BLACK WAVE - The legacy of the Exxon Valdez

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, marine biologist Riki Ott and the fishers in the town of Cordova, Alaska remind us that the biggest environmental catastrophe in North American history is still with us. Over time, its consequences have become all the more apparent and painful. The spill has profoundly altered the lives of tens of thousands of people, reducing them to poverty and despair.

On March 24th 1989, shortly after midnight, the supertanker Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, a pristine area immensely rich in marine life. A significant part of the crude oil carried by the tanker spills into the sea. The black wave. Most of that oil will never be recovered.

Almost instantly, dramatic images of the accident crisscross the planet. Agonizing birds flap their wings, covered in oil. Dazed sea lions take refuge on a marine buoy. Seals gasp on a rocky beach. An enormous, gooey black wave rolls forward and swallows 2,000 kilometers of wild beaches that have not been disturbed since the dawn of time.

The media find a culprit. It is Captain Joe Hazelwood, whose blood alcohol content shows he is seriously intoxicated. But Hazelwood is a scapegoat who obscures the fact that the accident was preventable. Exxon and its sister oil companies in Alaska have a long history of breaking safety promises. By March 1989, Riki Ott and many fishers in Prince William Sound believe there is a major supertanker accident waiting to happen.

When it happens, Exxon launches a spectacular cleanup operation paired with an unprecedented public relations campaign. Exxon comes off as a responsible corporate citizen doing its best to repair the damage caused by one irresponsible individual – Captain Hazelwood.

Only when journalists go home do the consequences gradually surface. An important part of the oil has been blasted, with pressurized hot water, under the surface sands. Birds, fish, mammals will eat contaminated food for years to come. Certain species, like herring, will never recover, creating a permanent economic crisis for the fishermen of the Sound. And as bankruptcies begin, a wave of social problems like alcohol, divorce and even suicide engulfs small towns all over the Sound.

A class-action suit involving 32,000 people seems to end in a huge victory. A jury orders Exxon to pay five billion dollars. But battalions of lawyers commanded by Exxon engage in a drawn-out judicial war that slows the legal system down to a crawl. When the case finally ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court, it brings the award down to one tenth of the original amount. The decision, a victory for ExxonMobil, constitutes a bitter defeat for the people of Cordova.

Toward the end of their judicial saga, Riki Ott and the fishers of Cordova ask if corporate values have trumped human rights and community values in the United States today. And they look for ways to rebuild their lives.

Length: 99 minutes (television version: 52 minutes) HD Video, English, NTSC

Produced by Macumba Doc (Macumba International).
Produced in collaboration with the Réseau de l'information (RDI), Radio-Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with the participation of the Canadian Television Fund and the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles du Québec (SODEC)
Shot in Cordova, Anchorage, Juneau and Valdez (Alaska), Dallas, Seattle, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Oregon and Florida.