane.
HAZELWOOD: I went down to my office, had some paperwork to fill out, and I wanted to look at the latest weather.
PHILLIPS: The third mate called Hazelwood and said he was turning. But what happens next remains a mystery.
The third mate and the helmsman at the wheel both say they followed orders. But whether it was miscommunication or poor navigation, the Exxon Valdez did not turn back into the shipping lane when it was supposed to.
HAZELWOOD: The turn was initiated. It was just initiated late.
PHILLIPS: So late that the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef.
(on camera): What do you think happened?
HAZELWOOD: I don't know. Sad to say, I wasn't there.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the third mate likely missed the turn due to fatigue and overwork, although the third mate says he felt fine.
But there was another potential issue with Captain Hazelwood, alcohol.
Coast Guard investigator Mark Delozier was suspicious when he talked to Hazelwood that night on the ship.
(on camera): How strong was the smell of alcohol?
MARK DELOZIER, INVESTIGATED EXXON VALDEZ SPILL: It was strong enough to smell it at a distance of a few feet.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Turns out Hazelwood and two other crew members had been drinking earlier that day.
HAZELWOOD: I didn't think it was a risk. I thought I was drinking moderately.
GLOWACKI: It was normal, in the sense that none of us got inebriated.
PHILLIPS: But what seemed to the crew a normal day was getting worse every second.
(on camera): In an incredible twist of fate, that very night, the mayor of Valdez was meeting here at city hall with oil industry officials and local citizens. The topic? What would the response be like if there were a major oil spill?
When we come back: why they were right to worry.
(voice-over): And later:
(on camera): Why have even one drink? Why take that risk?
(voice-over): Captain Joseph Hazelwood confronts his past, while a jury decides his future.
HAZELWOOD: You talk about being lonely and alone. Your entire freedom resides in the hand of 12 strangers now.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Prince William Sound is teeming with wildlife. Abundant fish provide a living for thousands of people and food for millions. The clear water is also home to majestic birds, sea otters, porpoises, and whales. It is a national treasure.
But, on that terrible night 25 years ago, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez threatened it all.
RICK STEINER, MARINE BIOLOGIST: It was like a bomb went off in Prince William Sound.
PHILLIPS: Marine biologist Rick Steiner, he was a professor at the University of Alaska.
STEINER: There's no great mystery there. Oil and water and fish and wildlife don't mix. And we knew that long before Exxon Valdez.
PHILLIPS: That's why the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company had a state-approved plan to protect the sound from an oil spill. Alyeska operates an 800-mile pipeline that carries oil to its terminal in Valdez.
That's where tankers load the toxic cargo. But for years, this man, Dan Lawn, was concerned that Alyeska could not handle a major spill. Lawn was the point man from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, assigned to monitor Alyeska.
LAWN: It became obvious that the plan was not being implemented properly, or it was inadequate, or both.
PHILLIPS: July 1982, in this memo to a state official, Lawn writes that Alyeska's oil skimmers are not capable of working efficiently in any conditions beyond windless, glassy seas.
LAWN: Windless and glassy seas occurs a little of the time in Alaska; 95 percent of the time, it's not that way and conditions are much worse. PHILLIPS: May 1984, Lawn alerts his bosses that Alyeska's oil spill recovery equipment is becoming outdated.
LAWN: There were better skimmers available. They weren't using them. There were a lot bigger skimmers available that they needed that they didn't have.
PHILLIPS: Seven months later, Lawn warns they need realistic data on Alyeska response times, an issue because Alyeska's barge for use in an oil spill is outfitted and ready in the summer, he says, but all equipment is stored in winter.
LAWN: Some of the equipment was in the storage room. Most of it was outside in a field covered in snow.
PHILLIPS: In a statement to CNN, Alyeska said: "The Exxon Valdez oil spill was an unprecedented and tragic event. The resources in place at the time were nowhere near as comprehensive as the world- class prevention and response system in place today," improvements Dan Lawn says were long overdue.
LAWN: Everything in those memos came true. Do I wish it hadn't? Absolutely right.
PHILLIPS: Lawn's agency, among others, would later conclude: "Alyeska's response was slow and weak. It did not meet the requirements of the contingency plan."
LAWN: They should have had that, their cleanup equipment, on site within five hours. I think it took 13 or 14.
PHILLIPS: Precious hours wasted as the oil slick grew. By day three, high winds pushed the oil even farther, deep into coves, high into rocks.
