Archibald: The power of ‘our’: Overcoming challenges by owning responsibilities

Robert Archibald, President of the Council’s Board of Directors

Oh, how time flies. It has now been just over 34 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So much time has passed, but I still believe there is something to learn every day.

The Council recently released a report detailing accounts of unacceptable safety risks at the Valdez Marine Terminal. We hope this report provides an opportunity for the Council, industry, and regulators to work together to address any substantial safety issues at the terminal.

With new oil development on the horizon, every effort must be made to ensure the integrity of systems and infrastructure within the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, including the Valdez Marine Terminal.

The issues and recommendations covered by the assessment and report will take some time to address. The Council stands ready to support Alyeska, and state and federal regulatory agencies. As we move forward, the Council plans to conduct outreach within our region to share opportunities, as they arise, to help ensure that the key findings and recommendations in the report are addressed. We must do everything we can to protect our people, communities, economies, and our environment from another major oil spill.

Thinking about the Council’s duties and responsibilities during these challenging times brought to mind comments I heard at a recent Homer community meeting on defining moments. A long-time resident stood up and proceeded to give her thoughts about an endemic problem with modern society. It is the use of the word “the,” instead of the word “our.”

Just sit back and think how the word “the” is used today. The problem, the government, the city, the laws, the regulations, the schools, the responsibility, the resources… I could go on, but you get the point. Consider instead if more people made a conscious choice to use “our” instead. Taking ownership of challenges instills a more dynamic participation in our modern problems.

A small shift with giant results.

The Council was born out of a lack of responsibility on OUR part: industry, government, and public. In 1989, our government and industry were unprepared. While some concerned citizens were trying to raise alarms about the risks of a spill, many folks in our communities were unaware of the danger. The Council was formed to combat the complacency that unfortunately led to the Exxon spill and inform the public about issues that impact the safe transportation of oil through our region, with the goal preventing future spills. We must ensure that the successes we have helped achieve since our formation continue to move forward. This can be extremely challenging in our current environment of budget cuts and staffing reductions within industry and regulatory agencies.

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final.” The legacy of those that lived through the Exxon spill and fought to form this citizens council carries on in our work today. Their work – now our work – must continue as long as oil flows through the pipeline.

The Council is a voice for the people, communities, and interest groups in the region oiled by the Exxon spill. Those with the most to lose from oil pollution must have a voice in the decisions that can put their livelihoods and communities at risk. Our common goal with industry and regulators is to help maintain and improve safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers.

We hope that, years from now, we can look back at actions taken as result of this report release and see that they created another great success in the history of the safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and our spill prevention and response system. We hope this will be another example of citizens, industry, and regulators working together to prevent future oil spills.

After all, we are ALL in this together – to protect our livelihoods, our communities, and our environment.

Let’s do it right.

Report raises concerns about safety at the Valdez Marine Terminal

In April 2023, the Council released an assessment of risks and safety culture at the Valdez Marine Terminal. This report was initiated in June 2022, in response to safety concerns brought to Council staff by current and former Alyeska employees.

The Council worked with Billie Pirner Garde, a national expert on safety culture for work environments in energy industries. Garde previously worked as a consultant for both Alyeska and BP on numerous issues such as open work environments, safety cultures, and employee concerns programs.

Garde interviewed the concerned individuals, allowing them to remain anonymous. They reported inadequate staffing, equipment, and safety and reporting systems. Pressure to reduce budgets was a common theme.

One person quoted in the report noted, “we are as safe as the budget allows.”

According to the interviews, the availability of resources, quality and audit functions, maintenance and system upgrades, and operational integrity and compliance have all suffered significantly under recent corporate management.

“Virtually every serious accident investigation confirms that the tension between cost on the one hand, and compliance and safety on the other hand, contributed to the event.”
– Billie Pirner Garde

Alyeska employees

Garde notes in the report that the interviewees all cared deeply about the safe operation of the terminal, and the safety of their colleagues, the community, and Prince William Sound. She credits the integrity, knowledge, and skill of the Alyeska workforce for holding together an aging infrastructure.

Regulatory oversight diminished

Government budget pressures have also contributed to the problems. Over the past several years, the Council has voiced concerns about cuts and reductions in staffing at oversight agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The consequences of reduced oversight have, generally, never been favorable for the Alaska public and its environment,” Garde notes in the report.

