From the Executive Director: Ignore the lessons of history at our own peril

Donna Schantz

Twenty six years have passed since the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef, spilling an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The spill devastated the environment, fishing industry, our economy, and livelihoods. Our organization was created in the wake of this disaster to work with industry, government, and local communities to understand how this happened and to use the lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill to advocate for safeguards designed to make sure nothing like it happens again. Thanks to the foresight, vigilance and tireless efforts of elected officials, regulators, industry, and citizens, the oil spill prevention and response system now in place in Prince William Sound is a model to the rest of the world.

Alaska’s strong spill prevention and response system

Immediately after the 1989 spill, the Alaska Legislature introduced a series of bills that resulted in some of the strongest laws in the nation for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill. The Legislature understood that in order to be effective, a spill response must be immediate, with adequate resources and trained personnel available to contain and remove the oil within the shortest possible time. Because of these measures, the Sound has more clean-up equipment and capacity than any other U.S. port. Extensive amounts of equipment and new technologies, coupled with vigorous training programs for operators and oil spill responders, represent vast improvements over the system in place in 1989.

This year, we expect the oil spill prevention and response plans for the tankers operating in Prince William Sound to be submitted for review and renewal. These plans, known as contingency plans, are prepared by oil tanker operators to meet state and federal regulations. The plans contain specific measures that will be taken to prevent and clean up oil spills from their vessels.

Reviewing contingency plans is part of the council’s mandate under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and our contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and we take this duty very seriously. We advocate for continuous improvement and best available technology in these plans, and view the details in the plans as mini insurance policies designed to protect the citizens and environment.

Possible reductions on the horizon…to what cost?

More recently, we have reason to believe that some of the improvements in prevention and response, including equipment, new technology and vigorous training programs put in place over the last 26 years, may be in jeopardy. More and more often we hear statements that the systems in place to protect Prince William Sound from another spill are “too costly” or “burdensome” in light of declining oil flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline and the low price of oil. Low oil flow through the pipeline has played a significant part in the state’s budget deficit, necessitating a reduction in overhead and administrative costs. But oil continues to flow and must still be transported through the Sound. There may now be fewer tankers travelling through Prince William Sound, but each tanker carries the same risk.

This past year, the Alaska Legislature challenged the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to develop a plan to reduce the cost to the state and private entities for oil spill response drills and exercises. We do not yet know how this Legislative challenge will be addressed, but our organization is very concerned about any reduction in the number of drills, exercises, and training. Having trained and proficient responders is a key element for mitigating oil spill damage to sensitive areas.

It took a tragedy like the Exxon Valdez to create the world-class prevention and response system we have today, and it would be even more tragic if we ignored the hard-won lessons of our own history and let them slip away because of a focus on cost cutting. For our council, which represents the people, communities, and businesses hardest hit by the Exxon spill, the cost of prevention and preparedness does not outweigh the cost of another spill.

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

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