LAWN: It just shoved it up the shore. And then it would roll in and out like waves.
PHILLIPS: Suddenly, the animals in Prince William Sound were fighting for their lives.
STEINER: There were otters that were completely coated with oil. Surf scoters were sitting there. Their throats had been ripped out by gulls that had seized opportunistically on these birds that could no longer fly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, look at that. Something has been eating it. Look at that. It's got a hole in it. Eagles have been after it.
STEINER: There were birds flapping in the water that couldn't get airborne because of the oiled feathers and such. It was truly a horrific scene.
PHILLIPS: Exxon took control of the cleanup. It hired workers to clean the shore and wildlife biologists from around the country to save the animals. Terrie Williams had just published a study on cleaning oil from California sea otters.
TERRIE WILLIAMS, PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY: The longer that marine animal is sitting in oil, the more you're going to be dealing with death.
PHILLIPS: It was a race against time.
WILLIAMS: We noticed that the lungs were not normal.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's lovely, this one, but he's been so sick.
WILLIAMS: The livers weren't normal. And we were seeing ulcers in the stomach.
PHILLIPS: Some otters so sick, they faced a slow death.
WILLIAMS: Knowing what I know now, they're animals that I would know enough to euthanize before I would put them through a whole rehab process.
PHILLIPS: Scientists would come to learn the oil was even more toxic than they originally believed, so toxic that the multimillion- dollar fishing industry in Prince William Sound was at risk.
When we come back: the men and women who make their living at sea.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It really sunk in then, oh (EXPLETIVE DELETED) we're in trouble.
PHILLIPS: And what Captain Joseph Hazelwood would say to them today.
(on camera): Do you still think about that, the people of Prince William Sound?
HAZELWOOD: Yes, I sure do, how their lives were turned really upside-down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exxon Valdez, Valdez traffic.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): March 24, 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood's emergency call to the Coast Guard, a call he never wanted to make.
HAZELWOOD: We've fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef, and evidently leaking some oil, and we're going to be here for a while.
PHILLIPS (on camera): What's it like to hear that 25 years later?
HAZELWOOD: Hmm. Part of it sounds like an out-of-body experience, and part of it sounds like it happened yesterday. It's still pretty gut-wrenching.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Captain Hazelwood has maintained a stoic silence for years, rarely talking about the details of that night.
(on camera): Why did you decide to talk to me?
HAZELWOOD: Well, just to show that I'm a human being. I think I probably just wanted to be heard.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): A thoughtful and private man, accustomed to a solitary life at sea, Hazelwood flies home to his wife and daughter to find his picture on the front page of "The New York Times."
(on camera): What were you thinking at that moment?
HAZELWOOD: It's going to suck. It's going to really suck.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): It wasn't supposed to turn out this way for Joseph Hazelwood. He was a star student and always aspired to a career at sea.
HAZELWOOD: The water always fascinated me, and I wanted to go out and see what's on the other side of the horizon.
PHILLIPS: Exxon hired him right out of college, and he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming one of the youngest captains in the fleet. He earned a stellar reputation as a skilled seaman.
In fact, for the two years preceding the accident, the Exxon Valdez won best performing ship, including safety, under his command.
(on camera): Did the crew know they were safe in your hands?
HAZELWOOD: I would like to think so.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): But there was another side to Captain Hazelwood.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Captain Hazelwood reportedly has a history of alcohol-related driving offenses.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... driving convictions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... drinking-related convictions.
PHILLIPS: A few days after the wreck, reporters revealed he had a record: two drunk driving convictions. WILLIAM STEVENS, PRESIDENT, EXXON USA: Four years ago, the company became aware that Captain Hazelwood had a problem with alcohol abuse.
PHILLIPS: Turns out, four years earlier, Hazelwood came here for 28 days of rehab.
HAZELWOOD: I didn't drink excessive amounts at work, for sure. But my drinking was ratcheting up at home, and I was trying to find out why I was doing it.
PHILLIPS: Hazelwood says he was torn between life at home and life at sea.
(on camera): Were you happy?
HAZELWOOD: I was satisfied. I'm not sure what happiness is. That's a philosophical plane I haven't reached yet.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): He took a short leave of absence and attended AA meetings.
(on camera): Did you have to stand before the group and say, "hi, I'm Joe Hazelwood and I'm an alcoholic"?
