Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef. Photo: NOAA

Captain Joseph Hazelwood, Former Master of the Exxon Valdez, Passes Away

Mike Schuler
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July 22, 2022

Captain Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood, the Master of the Exxon Valdez when it grounded in Alaska in 1989, has passed away, gCaptain can confirm. He was 75.

The Exxon Valdez was carrying more than 1.2 million barrels of oil when it grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, near Valdez, Alaska on March 24, 1989. An estimated 11 million gallons were spill from the ship’s ruptured tanks, impacting over a thousand miles of shoreline and resulting in catastrophic impacts to fish and wildlife.

The oil spill, one of the worst in U.S. history, ultimately led Congress to enact the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).

Captain Hazelwood was acquitted at trial of felony charges related to the accident, including operating a vessel while intoxicated. He was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil and sentenced to a $50,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. His Coast Guard-issued Master Mariners license was suspended for a brief time but never revoked. However, he never returned to sailing following the accident.

Hazelwood was not on the bridge at the time of the accident. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the grounding was the failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workdload and the master’s failure to provide a proper navigation watch due to alcohol impairment. Exxon Shipping Company, an Exxon Corporation subsidiary, also failed to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew. The NTSB also found a lack of effective Vessel Traffic Service and pilotage services.

In 1991, a U.S. District Court in Anchorage accepted guilty pleas from Exxon Corporation and Exxon Shipping Company, including a $150 million criminal fine, the largest fine ever imposed at the time for an environmental crime, of which $125 million was remitted in recognition of Exxon’s cooperation during the clean up and paying certain private claims. Exxon also agreed to criminal restitution of $100 million and a civil settlement of $900 million.

Captain Hazelwood, a 1968 graduate of SUNY Maritime College, was born on September 24, 1946. A source close to his family confirms Hazelwood passed away peacefully on Thursday on Long Island. No additional details were available.

Captain Hazelwood recalled the accident in 2014 in a story for CNN:

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