From the Executive Director: Proposed amendment to Alaska’s Response Plan would reduce citizen involvement in spills like Exxon Valdez

Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

The federal and state group that plans oil-spill response and cleanup in Alaska waters has proposed changes that would dismantle a vital tool for public involvement in that process.

The group in question is the Alaska Regional Response Team. This group is made up of 15 different federal and state agencies, and is chaired by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Department of Environmental Conservation is the primary representative for the State of Alaska.

Changing it as proposed would weaken, not strengthen, oil-spill response in Alaska waters. It’s a bad idea and we urge the Response Team to withdraw the proposal and rework it as needed with help from this citizens organization and other concerned stakeholders.

The tool the Response Team wants to dismantle is the Regional Stakeholder Committee. It includes our group and many others with much to lose if Alaskans should suffer another spill on the scale of the Exxon Valdez. The proposed change would replace the Stakeholder Committee with two smaller, weaker groups that would be far less effective, possibly to the point of near-irrelevance.

The Stakeholder Committee makes it possible for citizens, cities, boroughs, Alaska Native tribal entities, Alaska Native corporations, environmental groups, and other organizations to find out what’s going on during an oil-spill response, and to provide concerns and expert advice directly to the people managing it. The Stakeholder Committee has functioned well and effectively during spill drills and exercises in Prince William Sound for over a decade. Involving citizens was recognized by Congress and Alaskans as an important aspect in oil-spill laws and regulations that were overhauled after the Exxon spill.

The present Stakeholder Committee has two all-important rights and functions in the event of an oil spill. Both would be gravely weakened under the proposed plan.

First, the Stakeholder Committee is guaranteed access to information on all aspects of the response effort, including the Incident Action Plan. This crucial plan is typically produced daily by the Unified Command (which directs operations during a spill response) to guide the next day’s activities. Without access to this plan, stakeholders and the broader Alaskan public alike will have no real idea of what’s being done to clean up oil spills in our waters.

Second, the Stakeholder Committee is guaranteed direct access to the Unified Command. Through this mechanism, the Committee conveys stakeholder concerns to the Command, and also provides it with local knowledge and with expert advice embodied in the vast array of scientific and technical studies commissioned by various stakeholders since 1989.

Under the proposed new arrangement, the governments, organizations and citizens represented on the Stakeholder Committee would lose out on both counts.

One of the replacements would be called the Tribal and Local Government Group, constituted as the name suggests.
The other, called the Affected Stakeholder Group, would essentially be the leftovers from the original Regional Stakeholder Committee–interests not included in the Tribal and Local Government Group. It would include resource users, landowners, fishing groups, non-governmental organizations and others. The Affected Stakeholder Group is where we and our sister citizens’ council in Cook Inlet–the two entities identified in federal law as the primary vehicles for public involvement in oil-spill response–would end up.

Neither council would be guaranteed direct access to the Unified Command, nor to the Incident Action Plan. Any information provided would be at the choice and discretion of the Unified Command. Those with the most to lose from another major oil spill and with the most knowledge of local waters and resources must be able to give input directly to the decision makers in a timely manner.

The Response Team’s proposal would mean a massive reduction in public access to oil-spill information and to response managers at the exact moment when public interest and the need for public involvement would be greatest. The result would be a severe blow to the transparency that, as we learned in 1989, is indispensable to public confidence.

This plan is reminiscent of the complacency–the attitude that oil-spill response is best left to agencies and oil companies, with little need or regard for citizen input–that we saw before the Exxon Valdez spill. In fact, Congress in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 cited complacency as one of the causes contributing to that spill.

To impose this policy change in its current form would be to forget the painful lessons Alaskans learned in 1989. It would, without good reason, substantially degrade a system explicitly designed to include the citizens, Alaska Natives, communities, local governments, and organizations harmed by the Exxon spill.

That’s why we have urged the Response Team to withdraw this plan and work with us and other stakeholders to correct the deficiencies in the proposed changes. If the Regional Stakeholder Committee and the process for stakeholder involvement needs to be updated, let’s collaborate in a constructive process involving our group and the many other organizations whose members have vital interests at stake in oil-spill response.

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

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s public comment period for this change has been extended until May 31, 2016. We encourage you to let them know you support a process that provides public access to key information and decision makers during an oil spill. For more information and links to the public notice and the proposed changes, visit: Opportunity for public comment: Changes proposed to process for public input on oil spills

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