HAZELWOOD: I did, yes.
PHILLIPS: So you told them you were an alcoholic?
HAZELWOOD: In the context of the meetings, yes.
PHILLIPS: Did you consider yourself an alcoholic?
HAZELWOOD: No. I abused alcohol, yes. But I wasn't addicted to it. I didn't have to have a drink.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): He may not have had to drink the afternoon of the accident, but he did. Here at the Pipeline Club with a couple of his shipmates. How much has never been resolved. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts.
(on camera): How much did you drink that day?
HAZELWOOD: I had three drinks. Vodka on the rocks.
PHILLIPS: How would you have described how you were feeling?
HAZELWOOD: Felt pretty normal.
PHILLIPS: So your judgment was not impaired at all by drinking?
PHILLIPS: You carried so much responsibility: a crew, millions of gallons of oil. Why have even one drink? Why take that risk?
HAZELWOOD: I didn't think it was a risk. I thought I was drinking moderately.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anything you'd like to say to us at all?
PHILLIPS (voice-over): When word got out that the captain of the Exxon Valdez had been drinking that day, the target was on his back.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any comment?
PHILLIPS: Blood-alcohol tests showed Captain Hazelwood was over the Coast Guard's legal limit to operate a commercial vessel. But there were questions about the handling of the tests, taken more than ten hours after the accident.
STEVENS: We're all extremely disappointed and outraged that an officer in such a critical position would have jeopardized his ship, crew and the environment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, can I get back?
PHILLIPS: Exxon fired him by telegram. Joseph Hazelwood became the only person criminally charged for the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a manmade destruction that probably has not been equaled since Hiroshima.
PHILLIPS: His close friend from college, Michael Chalos, joined his defense team.
MICHAEL CHALOS, FRIEND OF HAZELWOOD: He was neither drunk nor reckless in his behavior.
PHILLIPS: Hazelwood was facing up to 12 years in prison for one felony and three misdemeanors. The jury would have to decide: was he impaired at the time of the accident, and was he reckless to leave two lower-ranking shipmates to steer the tanker when he left the bridge?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joseph Hazelwood goes to trial this week.
PHILLIPS: Not a single witness testified that Captain Joe Hazelwood showed signs of being impaired by alcohol that night. And his crew testified that he was calm, in control, and fit to command the ship. Leaving the bridge is his only regret.
HAZELWOOD: The only thing I would have changed, if I could rewrite the whole script, I wouldn't have left the bridge. That's what I should be faulted for, nothing else.
PHILLIPS (on camera): Not the drinking?
HAZELWOOD: It had nothing to do with it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you feeling this morning?
HAZELWOOD: Fine. PHILLIPS (voice-over): After almost seven weeks of testimony, judgment day.
HAZELWOOD: You talk about being lonely and alone. Your entire freedom resides in the hands of 12 strangers now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We, the jury, find the defendant, Joseph Hazelwood, not guilty of criminal mischief in the second degree, as charged...
PHILLIPS: Hazelwood is acquitted on all charges except a misdemeanor: negligent discharge of oil.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was the last year like for you, sir?
HAZELWOOD: It's been long and difficult. I just want to try to get on with my life now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What does getting on with your life now mean?
HAZELWOOD: I'd like to go back to sea. It's what I do.
PHILLIPS: Captain Hazelwood paid a $50,000 fine and served 1,000 hours of community service in Alaska.
(on camera): Is there anybody that you blame for that accident?
HAZELWOOD: Other than myself?
PHILLIPS: You don't blame anybody else?
HAZELWOOD: No, that would be too easy. I'm not going to finger point. A guy missed a turn. People miss turns every day. Whether I should have been riding herd a little closer, that falls on me.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Coming up...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what happens. You still don't have anything to clean it up with.
PHILLIPS: Angry fishermen push back against Exxon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were told it would be cleaned up, it would be taken care of; we wouldn't have to worry.
PHILLIPS: And later, what is Captain Hazelwood doing now?
PHILLIPS: There are no roads to Cordova, Alaska. You get here by boat or plane. With only about 2,500 residents, it's a tightly knit community.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody does know your business. But everybody's in that business.
PHILLIPS: The business is fishing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a third generation fishermen. I can go out there and see the same things my grandpa saw back in the '30s.
