As I write this, the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is very much on our minds here at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. Like many of you, I’ll never forget the morning of March 24, 1989. I woke up to find that North America’s largest oil spill had just occurred practically on my doorstep and that it had come from a ship named after the town of which I was mayor: Valdez, Alaska.
We will be involved in a number of events dedicated to mark the anniversary two months from now, and we are releasing several publications. One is already out: “Then & Now: The Alaska Oil Spill at 20,” a DVD highlighting changes since 1989 to the transportation system in Prince William Sound. Between now and the anniversary, we’ll also publish a written report on the same subject, and a major oral history book—“The Spill: Personal Stories of the Exxon Valdez Disaster”—that includes interviews with more than 60 people directly caught up in the spill.
How did this unforgettable event in Alaska history come to pass? The root cause was complacency—the belief that, because disaster had not occurred in the 12 years since the startup of North Slope oil production, the system in 1989 was safe and there was no cause for worry.
As the Exxon spill demonstrated, that belief was profoundly mistaken. While citizen activists had long called for safety improvements in Prince William Sound, their voices were largely ignored. On March 24, the few prevention measures in place were inadequate to head off the spill, and the cleanup resources on hand were inadequate to deal with it. The result was 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil pouring into the Sound, fouling some 1,300 miles of shoreline and reaching as far as the Alaska Peninsula, almost 500 miles from Bligh Reef.
Since 1989, regulatory agencies, the oil industry, and citizens have worked together to use the painful memories and hard lessons of the Exxon spill to reduce the chances of another such catastrophe and to prepare for a better cleanup if one should occur. The tanker fleet has almost completed its switch to double hulls, which do much to reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions. Loaded tankers are escorted from Valdez to the Gulf of Alaska by powerful tugs designed to keep a disabled tanker off the rocks or begin cleanup if there is a spill. Detailed plans for preventing and cleaning up spills are now mandatory.
Despite these huge strides, we know that individual and institutional memories can fade, that people, companies, and agencies can let down their guard. One of our biggest concerns is that these tendencies, inevitable in human affairs, will bring back the fatal complacency that allowed the Exxon Valdez disaster to happen and that the system built up since then will start to erode.
That risk may be increasing as the 20th anniversary approaches. Oil prices are in one of their periodic slumps and the industry is warning of cutbacks in its operations. The ongoing decline of North Slope oil production could well intensify these pressures. In keeping with our mission, we at the council will be very much on watch to resist any move to reduce safety margins.
In particular, we will be vigilant on the future of the escort system. The federal requirement that every loaded tanker be accompanied through the Sound by two tugs applies only to single-hulled tankers, though, for now, double-hulled tankers are escorted as well.
When, in a few years, all the single-hull tankers are gone, there will be no federal escort requirement at all, but we are determined to see that the escorts continue.
One of the most important lessons of 1989 is that safety is a fixed cost of transporting oil. It should not become subject to fluctuations in the oil market and we will continue to do all in our power to prevent that from happening.
John Devens is executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, an independent non-profit corporation
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