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The Dunquin Oil Giveaway part II: Exxon-Mobil’s Environmental Record

Brian Guerin 

The source for this article is The Dirty Four: The Case Against Letting BP Amoco, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Phillips Petroleum Drill in the Artic Refuge
by Athan Manuel, U.S. Public Interest Research Group ( (March 2001)

Exxon-Mobil’s Environmental Record is most apparent in Alaska, one of the last unspoilt areas of the world, but increasingly one of the most polluted. Exxon-Mobil are among the so-called “Dirty Four” – Exxon-Mobil, BP, Chevron and Phillips Petroleum – who have been issued with licenses for drilling in Alaska.
Exxon-Mobil’s environmental record includes the following:

The 1989 Exxon-Valdez Alaskan oil spill was the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history (p.23). Eleven million gallons of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez fouled 1,500 miles of beaches and polluted three national parks and four national wildlife refuges. The disaster demonstrated that one catastrophic spill can devastate the fragile ecosystem and economy of a region. One industry commentator noted: “…the Exxon Valdez showed… [that] there is no room for even a moment’s relaxation”  (p.23). The oil spill killed more wildlife than any other spill worldwide – and ten times as many birds as any other US spill. At least 250,000 birds, 300 harbour seals, 2,800 sea otters, and possibly 13 whales died. Human communities also suffered greatly. Commercial fishing harvests declined substantially. Twenty-four archaeological sites on public lands are known to have been adversely affected by cleanup activites or looting and vandalism linked to the oil spill. The effects of the spill are still evident. A report from the panel overseeing restoration of Alaska’s Prince William Sound says that only two of the nearby two dozen affected species are fully recovered. Among the species recovering are common murres, a seabird accounding for about three quarters of the 30,000 oiled bird carcasses collected in the four months after the spill. Clams and mussels are still recovering after the spill. Six species of birds and marine mammals – common loons, cormorants, harbour seals, harlequin ducks, pigeon guillemots and a key population of killer whales have shown no significant recovery. The only two species to have fully recovered are the bald eagles and the river otters. Another study found that oil is 100 times more toxic to developing fish than was previously thought to be the case. Two types of trout, the pink salmon and the rockfish, face an uncreasingly uncertain future. (p.23).

In 1991, the US Environmental Protection Agency filed complaints against Exxon, British Petroloeum, and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Corporation for dumping ballast water wastes at the Valdez Alaska tanker terminal. In October 2000, the US Supreme Court refused to throw out the $5 billion punitive damages verdict against Exxon-Mobil for the Valdez spill. Exxon-Mobil has made several appeals against the ruling, but none have been accepted. (p.23).
However, there have been many other such incidents:
•    On January 1 1990, 567,000 gallons of oil spilled from an Exxon pipeline into the Arthur Kill waterway between Staten Island and New Jersey. In February 1990 the City of New York sued Exxon for the submission of false pipeline safety reports. Prior to the lawsuit Exxon admitted that its leak detection system had not worked properly for 12 years. Exxon settled out of court a year later, agreeing to pay $10 to $15 million on environmental improvements. (p.19).
•    Oil that leaked from Exxon’s Paulsboro, New Jersey petroleum storage facility has contaminated groundwater and soil in southern New Jersey.
•    In January 1989, an Exxon pipeline spilled 588,000 gallons of crude oil in Eugene Island, Louisiana. (p.20).
•    An Exxon-owned service station in East Meadow, New York leaked 30,000 gallons of gasoline in 1978. Exxon bought 23 nearby homes, and twnnty-one families agreed to settlements of $8,000 per adult and $3,000 per child. The company paid a total of $5 to $10 million to remedy problems caused by the leak.
•    In 1970 gas stations owned by Exxon and Mobil contaminated an aquifer in Richmond, Rhode Island. The US Environmental Protection Agancy ordered the companies to provide drinking water to about 15 homes and clean up the aquifer and  surrounding soil (p.20).
•     In August 1998, Exxon and Tosco agreed to pay $4.8 million in damages and for environmental restoration after discharging selenium, a carcinogen, into San Francisco Bay (p.21).
•    In August 1998, Exxon was ordered to pay $35,000 to four plaintiffs as part of the Campbell Wells oilfield waste suit. The residents of Grand Bois, Louisiana, sued Exxon and Campbell Wells alleging that the waste exceeded limits on toxins such as benzene, a known carinogen.
•    In October 1996, Exxon paid a civil penalty of $73,000 for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and $116,000 for Clean Water Act violations at its Baton Rouge, Louisiana refinery.
•    Exxon is a PRP (Potential Responsible Party, i.e. have accepted responsibility) for 41 hazardous waste Superfund sites in seventeen states.
•    In 1991, the US EPA fined Exxon $125,000 for discharging contaminating fluids from service stations into or directly above underground drinking sources (p. 21).
•    ExxonMobil agreed to pay $7 million to settle claims it underpaid royalties for oil it extracted from federal lands in 2000. This was part of a $282 million agreement  reached by 10 oil companies for the underpayment of the US government by hundreds of millions of dollars in drilling royalties on federal land in the western United States (p. 22.).
•    Alabama court returned a verdict in December 2000, finding that Exxon had defrauded the state on royalties from natural gas wells in state waters. The jury awarded the state $87.7 million in compensatory damages and $3.42 billion in punitive damages.
•    Exxon agreed to pay the Texas National Resource Conservation Commission $600,000 for the dumping of almost two billion gallons of chemical wastewater from their Baytown, Texas refinery.
•    Exxon-Mobil is part of an international consortium of oil companies engaged in constructing and oil and gas pipeline from Southern Chad to the Cameroon coast, slashing through the traditional homelands of the Baka and Bakola indigenous peoples.