PHILLIPS: John Platt (ph) and Robert Beadle (ph). They're commercial fishermen. Twenty-five years ago, Michelle Hahn O'Leary was, too. But all that changed when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
MICHELLE HAHN O'LEARY, FORMER FISHERMAN: To see it go from this exuberant, I mean, just exuberant Prince William Sound in the springtime, to see it go from that to dead quiet. Dead quiet, no sound. Except the helicopter flying overhead.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This pool of black, it's just black, and it's just surging up and down this rock face. It really sunk in, "Oh, shit, we're in trouble."
PHILLIPS: The spill was so large, it would take weeks for Exxon to get cleanup equipment in place. Meanwhile...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what happened. You still don't have anything to clean it up with.
PHILLIPS: Among fishermen, mounting anger.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need some more pressure from the state to get Exxon to do what has to be done.
PHILLIPS: When Exxon's cleanup began, it eventually hired the fishing fleet, the very men and women whose livelihoods were on the line. Exxon ultimately spent more than $2 billion on the cleanup.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The year of the oil spill, I mean, it was a bonanza. Money was getting thrown around here like crazy. And that's where they get the term, "spilling-aire."
PHILLIPS: Cleaning the shore included gruesome work.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember we found this sea otter, and it was just matted, oily, and you bagged it and dropped it off.
PHILLIPS (on camera): What do you mean, you bagged it?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You put it in the plastic bag. You don't want to get oil all over everything else, contaminate more.
PHILLIPS: So they were dead?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically body bags. PHILLIPS (voice-over): Many of those carcasses were burned.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It wasn't only the otters. It was seagulls. It was ducks. It was all kinds of things.
PHILLIPS: The biggest economic shock would come a few years later when the herring population suddenly collapsed.
O'LEARY: Herring were so abundant in Prince William Sound, it was absolutely magical. It was beyond belief. It was really a sight to behold.
PHILLIPS (on camera): And it's gone?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all gone; it's all gone.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Scientists debate whether the Exxon Valdez was solely to blame. But there's no doubt the repercussions were severe.
O'LEARY: Losing the herring is so big. It goes -- it goes really deep.
PHILLIPS: The financial and emotional stress for many people was unbearable.
O'LEARY: There were suicides. We lost our mayor to suicide. There was a lot of domestic abuse. There was a lot of alcoholism. A lot of alcoholism.
PHILLIPS: Exxon voluntarily paid out $300 million in the year after the spill to compensate 11,000 Alaskans and businesses. But 34,000 others took Exxon to court. A jury found Exxon reckless for leaving a captain with a history of drinking problems in command.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this was to the full knowledge of Exxon, and he was in charge of a super oil tanker.
PHILLIPS: The jury awarded $287 million in damages, and it hit Exxon with an additional $5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon appealed, all the way to the Supreme Court, which cut that $5 billion to about $500 million.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As far as the punitive damages to Exxon, it wasn't even a slap on the wrist. It was an insult. It was an insult to us. It was an insult to the fishermen.
PHILLIPS: The herring have still not returned. But over the years, salmon runs grew larger. And Cordova slowly turned a corner.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Inherently, to be a fishermen, you've got to be optimistic.
PHILLIPS: Last year, Robert Beadle (ph) bought a new $290,000 boat. John Platt (ph) has his eye on this one.
Economically and psychologically, Cordova is finally moving on.
(on camera): If Captain Joe Hazelwood were sitting right here at this table, what would you want to say to him 25 years later?
O'LEARY: I would say, I hope you've forgiven yourself. That's what I would say to him. I can't imagine being that man carrying that burden.
PHILLIPS: After everything you've been through, after everything that the people of Alaska have been through, you want to extend him grace?
O'LEARY: Absolutely. Yes. Yes.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): When we come back, Captain Hazelwood responds.
(on camera): You just can't shake it, can you?
PHILLIPS: When you fly over Prince William Sound, you can see why it's so easy to forget that there was a major oil spill here. The conditions are beautiful. You can see the white capped mountains; skies are clear. Even the water around Bligh Reef is blue.
But here on the ground, just beneath the surface on Eleanor Island, on this beach, you can still find Exxon Valdez oil 25 years later.
RICK STEINER, MARINE BIOLOGIST/ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATE: It usually gets in under these rock ledges.
PHILLIPS: Most scientists, including marine biologist and environmental advocate Rick Steiner, thought it would have decomposed by now.
STEINER: This is Exxon Valdez crude oil.
