Photo from Wikimedia Commons

What was the Accusation?

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez had just entered Alaska’s Prince William Sound, after departing the Valdez Marine Terminal full of crude oil. At 12:04 am, the ship struck a reef, tearing open the hull and releasing 11 million gallons of oil into the environment. Initial responses by Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were insufficient to contain much of the spill, and a storm blew in soon after, spreading the oil widely. Eventually, more than 1,000 miles of coastline were fouled, and hundreds of thousands of animals perished. Exxon ended up paying billions in cleanup costs and fines, and remains tied up in court cases to this day. The captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was acquitted of being intoxicated while at the helm, but convicted on a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil, fined $50,000, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service. Though the oil has mostly disappeared from view, many Alaskan beaches remain polluted to this day, crude oil buried just inches below the surface (Taylor, 2014) .

Key Apologia Strategies:

Mortification, Bolstering, Accident




Exxon chairman L.G. Rawl wrote his apology in full-page advertisements placed in US newspapers:

“On March 24th, in the early morning hours, a disastrous accident happened in the waters of Prince William Sound. By now you all know that our tanker, the Exxon Valdez, hit a submerged reef and lost 240,000 barrels of oil into the waters of the sound.

We believe that Exxon has moved swiftly and competently to minimize the effect this oil will have on the environment, fish and other wildlife.  Further, I hope you know that we have already committed several hundred people to work on the clean up.  We will also meet our obligations to all those who have suffered damage from the spill.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to tell you how sorry I am that this accident took place. We at Exxon are especially sympathetic to the residents of Valdez and the people of the state of Alaska.  We cannot, of course, undo what has been done. But I can assure you that since March 24th, the accident has been receiving our full attention and will continue to do so.

Captain Joseph Hazelwood on the 10th anniversary of the spill:

“I do apologize for what’s happened.  I don’t know what apology would be appropriate, though. I could apologize to the people of Alaska, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, but I still don’t think it would be enough.”

Captain Joseph Hazelwood’s Interview in the book The Spill: Personal stories from the Exxon Valdez disaster:

Occasionally, people have called me a scapegoat, but I’ve never felt comfortable with that term when applied to me in regard to the oil spill. I was the captain of a ship that ran aground and caused a horrendous amount of damage. I’ve got to be responsible for that. There’s no way around it. Some of the things that came later, the efforts at cleaning up, were really beyond my purview, but it still goes back to that: if my ship hadn’t run aground and spilled part of its cargo, the event never would have happened.

I can’t escape that responsibility, nor do I want to. I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of.


Battistella, E. L. (2014). Sorry about that: The language of public apology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Holusha, J. (1989, April 21). Exxon’s public-relations problem. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/21/business/exxon-s-public-relations-problem.html?pagewanted=all

Jones, S., Bushell, S., & Wheat, E. (2009). The spill: Personal stories from the Exxon Valdez disaster. Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press.

Taylor, A. (2014, March 24). The Exxon Valdez oil spill: 25 years ago today. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/03/the-exxon-valdez-oil-spill-25-years-ago-today/100703/