Schantz and Archibald: Safeguarding our prevention and response system

By President Robert Archibald (City of Homer) and Executive Director Donna Schantz

It will surprise no one to learn the past year has been exceptionally challenging for the Council. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes and constant uncertainty. Safety precautions required us to look for new ways to monitor drills and adapt projects. While the Council has moved projects forward in our many areas of responsibility and recognizes new realities the pandemic presents, we remain concerned with what we view as a steady deterioration of federal and state oil spill prevention, response, oversight, and enforcement capabilities that continues in Prince William Sound.

However, we are pleased to report that, through it all, our staff, supported by our Board and committee members, have kept our work on track. Our dedicated volunteers have adapted to virtual meetings and remained engaged, again donating hundreds of hours to our mission of promoting the environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers.

Our prevention and response system is one of the best in the world, and we strive daily to protect and improve upon the safeguards in place. This system was developed through partnerships between the oil industry, federal and state regulators, legislators, and citizen stakeholders: Alaskans working together to ensure an oil spill like the 1989 Exxon Valdez never happens again.

Effective oversight critical to prevent spills

For several years, the Council has witnessed declining federal and state budgets and staffing at the agencies responsible for overseeing operation of oil transportation systems in Alaska. Industry has similarly been implementing efforts to reduce costs, including staffing reductions, driven mostly by the low price of oil and lower throughput in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. These rollbacks, along with the challenges and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, increase the risk of a spill.

This year, the Council encouraged the Alaska Legislature to ensure sustainable funding for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Spill Prevention and Response. Reduced revenues have resulted in a chronic and continuing shortfall. This directly threatens the department’s ability to oversee the oil industry in Prince William Sound.

The Council is also concerned about the department’s proposed changes to Alaska’s regulations on contingency plans. We are dedicating resources to a thorough review and analysis.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress specifically identified complacency on the part of industry and government as a contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Just over thirty years later, the system is again threatened by complacency, compounded further by budgetary constraints and efforts to reduce costs.

What’s the answer?

The Council and our mission are more important than ever. Our vigilance can prevent backsliding that could lead to another major oil spill. Such a disaster would be devastating for Alaskans, for our livelihoods, for fish and wildlife, and for the marine and terrestrial environment. We raise these concerns so that sensible and effective actions can be taken. Those with the most to lose from oil pollution must have a voice in the decisions that put their livelihoods and communities at risk.

No matter what the future brings, the Council’s staff and volunteers will continue to promote the highest level of oil spill prevention and response capabilities for our region.

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