From the President and Executive Director: Building trust takes time and transparency

President Robert Archibald, City of Homer
Executive Director Donna Schantz

We are now six months from the 35th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 24, 1989). These anniversaries are always a time to reflect on lessons learned and acknowledge the progress made in oil spill prevention in response. We also must bring a sharp focus to concerning trends we are seeing in budget and staffing cuts in industry and the associated regulatory agencies. These trends highlight why we must recommit to our mission of promoting the environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers.

As we prepare for the annual commemoration of the spill, the Council recently rereleased the publication “Stories from a citizens council,” a collection of interviews/oral histories from key participants in the formation of the Council. Many of these interviews highlighted the value of relationships founded on trust. Trust is built on transparency, listening, and engaging stakeholders.

This emphasis on relationships and trust is timely. The prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. However, in recent years, the Council has seen a steady erosion in some of the safety systems put in place as a direct result of the lessons learned from that disaster.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, the Alaska Oil Spill Commission found that starting in 1981 there had been a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight that had contributed to the spill.
Congress determined that only when local citizens are involved in oil transport will the trust develop that is necessary to change the system from confrontation to consensus, and so called for creation of citizen councils.

The Council is a unique partner for industry and regulators, providing a platform to cultivate the long-term relationships that are necessary to establish public trust.

While the Council has had disagreements with industry and regulators over the years, there have been numerous examples of us working cooperatively and collaboratively to find solutions. The success of those collaborations was founded on the transparent sharing and use of technical and scientific information; stakeholders felt informed, heard, and included in the process, resulting in trust.

As those who experienced firsthand the devastation of the 1989 spill are retiring or are no longer with us, the Council has increasingly become a knowledge-bearer. Our historical knowledge about how and why systems were implemented is important to uphold an effective system of protections.

The Council was created, in part, in anticipation of the time when the memory of the Exxon Valdez oil spill has faded and some begin to believe that protections look stale, overbearing, and burdensome.

It is critical that industry, government, and citizen leaders remain cognizant of the history that underlies the present system of preparedness. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to changes that could weaken existing protections. We will continue doing what we can to resist sliding back into complacency.

Stories from a Citizens’ Council

“A lesson learned is that it’s better to have the stakeholders involved before a disaster happens so that you at least have a bit of a trust level established.”
– Marilyn Leland

Read more from Leland and others involved in the Council’s early days in the rereleased Stories from a Citizens’ Council.

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