Report recommendations

At a special meeting of the Council’s Board of Directors in April, the Council endorsed all recommendations in the report, including that Congress initiate a Government Accountability Office audit to determine the adequacy of the present regulatory oversight of terminal operations by federal and state agencies.

Other recommendations include:

  • The State of Alaska initiate an assessment, or audit, of the present regulatory oversight of terminal operations by state agencies;
  • The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration conduct or commission a full independent audit of applicable terminal systems for compliance with Process Safety Management;
  • Alyeska and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System owners commission an independent full assessment of the company’s safety management systems and determine a specific timeline for actual completion of the necessary changes to ensure safe operations; that they commission an immediate independent audit to be conducted of all deferred maintenance at the terminal; and provide mandatory training for all supervisory and management personnel on their duty to promote a strong safety culture, uphold a compliance culture, and not tolerate harassment, intimidation, retaliation, or discrimination.

Response from Alyeska

The Council has been encouraged by Alyeska’s response.

John Kurz, the new president of Alyeska, joined the Council’s Board of Directors at the May meeting. He told the Board that he and Alyeska’s executive team are taking the report seriously. He noted that they have formed a team to look into issues identified to determine what is going well, what areas they may be falling short, and what actions they are going to take to address them.

“There is nothing more important than life and family,” Kurz said, when explaining his views on safety in the workplace. “Because I care about everyone that works for us, I also want everyone to experience everything life has to offer, and therefore we will be injury free.”

Schantz says she knows that the staff at Alyeska and the regulatory agencies are dedicated to operating as safely as possible with the resources they are given. “The Council agrees with the sentiment expressed by Alyeska executives that this report provides an opportunity for improvement,” she said. “We stand ready to support Alyeska, and state and federal regulatory agencies, in our role as an advisor.”

“The greatest successes result from citizens, industry, and regulators working together to maintain and improve safeguards to prevent and prepare for future oil spills,” Schantz added.
The full report, including more detail on the resulting recommendations, is available on the Council’s website: 

Lessons from Exxon Valdez oil spill

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a charted rock, Bligh Reef, in Prince William Sound. An estimated 11 million gallons (257,000 barrels) of Alaska North Slope crude oil spilled into the remote, pristine, resource-laden environment, less than 30 miles from Valdez. The oil fouled approximately 1,300 miles of wildlife-abundant shoreline.

Alaskans worked hard to make changes and develop a better system. One of these changes, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, works every day to make sure this type of disaster never happens again.

Here are a few of the lessons we’ve documented:

Photo of oil from 1989 Exxon Valdez spill on Eleanor Island. Photo taken July 25, 2018. Photo by Dave Janka.
Exxon Valdez oil lingers on Eleanor Island in Prince William Sound. Photo taken July 25, 2018 by Dave Janka.
  1. Be prepared. Contingency plans must be in place ahead of time to quickly and effectively respond to an oil spill. More about Alaska’s plans: Contingency Plans
  2. Train responders before a spill: Proper training is essential for an effective response in an emergency situation. More about how local Alaskans are trained to protect their waters: Fishing Vessel Oil Spill Response Training
  3. Maintain best available technology: Constantly improving technology for detecting and responding to oil spills, including better communication systems, and improves cleanup and containment systems. More: Council research fills gap in knowledge about line-throwing technology
  4. Maintain strong regulations: Strong regulatory oversight ensures that everyone follows best practices for oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup. More: How Alaskans redefined oil spill prevention and response
  5. Involve the public: The Exxon Valdez oil spill showed the importance of involving the public in decision-making processes related to oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup. More: An innovative solution – regional citizens’ advisory councils
  6. Prevent spills from happening: One of the biggest lessons is that preventing a spill in the first place is the best way to protect the environment. No spill can ever be completely cleaned up. Oil from the Exxon Valdez spill can still be found in some locations in Prince William Sound. More: Lingering oil (EVOSTC website)

New Zealanders visit Alaska in search of Exxon Valdez lessons

This past June brought visitors to Alaska to learn about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Raewyn Bennett and Elaine Tapsell, elders of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, came to look for information and best practices or guidance that might be useful to them in the aftermath of their own oil spill off the coast of New Zealand in 2011.

The cargo tanker Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef in October 2011, releasing over 350 tonnes (approximately 110,000 gallons) of fuel oil and shipping containers into New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. The Astrolabe Reef, known to the Maori as “Otaiti,” is considered sacred by the Maori, and they are concerned about a potential plan to leave the submerged portion of the wreckage on the reef.

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