David Lebedoff: Cleaning Up


David Lebedoff
Cleaning Up
The Free Press

MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK driving might call the Exxon Valdez disaster the greatest DWI case of all time. Captain Joseph Hazelwood had no idea that the four drinks he consumed (plaintiffs count more than 10) on the afternoon of March 23, 1989, might eventually cost him his captain's license and his company more than $5 billion in punitive damages. There is continued speculation about the long-term economic and environmental consequences of the spill. Some speculate that the spill may have altered the area's ecosystem, and the region may never achieve full economic recovery. Assessing the full extent of these damages in terms of water pollution and wildlife loss has proven near impossible.

In Cleaning Up, author David Lebedoff, himself a lawyer, makes it clear that the Exxon Valdez trial was not only about the technical aspects of mopping up an oil spill or an epic battle between a large corporation and the combined forces of environmental groups and fishermen. Exxon Valdez, more immediately, involved a showdown of lawyers and their icy resolve. Lebedoff focuses primarily on Brian O'Neill, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Faegre and Benson and a veteran of pro bono environmental work. Squaring off against the world's 26th-largest corporation in a class-action case, however, is no easy task, even if O'Neill's mission seems fairly straightforward: to prove that Exxon was negligent in allowing Hazelwood to captain that fateful trip.

What is most remarkable about the case, perhaps, is that despite its partial resolution, the facts leading up to it remain a blur in the bottom of a shot glass. All we know is that Captain Hazelwood left the bridge of the supertanker at a critical moment, as the ship prepared for a difficult, but not uncommon, turning maneuver. Command of the vessel was left to the third mate and the helmsman. A short time later, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and began, as Lebedoff describes it, "gushing oil at 200,000 gallons a minute into the cold clear waters of Prince William Sound."

The author's presentation of facts is comprehensive and easy to digest; the suspenseful narrative gives John Grisham a run for his money. By the end of Cleaning Up, the lay reader can claim a rudimentary knowledge of environmental law and nautical science. And though the narrative is slightly biased toward the plaintiffs--one suspects the defendants were somewhat less than eager to discuss the catastrophe--Lebedoff genuinely encourages the reader to reach an individual conclusion.

Ultimately, Lebedoff's posture is one of disappointment: After billions of dollars of litigation, the questions about the past have yielded to an uncertainty about the future. Although, Exxon assumed responsibility for the initial phase of cleanup, funding that could be used in later stages is tied up in Exxon's appeal.

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