Yesterday the Council submitted comments on the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s public scoping on the state’s oil spill contingency plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill.
“PWSRCAC does not think the regulations are necessarily flawed as they are written. The regulations have proven to be protective of Alaska’s people and environment for decades, and it is critical that the protections written into them not be weakened in any way. It is equally important to maintain transparency, predictability, and specificity required to verify operational needs, which is currently in the regulations.”
In 1971, the Alaska Legislature formed the Department of Environmental Conservation to take the lead on Alaska’s environmental protections. DEC’s mission, set by the legislation which formed it, is: conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.
Now, here we are, 30 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the creation of regional citizens advisory councils in Alaska, and coming up on 30 years since the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The world-class oil spill prevention and response system in Prince William Sound is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations designed to protect Alaska. These strong statutes and regulations are one of the main reasons why Prince William Sound has not had a major oil spill since.
Currently, DEC is undertaking a “scoping process,” asking for comments from industry and the public on oil spill prevention and response regulations and statutes, which the DEC Commissioner has stated have become “onerous and burdensome” to business. The deadline to comment, March 16, is quickly approaching.
Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council has concerns that the current review is an effort to roll back regulations in order to reduce the burden on the oil industry, effectively shifting that burden to the citizens and the environment of Alaska.
The Spill Prevention and Response division of DEC is also suffering from reduced funding which will become critical by 2024 without a solution. Currently, this could hamper an efficient and timely review of comments from this scoping. In the future, this shortfall would be disastrous to oil spill prevention and response programs for Alaska.
Contingency plans, required by statutes and regulations, serve as a contract between industry and the State. They are an insurance policy to the citizens that their interests are being protected in both spill prevention and response preparedness. The details in these plans form the backbone of how industry has to provide prevention measures, response equipment and trained personnel, as well as perform drills and other exercises each year. These plans undergo a formal review every five years and are approved by DEC.
Practice does not make perfect, it makes better. That’s it. Being proactive in preventing oil spills and having strong response systems in place ahead of a spill is the best practice to maintain a pristine environment. Without a strong regulatory presence requiring these safeguards, they could disappear, putting our current world-class system at risk.
After 30 years with no major disasters, it would be easy to develop a false sense of security and let complacency creep back in.
One thing I learned during my 46 years as a seagoing marine engineer is that when you least expect it – that is when something beyond your imagination could very well happen.
The problem with letting your guard down is a guy named Murphy. For those that haven’t heard his law, it says: if it can go wrong, it will. Trimming details in the interest of simplicity, losing institutional knowledge as folks retire, rollbacks of regulations, reduced regulatory budgets and staff – all of this is setting up Mr. Murphy to once again prove his point. A point that will inevitably be made at a high cost to Alaskans, their livelihoods, and the amazing waters and lands in which we work, live and play.
Public input is needed to strongly oppose any legislative or regulatory changes that would erode oil spill prevention and response standards, increase the risk of a catastrophic spill or demonstrate a return of the complacency on the part of the oil industry and regulators that Congress determined to be a primary cause of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I encourage all Alaskans to make public comment in support of strong regulations that protect our pristine environment, coastal attractions, unique wildlife, healthy fish populations and businesses from oil pollution.
Public trust in our oil spill prevention and response system took many years to rebuild after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. It took a commitment to transparency, listening, and engaging stakeholders in developing and maintaining the system of safeguards for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers that we have today.
This system is now widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Strong State of Alaska statutes and regulations have supported this robust system. The lack of significant spills in Prince William Sound over the last 30 years indicates the effectiveness of industry meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements.
Trust in the system is at risk
Over the past few years, the Council has been seeing a steady erosion in regulatory oversight, staffing, funding, and coordination among many of the federal and state agencies responsible for enforcing strong laws and regulations. This alarming erosion has already started to reduce public trust in our prevention and response system.
In enacting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, 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 the Act called for creation of citizen councils. Our Council is a unique partner for industry and regulators, giving them a platform to provide information, answer questions, listen to stakeholders, and cultivate the long-term relationships that are necessary to establish public trust.
While the Council has had disagreements with industry over the years, there have been numerous examples of industry, regulators, and citizens working cooperatively and collaboratively to find solutions. The success of these collaborative processes has been founded upon the transparent sharing of technical and scientific information; stakeholders felt informed, heard, and included in the process, resulting in trust and acceptance of the results.
It is unreasonable to claim now, decades later, that existing requirements are too onerous on industry. Industry has demonstrated a commitment to the environment through safer operations, implementing new technologies, and integrating lessons learned. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System tanker operators have worked with regulators and citizens for 30 years to continuously improve the system and operate profitably. Any perceived financial burden to industry should be weighed against the devastation and enormous burden another major oil spill would place on the people, fish, wildlife, and environment of our region.
It appears that some may not fully understand or appreciate the legacy they have been entrusted to protect. Without transparency about what direction this potential regulatory reform may be going, it is difficult for those with historical knowledge, like the Council, to respond and advise.
Transparency is the antidote to mistrust
The Alaska Oil Spill Commission found that starting in 1981 there was a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight, and that decline contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. An official recommendation to the Alaska legislature after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was, “The nation and the state need strong, alert regulatory agencies fully funded to scrutinize and safeguard the shipment of oil.”
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 repository of the knowledge and lessons from that disaster.
We hope that any movement towards regulatory changes will include a thorough public input process with adequate time for information to be shared, reviewed, and commented on. Only through active citizen engagement and community relationship building can public trust in the oil spill prevention and response system be upheld.
The Council will do everything possible to make sure the safeguards put in place over the past 30 years are not weakened, and to protect the region’s stakeholders who would be most impacted by another catastrophic spill. The Council was created for this role, in anticipation of the time when enough of the memory of Exxon Valdez oil spill had faded such that the robust system put in place to prevent an accident like that from ever happening again begins to look overbearing and burdensome. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to regulatory and statutory changes that could weaken existing protections.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently began a process to review and potentially change oil spill laws and regulations in Alaska. The department’s first step, a public scoping, opened on October 15, 2019.
The department is currently asking for input from stakeholders, the public, and industry on areas where Alaska’s oil discharge prevention and response contingency plan laws and regulations could be streamlined. In the department’s official announcement for this review process, Commissioner Jason Brune stated that “I’ve heard from many Alaskans that contingency plans are unnecessarily burdensome while lacking corresponding environmental benefits. To achieve Governor Dunleavy’s goal of being open for business, today we are beginning a fully transparent scoping process seeking the public’s input.”
The department is taking comments on all of its regulations on oil discharge prevention and contingency plans. In addition, the department is accepting comments on Alaska’s laws on oil and hazardous substance pollution control. These laws, or statutes, are the foundation of oil spill prevention and response regulations. Regulations can be changed by the agency that oversees them, however state law can only be amended by the legislature. While no specific revisions are being proposed by the department at this time, the Council sees this effort as having the potential to lead to a weakening of oil spill prevention and response requirements put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Once the current public scoping is complete, the department plans to review the submitted comments and then propose specific revisions to the regulations. If changes are proposed, the department will provide an opportunity for public review and comment. Public comment periods on specific changes are required to be open for a minimum of 30 days.
Strong statutes and regulations are one of the main reasons why Prince William Sound has not had a major oil spill since the Exxon Valdez disaster. The world-class oil spill
prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers is a direct result of post-Exxon Valdez spill laws and regulations, which were designed to protect Alaskans and our environment, as well as commercial and sport fishing, aquaculture, recreation, tourism, subsistence, and cultural interests.
These laws and regulations help prevent oil spills and ensure that there are enough trained responders and equipment in place should prevention measures fail.