What have we learned in the last 25 years?

From the Executive Director

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

• Mark Swanson is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

This past spring, with the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, virtually everyone associated with that spill or connected to current spill prevention and response activities encountered media representatives asking some variation of: What happened 25 years ago? What have we learned since that environmental disaster? Those are tough but natural questions that defy a ready or pat answer.

In our last Observer newsletter we partially answered that first question by highlighting many of the highly visible improvements in oil spill prevention and response. These changes were hammered out and put into place by industry, government regulators, and activist citizens. The second question calls for a bit more thought.

Because of the unprecedented magnitude of the impacts of the 1989 spill, many folks from all walks of life were profoundly shaken up and sufficiently motivated to introspectively analyze what had gone wrong and how such a disaster might be avoided in the future. Causes of the accident and deficiencies in the response were examined. Solutions were proposed, debated, advocated and in large measure adopted. The federal government passed perhaps the most significant and sweeping environmental regulations ever in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The Act contained many new and innovative ideas like tug escorts for tankers, double hulls, citizen oversight, comprehensive spill response plans, and even increased regulatory and navigational oversight by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The State of Alaska similarly implemented improvements such as the incorporation of best available technologies and a requirement for extraordinarily robust oil spill response capabilities. State spill response requirements far exceeded federal requirements, and were based on the size of the real spill that folks had just experienced, rather than more optimistic smaller spill volumes. The oil industry, citizens, and local fisherman joined forces to expand on an innovative spill response tactic involving the use of fishing vessels to create a standing and permanent spill response capability. These fishing vessel crews are now trained and prepared to quickly lend a hand in case of a spill.

Twenty-five years ago, folks took a hard look at the terrible consequences of being unprepared for an oil spill of this magnitude. They did something about it to the benefit of Alaska and the entire crude oil transportation industry.

In 2010, 21 years after the Exxon spill, an even larger oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill was offshore this time, involving a significantly larger volume of oil and arguably doing even greater environmental damage. Commissions were formed and reports were written that investigated and examined that incident’s causes and the response that followed. As after the 1989 spill, solutions and improvements have been proposed, debated, and advocated.

The difference today is that the majority of the proposed improvements coming out of the 2010 spill have not been, and may never be, implemented. Time has passed and other issues have captured our collective attention.

This is unfortunate and should be of great concern to all of us.

Many of those proposals are national in scope and would improve our preparedness and response policies and capabilities here in Alaska. The silver lining to the disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is that everyone, oil industry, state and federal government, citizens, and stakeholders, accepted the need to change and learn from our litany of mistakes. Everyone committed to a sustained focus on preventing disasters and combating complacency. The tragedy of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is that it demonstrates that we as a country have not continued to acknowledge the necessity of learning from our mistakes. Until we do, we are likely to repeat them.

So what have we learned? In this region and with this Trans-Alaska Pipeline oil trade route, we have collectively learned and accomplished quite a lot including a focus on prevention and avoiding complacency while advancing both prevention and response measures, but maybe we haven’t quite learned the most important public policy lesson: We need to continue to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes and accidents and implement the changes needed in order to prevent the next one.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Kulluk incident report came out in early April with a lot of hard lessons about the value of good weather information and the challenges of towing in rough Alaskan waters. We have yet another opportunity to learn and improve. Let’s make sure we take it.


Skip to content