Recognizing the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Resolution 19-01:

Recognizing the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, supporting high standards and safeguards for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers, and continued work to create the best response system possible should prevention measures fail

Floating oil spill boom from Exxon Valdez oil spill
Tangled boom from the 1989 cleanup. Photo by Charles Ehler, courtesy of Alaska Resource Library & Information Services.

Whereas, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil and oiling some 1,300 miles of Alaska coastline;

Whereas, March 24, 2019, marks 30 years since this disaster;

Whereas, Congress determined that complacency on the part of industry and government was a contributing factor in the accident and mandated citizen involvement in the oversight of crude oil terminals and tankers;

Whereas, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, an independent non-profit corporation whose mission, as mandated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, is to promote environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers;

Whereas, the Council represents communities, commercial fishing, aquaculture, Alaska Native, recreation, tourism, and environmental organizations in the region adversely impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill;

Read moreRecognizing the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Thirty years later, Council continues mission to combat complacency

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

Photo of Donna Schantz
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.

30 years after Exxon Valdez

Title is Then and Now: 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

How has oil transportation changed in Prince William Sound since 1989?

Image of cover of Then and Now 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Read more about the changes and remaining concerns in our new publication: Then and Now: 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (PDF)

The immediate cause of 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was a navigational error on the part of the tanker’s captain and crew. However, Congress found that complacency among the oil industry and the regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound was also a contributing factor in the disaster.

Few prevention measures were in place and cleanup resources were inadequate.

Since 1989, regulatory agencies, the industry, and citizens have been working together on improved methods to prevent oil spills and how to be better prepared to clean up if another spill should occur.

Laws and Regulations

One of the most important results of the oil spill was the enactment of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, or “OPA 90,” which addressed many deficiencies, including liability, compensation, and oversight. The law required two citizens’ oversight councils, one for Prince William Sound and one for Cook Inlet.

Both federal and state laws now require more comprehensive prevention measures and planning for larger spills and require more spill response equipment to be immediately available.

What has improved in oil spill prevention since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Double hulls

All tankers transporting oil through Prince William Sound are now double-hulled. Double hulls, basically two steel skins separated by several feet of space, are an effective design feature which can reduce or eliminate spills that result from groundings or collisions.

Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System

A fishing vessel practices using oil spill boom and skimmers during fishing vessel training last year. The fishermen bring valuable knowledge about local waters during a spill response. Fishing vessel response was a major improvement in oil spill prevention and response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo by Cathy Hart.
A fishing vessel practices using oil spill boom and skimmers during fishing vessel training last year. The fishermen bring valuable knowledge about local waters during a spill response. Fishing vessel response was a major improvement in oil spill prevention and response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo by Cathy Hart.

The Ship Escort/Response Vessel System, known as SERVS, was developed after the Exxon Valdez spill. SERVS’ mission is to prevent oil spills by escorting tankers to ensure they navigate safely through Prince William Sound, provide assistance in order to avoid an accident should the tanker experience an engine failure or other malfunction, and to begin immediate response if there is a spill. SERVS maintains a fleet of large escort tugs, keeps trained response crews on duty around the clock, and has spill response equipment ready to respond.

Improved tanker escorts

The system’s powerful tugs escort all loaded tankers from the terminal at Valdez, through Prince William Sound and Hinchinbrook Entrance, and out into the Gulf of Alaska. Two tugs accompany each laden tanker out of Prince William Sound, with one tug tethered to the tanker until it reaches Central Sound where there is more room to maneuver. One tug will stand by at the Entrance to the Sound until the tanker is 17miles out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Risks from human error

All tanker captains, and any crew member suspected of consuming alcohol, are now subject to alcohol tests before sailing. Crews now receive more training and work hours are limited to reduce accidents caused by fatigue.

Monitoring marine traffic

The Coast Guard now monitors the speed and heading of all tankers and other vessels in Prince William Sound through improved radar and the Automatic Identification System. Vessels equipped with this system transmit real-time information about their locations and movements that is made available to the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System offices in Valdez, as well as Council offices, and others.

What has improved in oil spill response since the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

While prevention measures are the best way to avoid environmental damage from oil spills, even the best system cannot remove all risks. Oil spill response in Prince William Sound has seen many improvements since 1989. Alyeska’s SERVS is now considered one of the best oil spill prevention and response forces in the world.

In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound. To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built nine new tugs and four spill response barges, which represents a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old.
In 2018, Alyeska began work with their new spill prevention and response contractor, Edison Chouest Offshore. These services include operation of escort tugs, oil recovery storage barges, and associated personnel. These resources are key oil spill prevention and response assets for Prince William Sound.
To fulfill their contract, Edison Chouest built nine new tugs and four spill response barges, which represents a significant improvement for the oil spill prevention and response system. In some cases, new general-purpose tugs replaced conventional tugs that were over 40 years old. 

Contingency plans

Contingency plans, extensive documents which contain details on preventing and cleaning up oil spills, are required by state and federal law. The requirements in these plans have expanded since 1989 and now must demonstrate that larger spills can be contained and cleaned up with more spill response equipment and trained crews that are immediately available.

Some changes in the contingency plans since 1989 include:

  • Local fishing vessels are an integral part of the response plans. The crews, located in the ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer, Seward, and Kodiak, are contracted by Alyeska to respond in the event of a spill, and trained every year in spill cleanup methods.
  • More emphasis on shoreline protection and wildlife protection.
  • Special strategies have been developed to protect specific areas that have been identified as a sensitive area or a critical resource, such as salmon streams or hatcheries.

Spill response equipment

Photo of Crucial skimmers and Buster spill boom systems with caption: The combination of the new Crucial skimmers with Buster boom systems have increased oil skimming efficiency since 1989.
The combination of the new Crucial skimmers with Buster boom systems have increased oil skimming efficiency since 1989.

In 1989, there were only 13 oil-skimming systems in Alyeska’s response inventory; today, 100 units are available. Only 5 miles of oil spill boom were available in 1989; today, over 50 miles of various types of boom are available. Alyeska had only about 220,000 gallons of storage capacity for recovered oil and oily water immediately after the Exxon Valdez spill; today, on-water storage capacity is now over 34 million gallons.

Spill drills

Before 1989, few oil spill drills were conducted in Prince William Sound. Today, three major exercises take place per year, along with several smaller drills. The drills provide opportunities for response personnel to work with equipment and practice procedures.

Improvements at the terminal

For the first twenty years of operations at the terminal, thousands of tons of toxic vapors were emitted annually during the tanker loading process. These harmful vapors threatened the health of the terminal’s workers and Valdez residents. In 1997, Alyeska installed vapor controls at two loading berths, which nearly eliminated the pollution from loading operations.

The Ballast Water Treatment Facility, designed to clean oily residue from tanker ballast water before it is released back into the environment, has also seen improvements. A system has been installed to reduce the vapors released into the environment from the facility. Over the years, emissions from the Ballast Water Treatment Facility have been reduced.

Concerns remain

Although there have been many improvements, there are still many areas of concern, meriting the continued attention and sustained efforts from the Council. A few of these include:

  • Complacency: Rollbacks or weakening of state and federal environmental protections.
  • Heavy weather operations: The safety of escort tug crews and their ability to respond during strong winds and waves has been questioned due to lack of training in all conditions in which the tugs are expected to operate.
  • Response gap: Studies by the Council have shown that it is not possible to effectively clean up an oil spill during the strong winds and waves in which tankers are allowed to transport oil.
  • Aging infrastructure: The terminal is over 40 years old and was originally designed for 30 years of service.

Then and Now

Read more about the changes and remaining concerns in our new publication: Then and Now: 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (PDF)