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.

Schantz: Prevention and response improving, full capabilities not yet proven

Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

The Council is pleased to say that the recent transition of prevention and response services to Edison Chouest Offshore will bring many improvements in Alyeska’s capabilities to protect Prince William Sound and its downstream communities. Alyeska and the Prince William Sound oil shippers are to be commended for their significant investment and commitment in the new vessels, equipment, and crews.

Details provided by Alyeska show that the new vessels, built specifically for Prince William Sound, will have new technologies to improve safety for the crews and boost spill prevention and response capabilities. A few notable examples include:

  • The new render-recover winches which the Council has been promoting for years
  • Response barges with decks specifically designed to deploy and retrieve oil skimming equipment, maximizing safety for crews

We recognize and appreciate the details about the safety enhancements we have seen so far.

Read moreSchantz: Prevention and response improving, full capabilities not yet proven

We trust, but we must also verify, new improvements in system

Thorough training, paired with a robust array of drills and exercises, will produce the safest prevention and response system

From the Executive Director, Donna Schantz

Donna Schantz

In most professions, it takes time, training, and on-the job learning to do a job well. A doctor or an electrician may earn a degree, but it can take years to become proficient. They must practice and observe a variety of situations before they are trusted to perform surgery or operate independently with live electrical current.

The oil spill prevention and response profession is no different.

In this next year, Edison Chouest Offshore will be bringing in new tugs and barges custom-built for Prince William Sound, new equipment, and new personnel, all playing key roles in spill prevention and response for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers.

Read moreWe trust, but we must also verify, new improvements in system

From the Executive Director: Citizens and partnerships in the safe transportation of oil

Donna Schantz

Donna Schantz is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

March 24, 2017, marked the 28th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Each anniversary is a time for reflection on how far we have come, as well as how much there is left to do. It is also a time to recognize the efforts of those who used the lessons of the Exxon Valdez to advocate for safeguards to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. Thanks to the foresight, vigilance, and tireless efforts of elected officials, government regulators, industry, and citizens, the oil spill prevention and response system now in place in Prince William Sound is an example to the rest of the world. A big part of the success in Prince William Sound is that all these partners work together. We all share one goal: to promote the safe transportation of oil. While every partner has played a vital role in the success in Prince William Sound, special recognition is warranted to honor past and current technical committee and board members of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. Our volunteers have put in countless unpaid hours dedicated to the mission of our organization.

Congress found that complacency on the part of industry and government personnel responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tanker traffic in Prince William Sound was a major contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. To combat this complacency, Congress established two regional citizens’ advisory councils, ours in Prince William Sound and another in Cook Inlet, to involve citizens in an environmental oversight and monitoring. Neither council could satisfy the provisions under this federal mandate without dedicated volunteers from throughout their respective regions.

Read moreFrom the Executive Director: Citizens and partnerships in the safe transportation of oil