PHILLIPS (on camera): Oh, my gosh. It still smells so strong.
STEINER: It smells, you know, like it was just a few weeks out of the tanker.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): How much is there? Seventeen thousand gallons on the shores of Prince William Sound, according to the scientists who led years of federal studies. That's less than half of 1 percent of what spilled.
STEINER: And the surprising thing is, of course, it's still toxic.
PHILLIPS: However, ExxonMobil says in a statement to CNN, "The isolated pockets of oil residue are so effectively sheltered, they pose no credible threat to wildlife."
Rick Steiner disagrees. He says even a small impact matters over time.
STEINER: By the government scientists' own admission, if this oil is not remediated in the beaches, it will be here for decades and potentially centuries.
PHILLIPS: Steiner's bigger concern is out there. According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council which monitors the environment, 12 species, including seals, bald eagles and pink salmon have recovered. Ten others, including sea otters, are making progress. Two species, including the herring, are not recovering at all.
ExxonMobil says research shows the ecosystem in Prince William Sound is healthy and thriving. But not to Rick Steiner.
STEINER: It's different. You know, it will never be the way it was before the oil spill, ever.
PHILLIPS: The U.S. Coast Guard is trying to make sure it never happens again.
COMMANDER BENJAMIN HAWKINS, COAST GUARD: What we have now is far better than what we had in '89.
PHILLIPS: But Coast Guard commander Benjamin Hawkins sure feels the pressure. Radar now follows tankers all the way to Bligh Reef. Tankers have double hulls, and two tug boats now escort them all the way out to sea.
But Hawkins does not trust technology to do it all.
(on camera): Commander, what keeps you up at night?
HAWKINS: It's complacency that scares me. As time goes by and nothing happens, it's very easy for somebody to say it will never happen.
PHILLIPS: Alyeska, the pipeline company, now has strict requirements for handling a major spill. It has ten times more oil containment boom than in 1989. Eight times as many oil skimmers. And accident response teams standing by 24-7.
Mike Day oversees the operation.
MIKE DAY: It's an order of magnitude different than what existed in years past. It's night and day.
PHILLIPS: Even so, Alyeska's practice drills show it still needs to improve.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just like any other organization in any other industry. And so we have to stay on top of our training.
PHILLIPS: Ninety miles away in Cordova, the fishermen who lived through it are still wary. They saw the federal government clamp down after Exxon Valdez, only to see another calamitous response in 2010. Not with Exxon but with BP. Its drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.
O'LEARY: And they were absolutely no more prepared for that spill than they were for this spill.
PHILLIPS: The only thing that gives them comfort is having a citizen advisory council, a watch dog to hold government regulators and the industry accountable.
O'LEARY: We needed advocacy. Because if we're not watching over and protecting ourselves, no one else will do it.
PHILLIPS: Exxon and its shipping company were charged with environmental crimes, pleading guilty to a combined four counts. And paying $1 billion in fines and civil claims to the government.
ExxonMobil says the oil spill was a catalyst and turning point to completely re-evaluate how it manages risks. Among the reforms, drug and alcohol tests for safety sensitive positions, and better training for ship captains.
ExxonMobil says its "unswerving commitment to safety" has shown results, and that it has enduring regret over what happened.
As for Joseph Hazelwood, his wife and daughter have stood by him. But his dream of returning to sea as a captain is over. He still has a license to pilot a super tanker, but no one has hired him. Instead, he investigates maritime accidents for the lawyer who defended him, his best friend, Michael Chalos.
(on camera): Do you miss being a captain?
HAZELWOOD: Parts of the job, I do. I miss the people, crew members.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): Not surprising for a man who always wanted to go to sea. But what struck me was his special kinship with the people of Alaska.
HAZELWOOD: I hope that their lives have achieved some sort of normalcy now.
PHILLIPS (on camera): One of the fishermen said she extends you grace, and you should extend yourself grace.
HAZELWOOD: I appreciate the sentiment again. But the responsibility just doesn't go away.
PHILLIPS: You just can't shake it, can you?
HAZELWOOD: It's not that I can't. I won't.
PHILLIPS: That's a big burden to carry.
HAZELWOOD: Well, it's the burden I've chosen.
PHILLIPS: And Hazelwood's ship, the Exxon Valdez, was sent back to sea under various names. But in 2012, the tanker that became a symbol of environmental catastrophe was sold, beached, and melted down for scrap.