Exxon-Mobil is part of a consortium that is bidding for access to the coastal plain zone of the Arctic, one of the last unprotected ecosystems in the world. It is home to large populations of caribou, musk oxen, all three species of bear - brown, black and polar – grey wolves,  Dall Sheep, snow geese, and literally hundreds of species of migratory birds. (p.8).
The Arctic ecosystem is one of the most fragile in the world, its plants are more sensitive to air pollutants than species in warmer climates. Lichens, an important food source for caribou, are highly vunerable to air pollution. Toxic substances linger for longer periods than in more temperate areas, and therefore the impact of oil spills are more far-reaching. The Arctic’s short growing season leaves little time for regeneration when species are harmed. Due to the short food chain, the loss of a single species can have disastrous consequences for others. (p.9).

Arctic subsoil remains frozen for the whole year. Since only the top layer of soil thaws in the summer and most of the coastal plain is flat, the drainage is limited. This means that much of the Arctic consists of wetlands. In wetlands, along with low summer temperatures, organic materials decompose very slowly. Low temperatures, a short growing season, and restricted nutrients limit plant growth. (p.9).

Any disturbance to the tundra will damage the insulating organic mat covering the permafrost, causing the ice to melt and the permafrost to collapse. This process is known as thermal erosion, or “thermokarst”.
Prudhoe Bay, the area to the west of the Arctic refuge and the starting point for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), was once the largest intact wilderness area in the US, now holds one of the world’s largest industrial complexes. Development here has permamently altered more than 400 square miles of pristine wilderness: there are now more than 1,500 miles of roads and pipelines and thousands of acres of industrial facilities. (p.10).
A 1988 US Fish and Wildlife Service report on drilling on the North Slope found that destruction of habitat has led to more than 15,000 birds being killed or displaced, an undetermined number of polar and brown bears killed as “nuisances,” and that intake from just one seawater treatment plant annually kills up to 400,000 larval fish.

The numbers of bears and wolves have declined in the Prudhoe Bay area.
More than 43,000 tons of nitrogen oxides pollute the air each year at Prudhoe Bay (p.10). This is more than twice the amount emitted annually in the Washington DC area (p.11).
There is decreased caribou density within 4km of pipelines and roads.

Hundreds of spills involving tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and hazardous waste occur annually. In 1995 alone, approximately 500 spills occurred involving more than 80,000 gallons of oil, diesel fuel, acid, biocide, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, produced water, etc. That is one spill every eighteen hours.
Gravel fill, excavation and waste disposal alone have destroyed 12,000 acres of wildlife habitat and 508 acres of marine and estuarine habitat.
Oil facilities may emit up to 100,000 metric tons of methane every year, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming (p.10). Every day, oil industry operations generate 3,000 cubic yards of drilling waste, which can contain toxic metals and additives, 40 million gallons of ‘produced waters” or “toxic brine,” brought up along with oil from wells, 40,000 gallons of liquid oily waste, and 300 cubic yards of oil-contaminated solid waste and sludge (p.10).

All this is the result of drilling activity in the Arctic’s North Slope and is an indication of what awaits the coastal plain of the Arctic if intensive drilling begins there. The indigenous Gwich’in (“people of the Caribou”) of the Arctic inhabit this region, as they have done for more than 20,000 years. They depend on the annual Porcupine River Caribou herd migration, and to them the coastal plain is sacred. (An article for the Casement Outlook on the Gwich’in will be available shortly).
The “development” of Alaska is a strong indication of what awaits the West Coast of Ireland should intensive oil and gas development take place there.  In the next issue we will examine the issues connected with the current round of oil an gas licences issued by the Irish Government.
© The Tara Foundation, 2006