Strong regulations are a result of hard lessons

Donna Schantz
Donna Schantz

By Donna Schantz
Executive Director

The oil spill prevention and response system created for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is one of the best in the world. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System tanker operators have worked with regulators and citizens to continuously improve the system over the years. Industry safety records, coupled with the lack of significant spills in the past 30 years, point to the success of industry working within the current system. Credit is also due to the foresight of Congress for enacting the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which included the creation of the citizen councils, and to the State of Alaska for implementing strong statutes and regulations. The Joint Pipeline Office was created in 1990 to coordinate efforts of the 13 different state and federal regulatory agencies with oversight responsibilities at the Valdez Marine Terminal.

One only needs to compare the prevention and response capabilities prior to 1989 to what is in place today to recognize the vast improvements that have been made. 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 notion that safety can be ensured in the shipping industry  through self-regulation has proved false and should be abandoned as a premise for policy. Alert regulatory agencies, subject to continuous public oversight, are needed to enforce laws governing the safe shipment of oil.”

– Alaska Oil Spill Commission Report (1990) The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez: Implications for Safe Transportation of Oil.

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 the strong laws and regulations. Agency budgets have been reduced, and personnel are being tasked with doing more with fewer resources. The Council wants to do everything possible to make sure the safeguards put in place over the past 30 years are not weakened.

Many of the people who worked so hard after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to make sure strong requirements were enacted are no longer with us or involved in the process. With the passage of time, we are losing historical knowledge and the lessons learned from those who experienced firsthand the devastation of the spill and who understood the importance of implementing strong requirements to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.

With this loss of understanding there is a shift in philosophy among some decision makers that the details in the oil spill prevention and response contingency plans, and the regulations that guide them, are unnecessary and distracting. Some of the details in the contingency plans have already been weakened or removed, and an effort to reform current oil spill regulations to make them less burdensome on industry is underway. It appears that some may not fully understand or appreciate the legacy they have been entrusted to protect.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Alaska legislature created the Alaska Oil Spill Commission to study the event and propose changes that would minimize chances for recurrence of a similar disaster. One of their recommendations was that, “The nation and the state need strong, alert regulatory agencies fully funded to scrutinize and safeguard the shipment of oil.” The Commission found that starting in 1981 there was a dramatic decline in regulatory oversight that contributed to the spill.

Industry has been able to meet or exceed current regulatory requirements and has demonstrated a commitment to the environment through safer operations. New technologies and improvements based on lessons learned have been added to the system in Prince William Sound to further enhance preparedness. Most of these reforms are costly, yet it is unreasonable to claim now, decades later, that existing requirements are too onerous on industry. 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.

The State of Alaska should take pride in the world-class oil spill prevention and response system created for crude oil storage and transportation in Prince William Sound. Maintaining this high level of vigilance is of paramount importance to keeping oil transportation safe. The Council continues to raise awareness and provide reasonable and justified resistance to changes that could weaken existing protections to avoid sliding back into complacency.

To find out more about the history and legislative  intent of Alaska’s strong  standards, read the Council’s August 2018 report:

  • Alaska's Oil Spill Response Planning Standard - History And Legislative Intent | August 1, 2018 | File size: 5.6 MB | Author: Nuka Research

  • Thirty years later, Council continues mission to combat complacency

    Donna Schantz

    By Donna Schantz
    Executive Director

    On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil. Congress determined that complacency on the part of industry and government was a contributing factor in the accident and they mandated citizen involvement in the oversight of crude oil terminals and tankers. For the past 30 years, the Council has filled this role for Prince William Sound and its downstream communities, advocating for environmental safeguards to prevent oil spills and a strong response system should prevention measures fail.

    Improvements since 1989

    Measures developed with Council participation since 1989 represent vast improvements in oil spill prevention and response. We have double-hull tankers, high-performance escort tugs, a much-improved workforce, state-of-the art equipment for recovering oil, and a fleet of over 400 trained fishing vessels and crews ready to respond promptly to an oil spill. We also have improved communications between the oil industry and the state and federal governments, and more oil spill clean-up equipment than probably any other U.S. port. This has taken considerable effort on the part of industry, regulators, the Council, and other members of the public.

    Some recent examples of improvements include new purpose-built tugs and oil spill response barges that came on line with the marine services transition in 2018, and new technology that allows pipelines at the Valdez Marine Terminal to be internally inspected, which had not been done since start-up over 40 years ago.

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    Schantz: Prevention and response improving, full capabilities not yet proven

    Donna Schantz

    By Donna Schantz
    Executive Director

    The Council is pleased to say that the recent transition of prevention and response services to Edison Chouest Offshore will bring many improvements in Alyeska’s capabilities to protect Prince William Sound and its downstream communities. Alyeska and the Prince William Sound oil shippers are to be commended for their significant investment and commitment in the new vessels, equipment, and crews.

    Details provided by Alyeska show that the new vessels, built specifically for Prince William Sound, will have new technologies to improve safety for the crews and boost spill prevention and response capabilities. A few notable examples include:

    • The new render-recover winches which the Council has been promoting for years
    • Response barges with decks specifically designed to deploy and retrieve oil skimming equipment, maximizing safety for crews

    We recognize and appreciate the details about the safety enhancements we have seen so far.

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    We trust, but we must also verify, new improvements in system

    Thorough training, paired with a robust array of drills and exercises, will produce the safest prevention and response system

    From the Executive Director, Donna Schantz

    Donna Schantz

    In most professions, it takes time, training, and on-the job learning to do a job well. A doctor or an electrician may earn a degree, but it can take years to become proficient. They must practice and observe a variety of situations before they are trusted to perform surgery or operate independently with live electrical current.

    The oil spill prevention and response profession is no different.

    In this next year, Edison Chouest Offshore will be bringing in new tugs and barges custom-built for Prince William Sound, new equipment, and new personnel, all playing key roles in spill prevention and response for the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers.

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