By Donna Schantz
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil. Congress determined that complacency on the part of industry and government was a contributing factor in the accident and they mandated citizen involvement in the oversight of crude oil terminals and tankers. For the past 30 years, the Council has filled this role for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities, advocating for environmental safeguards to prevent oil spills and a strong response system should prevention measures fail.
Improvements since 1989
Measures developed with Council participation since 1989 represent vast improvements in oil spill prevention and response. We have double-hull tankers, high-performance escort tugs, a much-improved workforce, state-of-the art equipment for recovering oil, and a fleet of over 400 trained fishing vessels and crews ready to respond promptly to an oil spill. We also have improved communications between the oil industry and the state and federal governments, and more oil spill clean-up equipment than probably any other U.S. port. This has taken considerable effort on the part of industry, regulators, the Council, and other members of the public.
Some recent examples of improvements include new purpose-built tugs and oil spill response barges that came on line with the marine services transition in 2018, and new technology that allows pipelines at the Valdez Marine Terminal to be internally inspected, which had not been done since start-up over 40 years ago.
Our responsibility to stand against complacency
The Council applauds these improvements. Our Congressional mandate is to involve local citizens to review and assess measures designed to prevent oil spills and the planning and preparedness for responding to a spill, and to make recommendations concerning the safe operation of the terminal facilities and associated tankers. We strive to combat complacency, which is becoming more important as time goes on.
The Council recently filed an administrative appeal of an amendment to the Valdez Marine Terminal contingency plan that reduced protections for the Valdez Duck Flats and Solomon Gulch Hatchery in the event of an oil spill. That amendment is a prime example of what we believe was complacency leading to the rollback of a prior commitment in the industry’s preparedness and response plan.
A settlement agreement has been reached on this issue to work it though a collaborative workgroup process and there is still much work to be done. Achieving agreement to work this issue with the goal of reaching consensus by all parties is in line with the vision outlined in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Reductions in regulatory and industry staff reinforce need for citizen oversight
The Council is closely monitoring other changes that appear to be reducing regulatory oversight and protections at the state and federal levels. On the state level, we continue to have serious concerns about the state’s ability to maintain adequate staffing levels and resources at the Spill Prevention and Response Division of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as continued adequate funding for spill prevention and response capabilities.
Another recent concern for the Council is Alyeska’s significant organizational restructuring plan which took effect on January 1, 2019. The Council is concerned about the elimination of jobs and movement of key management/leadership roles away from the operations they are responsible for overseeing. This is especially troubling since state and federal regulatory oversight positions are also being reduced.
With reductions in the number of people responsible for overseeing the safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers among state, federal, and industry groups occurring at the same time as so many changes to the system, it is that much more important for the Council to step up our efforts. We must remain vigilant in our mission to ensure another 30 years of protection for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities.