Schantz: Citizen oversight leads to safer transportation of oil

Photo of Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz, Executive Director

By Donna Schantz, Executive Director

Of all the advances made in the safe transportation of oil since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, perhaps the most innovative and significant was the establishment of permanent, industry-funded citizen oversight for both Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. While the citizen advisory groups established in Alaska after the spill were modeled after the advisory committee set up for the Sullom Voe Terminal in the Shetland Islands, throughout the world, most oil development still takes place without citizen involvement. In Prince William Sound, many of the safety improvements now in place are a direct result of partnerships between industry, regulators, and citizens.

March 24, 2024, will mark 35 years since the Exxon Valdez disaster. This year will also mark 34 years since the formation and incorporation of PWSRCAC. The Council recently reconnected with several of our founding members to discuss why they think our organization is still relevant today, with quotes from those conversations featured in our most recent “Year In Review” report.

You can read more about their thoughts on how and why the Council was formed in our publication “Stories from a citizens’ council,” rereleased in 2023.

All of the early Council Board and committee members witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of the oil spill. Some of them are still volunteering for the Council more than a quarter of a century later. These experiences played a big part in the passion and drive of all parties to put systems in place designed to prevent another accident, and to make sure there are adequate trained personnel, and enough equipment available, to respond immediately should prevention measures fail and another spill occurs.

Reading through the thoughts and comments from the founders reinforces the core of what the Council is and why our work matters so much.

“PWSRCAC is a powerful organization in that it really is an example of how people need to be engaged in decision making regarding development that directly impacts them.”

– Ann Rothe, 2013

“The entire process of enhancing safety is greatly benefited by having the local people who know local conditions and who care about the locality where they live take part in the decision-making process.”

– Scott Sterling, 2013

“Because the further we get away from the event, the more complacency builds. Stan Stephens often said, ‘the biggest threat isn’t another spill, it’s complacency.’”

– Bill Walker, 2023

Each anniversary of the spill, we reflect on how far we have come, as well as how much there is left to do. It is also a time to recognize the efforts of those who used the lessons of the Exxon Valdez to advocate for safeguards to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. Thanks to the foresight, vigilance, and tireless efforts of elected officials, government regulators, industry, and citizens, the oil spill prevention and response system now in place in Prince William Sound is an example to the rest of the world.

A big part of the success in Prince William Sound is that all these partners work together. We all share one goal: to promote the safe transportation of oil. While every partner has played a vital role in the success in Prince William Sound, special recognition is warranted to honor past and current technical committee and Board members of the Council. Our volunteers have put in countless unpaid hours dedicated to the mission of our organization, and our organization serves as a voice for Prince William Sound through our Board, committee volunteers, and staff.

Everyone involved should be proud of what has been accomplished, but we also should never become so satisfied with the current services or processes that we become complacent. Constant vigilance is needed to prevent a return to the complacency that allowed that disaster to happen. 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. We hope that the long-term partnerships the Council has worked diligently to establish and maintain will help prevent backsliding, identify and mitigate risks, and promote continuous improvements designed to prevent another accident.

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.

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