From the President and Executive Director: Building trust takes time and transparency

President Robert Archibald, City of Homer
Executive Director Donna Schantz

We are now six months from the 35th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (March 24, 1989). These anniversaries are always a time to reflect on lessons learned and acknowledge the progress made in oil spill prevention in response. We also must bring a sharp focus to concerning trends we are seeing in budget and staffing cuts in industry and the associated regulatory agencies. These trends highlight why we must recommit to our mission of promoting the environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers.

As we prepare for the annual commemoration of the spill, the Council recently rereleased the publication “Stories from a citizens council,” a collection of interviews/oral histories from key participants in the formation of the Council. Many of these interviews highlighted the value of relationships founded on trust. Trust is built on transparency, listening, and engaging stakeholders.

This emphasis on relationships and trust is timely. The prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. However, in recent years, the Council has seen a steady erosion in some of the safety systems put in place as a direct result of the lessons learned from that disaster.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, the Alaska Oil Spill Commission found that starting in 1981 there had been a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight that had contributed to the spill.
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 called for creation of citizen councils.

The Council is a unique partner for industry and regulators, providing a platform to cultivate the long-term relationships that are necessary to establish public trust.

While the Council has had disagreements with industry and regulators over the years, there have been numerous examples of us working cooperatively and collaboratively to find solutions. The success of those collaborations was founded on the transparent sharing and use of technical and scientific information; stakeholders felt informed, heard, and included in the process, resulting in trust.

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 knowledge-bearer. Our historical knowledge about how and why systems were implemented is important to uphold an effective system of protections.

The Council was created, in part, in anticipation of the time when the memory of the Exxon Valdez oil spill has faded and some begin to believe that protections look stale, overbearing, and burdensome.

It is critical that industry, government, and citizen leaders remain cognizant of the history that underlies the present system of preparedness. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to changes that could weaken existing protections. We will continue doing what we can to resist sliding back into complacency.

Stories from a Citizens’ Council

“A lesson learned is that it’s better to have the stakeholders involved before a disaster happens so that you at least have a bit of a trust level established.”
– Marilyn Leland

Read more from Leland and others involved in the Council’s early days in the rereleased Stories from a Citizens’ Council.

From the executive director: Keeping the Exxon Valdez disaster in the rearview mirror

Donna Schantz 2022
Donna Schantz

In February, the Council was certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as the Alternative Voluntary Citizens Advisory Group for Prince William Sound under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90 or the Act). This process is done annually, with every third year including a public comment period. I wish to thank the individuals, entities, industry representatives, elected officials, and others who sent letters to the Coast Guard this year in support of our work. It takes all of us working together to help ensure that strong oil spill prevention and response measures remain in place.

The Council strives to meet OPA 90 mandates as closely as possible. The Act was drafted in the midst of the chaos and urgency that followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill, or EVOS. While some areas of the Act are perhaps not well defined, the intent seems extremely clear: the Council is to represent communities and interests in the entire EVOS-affected region, from Valdez down to Kodiak.

The Act’s mandate for the Council to develop long-term partnerships with government and industry, while also directing us to help shatter the previous complacency of those groups, is an example of one of the less clear sections. This is a challenging mission to achieve. It is difficult to maintain partnerships with those to whom you must also provide advice, and sometimes critical feedback, especially during times of serious reductions in staffing, resources, and budgets for those entities. It is not clear if those who wrote the Act ever meant for the two functions to be compatible. They left that up to us to sort out, which we are still doing 34 years after the spill.

Backsliding and diminishment of regulatory oversight has been a concern of the Council for years. The Council believes the revisions to regulations implemented by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in February 2023 have reduced protections for our region and the state (see page 8). For example, requirements for drills and exercises used to allow for two per year and now the maximum is only one every five years (with an option of one additional per year). This problem can be distilled down to the department lacking the level of resources and leadership support needed to allow for the maximum number of drills and exercises.

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, did a review in 1991 that stated federal and state monitoring agencies had not effectively overseen the Valdez Marine Terminal. Bureau of Land Management officials told them at the time that the Joint Pipeline Office was not a regulator, with agencies instead relying on Alyeska to police itself. They concluded that the recent establishment of the Joint Pipeline Office was a positive step, but that its success was hindered unless leadership, firm commitments, and secure funding from all regulatory agencies are in place. That was over 20 years ago.

If there is a major spill tomorrow, we can pretty much write the report as to what happened. Cuts to budgets, staffing, and resources within industry and regulatory agencies; reduced regulatory oversight; loss of institutional knowledge and technical specialists… all of these things increase risk. These are the factors that keep our staff and volunteers awake at night.

Alyeska, as well as the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing them, have dedicated staff working diligently to ensure the safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers. However, as budgets get squeezed, and reductions in staffing and resources ensue, the result is inevitable; there are not enough dedicated staff and resources to effectively do their jobs.

So many have worked since EVOS to prevent another disaster. Unfortunately, it often takes an accident to get attention on the problems plaguing prevention and response systems. Whether heeded or not, the Council will continue to provide advice in the spirit of promoting change to maintain and improve upon the prevention and response systems designed to protect our region. We hope that the long-term partnerships that we have worked diligently to establish will help prevent further backsliding, identify and mitigate risks, and facilitate improvements designed to prevent another accident.

