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

Donna Schantz
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.

Schantz: Collaboration leads to better solutions for prevention and response

Image with a quote from the Oil Pollutions Act of 1990: "Only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.”
Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 notes congressional findings from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Included in those findings was the need to foster the long-term partnership of industry, government, and local communities. This is a key piece of the foundation on which the Council was formed.

The Council may not always agree with industry and regulators, but we strive to maintain positive working relationships and build trust. While we do not hesitate to raise concerns when we perceive potential rollbacks in oil spill prevention and response safeguards, it is just as important to recognize when we are in agreement.

I am pleased to report the Council will be supporting Alyeska in a recent appeal they filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (page 2). Our independent review verifies that systems Alyeska currently has in place at the Valdez Marine Terminal capture over 99% of the emissions addressed by the rule – a higher reduction goal than is currently being required. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) has also voiced support of Alyeska’s appeal to the EPA.

This collaborative approach goes both ways. For example, after months of coordination, Alyeska has also agreed to support a project proposed by the Council to look at the chemical composition and concentration of oxygenated hydrocarbons released from the terminal. Oxygenated hydrocarbons are less studied than other hydrocarbon products and they are potentially toxic in the aquatic environment. Revisions to the scope of work were necessary to satisfy Alyeska’s concerns, mostly related to COVID impacts and their desire to focus resources on their priority operational goals. This is another example of how good communication, strong relationships, and a willingness to work together can lead to solutions that support everyone’s goal of moving oil safely.

There are concerns with the integrity of the secondary containment liner at the Valdez Marine Terminal that we hope can be addressed in a similar fashion. In January, the Council requested an adjudicatory hearing with ADEC in support of the department’s decision to require additional evaluation and testing of the liner. Alyeska also requested a hearing seeking to remove any requirement for further liner testing.

Secondary containment systems are required by Alaska regulation to hold oil in the event of a spill from a tank or pipe until the spill can be detected and cleaned up. The protection of groundwater and Port Valdez, in the event of a breach of one of the terminal’s large crude oil storage tanks, is dependent largely on the integrity of the liner, so it is of critical importance that the liner be inspected to ensure there are no cracks or holes.

For two decades the Council has voiced concern over the ability of the secondary containment liners within the system to meet regulatory standards. The liners were installed during original construction of the terminal, 45 years ago, and the type of liner installed then would not be allowed by regulations today. Additionally, when relatively small sections of the liner have been inspected over the years during other maintenance work, damage to the liner has been discovered. The Council’s persistent calls for more rigorous evaluation and testing, or even replacement of the liner, have not been adequately addressed.

Image with a quote from the Oil Pollutions Act of 1990: "Only when local citizens are involved  in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.”

The Council is hoping to find a more collaborative approach to addressing our concerns with the secondary containment liner, in lieu of a hearing. Regardless of how this process proceeds, the ultimate goal is to work together with industry and regulators to give citizens a voice in decisions that impact the safe operation of the terminal and tankers in Prince William Sound.

We often share the following quote from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 congressional findings, “Only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus.” We will continue to try and work together with industry and regulators to find solutions that improve oil spill prevention and response.

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.

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