Sustaining our resolve to push for improvements in the face of lingering complacency

From the Executive Director


Another year has passed marking yet another anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That spill changed everything about the way spills are prevented and cleaned up, not only for the U.S. but worldwide.

24 years later, much has changed for the better, but we are still confronting many familiar concerns about industry, regulatory and even public complacency. We have a great system of spill prevention and response. We also have many areas where we have unaddressed vulnerabilities where we can and must do better. Often, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient interest or an obvious mechanism to drive the needed improvements. Here are just a few examples.

We know there are internationally recognized best practices available to make the Prince William Sound escort tugs safer and significantly increase their capabilities in rough conditions. Unfortunately, both industry and regulators have expressed their comfort with the current system and have questioned the timing and definition of best available.

Both regulators and industry acknowledge that existing regulations requiring routine inspections of the 800 mile pipeline do not apply to pipes at the terminal. As a result, many pipes at the terminal have gone uninspected for three and a half decades, allowing, in one instance, corrosion to consume almost 70% of the original steel on a few overwater piping welds. Regulators feel compelled to accept assurances of rigorous maintenance and inspection processes in lieu of explicitly requiring actual maintenance and inspection.

We still cannot effectively clean up oil at night, pick up oil in rough weather, or achieve anywhere near the recovery rate that our contingency plans assume. However, many regulators fret that there is insufficient leverage to challenge long standing assumptions and require substantial amendments to these cleanup plans.

We have cold oil in the pipeline with associated issues that have resulted in damage to cleaning pigs and elements of the safety systems at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Many of these risks of cold oil and some potential solutions, including heaters, were identified over 25 years ago. Alyeska is starting to address these risks by recirculating oil at pump stations, which helps, and by studying longer-term solutions.

The terminal has 18 crude oil tanks that can each hold half a million barrels of oil. The tank roofs are not rated for the heavy snows routinely seen in the Valdez area and often must be shoveled to stay within safety margins. While only 14 tanks are still in active use, routine once-a-decade inspection of internal tank structures does not actually include a detailed verification of the internal tank roof structures.

We have a terminal designed for magnitude 8.5 earthquakes in a region that has historically experienced magnitude 9.2 and greater earthquakes.

Sometimes, the known remaining risks are being comprehensively addressed albeit slowly. Objectively, older ships are riskier to operate than newer ships. As a result, most major oil companies will no longer charter oil tankers over 20 years old. In Prince William Sound, a few carefully maintained but nonetheless 35 year old tankers still continue to operate. Brand new tankers are currently being constructed to replace these older ships and should be in service in Prince William Sound sometime in the next 2 or 3 years.

The council continues to work to bring issues and concerns to the attention of the public, regulators and industry. Objectively, we can be glad that overall we have a good prevention and response system in place. We also have areas of complacency with well-known vulnerabilities and risks that industry and regulators and even the public have been unable or unwilling to address.

It’s not a question of just endlessly pushing for additional prevention and response measures. Many risks have been understood for a long time and are still inadequately addressed. So, how does one sustain the resolve to push for improvements and to patch the known holes and thin spots in an otherwise sound system of prevention and response?

Perhaps the answer is by focusing on the stark reality of the consequences if we don’t.

Another spill could happen.

The achievements of the oil industry in Alaska and its contributions to the state are tremendous. We should all be justifiably proud of what has been achieved and optimistic about what we may continue to achieve, but we shouldn’t get overly comfortable that all risks of oil spills have been reduced or eliminated. They have not. Overcoming complacency is seldom easy. We need to simply remember that accepting and living with complacency has costs. Let’s continue to work hard and work together with regulators, industry, and the public to try to avoid another real life reminder about the tremendous costs of getting complacent with undermanaged risks.

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