Partnering to protect the places we live, work, play

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

The Council views itself as a partner of and resource for industry and regulators. In our advisory role, we provide expertise and local knowledge with the goal of collectively protecting the place in which our communities and livelihoods depend. A true friend gives both support and pushback when needed in life. In the same way, the Council works hard to recognize the successes of industry and also provide constructive feedback to continuously improve prevention and response systems in our region.

We remain concerned with what the Council views as a steady deterioration of regulatory oversight due to federal and state budget and staff reductions at key agencies. We also see budgetary and other reductions within industry. Both are constantly pressured to do more with less. The Council believes that if these problems are allowed to persist, the people, environment, and economy of Alaska will be at higher risk of another major oil spill.

Over the past year, the Council has 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 shortfall. This directly threatens the department’s ability to effectively oversee the oil industry in Prince William Sound.

The Council has also been closely monitoring damage to oil storage tanks that occurred at the terminal in early 2022, and the subsequent work by Alyeska and regulators to investigate, repair the damage, and prevent a recurrence. While no substantial injuries were associated with this event, hydrocarbons were released to the atmosphere and there were operational risks associated with oxygen ingress into the tank head space. The Council believes this event was a near miss that could have had devastating consequences.

Events such as this, especially while resources are being cut back, are of primary concern to the Council and its stakeholders. We raise these issues so that appropriate and effective actions can be taken.

The prevention and response system for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities was developed through partnerships, and extensive work from members of the oil industry, federal and state regulators, legislators, and citizen stakeholders: Alaskans working together with industry to ensure an oil spill like the 1989 Exxon Valdez never happens again.

There have been vast improvements to the safe transportation of oil in the decades since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Council must work harder than ever to make sure the safeguards put in place to prevent another disaster are not weakened and the lessons learned are not forgotten.

The oil spill that did not happen is hard to hold up as an accomplishment, and the importance and cost associated with prevention can often be dismissed. It takes a lot of work, and the cooperative effort of many every day, to protect the place we live, work, and play.

Tough conversations must happen as we strive to maintain and improve upon the safeguards in place. Our history of success means that citizens must stay active and maintain partnerships with industry and regulators to keep this system working.

Schantz: The value of learning from history and experience

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, many of the people impacted used lessons learned to advocate for safeguards to ensure a spill like that never happens again. Thanks to the foresight, vigilance, and tireless efforts of these elected officials, government regulators, industry, and citizens, Prince William Sound is now recognized as having a world-class oil spill prevention and response system for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers. The biggest successes achieved in our region have been a result of these partners working together toward the common goal of moving oil safely.

Congress found that complacency on the part of industry and government was a major contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez spill. To combat this complacency, Congress established two regional citizens advisory councils, one in Prince William Sound and another in Cook Inlet. Neither council could satisfy the provisions under this federal mandate without dedicated volunteers from throughout their respective regions. Citizen oversight brings irreplaceable local knowledge and expertise to the table, and involves those with the most to lose from oil pollution in the decisions that can put their livelihoods, resources, and communities at risk. Since our formation, our work has helped bring about some changes and advancements that would not have happened had we not been in existence.

In addition to the comprehensive laws enacted through the landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Alaska Legislature introduced a series of bills immediately following the 1989 spill that resulted in some of the most comprehensive laws in the nation for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill. The legislature understood that in order to be effective, a spill response must be immediate, with adequate resources and trained personnel available to contain, control, and clean up the oil within the shortest possible time. Industry should be commended for the extensive amounts of equipment and new technologies employed in our region, especially the relatively new Crucial oil skimmers, escort and response tugs, and purpose-built oil spill response barges. This equipment, coupled with vigorous training programs for operators and oil spill responders, represents vast improvements over the response system in place in 1989.

It took a tragedy like the Exxon Valdez to create the robust prevention and response system in place today, but 33 years of successful prevention can inevitably lead back to complacency. It would be even more tragic if we ignored the hard-won lessons of our own history and let a focus on cost cutting diminish the protections resulting from that catastrophe. For our council, which represents the people, communities, and businesses hardest hit by the Exxon disaster, the cost of prevention and preparedness is marginal compared to the cost of another major oil spill.

The Council has been concerned for some time about budget cuts and reductions in staffing levels at key state and federal oversight agencies, as well as cost cutting within industry. The Council believes these reductions are putting at risk our region’s strong oil spill prevention, response, and oversight capabilities. The loss of institutional knowledge with long-time employees retiring, coupled with high turnover rates and increased workloads, are likely to elevate risk and the chances of an accident.

For instance, staffing levels at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Bureau of Land Management, and Joint Pipeline Office, agencies set up to ensure regulatory compliance, have been drastically reduced. These staffing reductions include the elimination of several qualified technical and engineering positions charged with monitoring the complex systems at the Valdez Marine Terminal. Other factors that contribute to heightened risk include ageing infrastructure, and intermittent and persistent breakdowns in communication and vessel tracking infrastructure including VHF capability and the radar coverage used to monitor and protect the shipping lanes used by oil tankers. Reductions in regulatory oversight and other protections put in place to prevent another devastating oil spill must be adequately addressed with proactive solutions if these safeguards are to be maintained. The Council stands ready to advocate for solutions that prevent this type of complacency from creeping back in.

Being a citizens’ council is more than just a title, it is the meaning behind our mission. It is only when citizens are involved in the process, working together with industry and government at all levels, that the safeguards designed to prepare for and prevent future oil spills can be maintained and continuously improved.

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