Alaska Spill Triggers Cleanup Rethinking

THE Alaskan oil spill, coming at a time of rising environmental sensitivity, is spurring some of the most intense scrutiny of the nation's oil cleanup capability in history. From wood-paneled government hearing rooms to the salt-scented quarters of harbor masters, emergency plans are being reevaluated, new technologies are being looked at, cleanup crews are staging drills, and other steps are being taken to protect the nation's shorelines.

For instance:

Florida Gov. Bob Martinez is asking shippers to sail their tankers farther off shore, particularly around the Keys, to help minimize the effect an oil spill might have on the state's fragile coastline.

The states of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska have teamed up with the province of British Columbia to form a task force to regulate tanker travel and spill cleanups in the Pacific Northwest.

Inspectors from the California Lands Commission, which monitors oil-spill readiness in certain coastal waters, have been fanning out since the Valdez debacle, calling surprise drills and checking companies' inventories of cleanup equipment - down to the exact length of boom they have.

``A lot of people are scratching their heads on this problem right now,'' says Harry Young Jr., program coordinator of Texas A&M's oil-spill control school.

That plenty of rethinking is going on is probably good. Marine experts say that the United States, which takes in more than 84 million gallons of oil through its ports every day, is not equipped to deal with a major spill.

Perhaps no one in the world is capable of managing a spill the size of the one off Valdez (10 million gallons). But some authorities say they believe the US's ability to deal with one even half that size is tenuous.

``Where we are today is where we were 10 years ago,'' says Richard Golob, president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, which tracks oil spills. ``There has been a steady decrease in legislation, funding, and interest.''

One problem, specialists say, is the lack of site-specific contingency plans in some areas. Government agencies and companies usually have plans that outline organizations' responsibilities and list what equipment is available.

But often lacking, Mr. Young contends, are blueprints detailing who is going to put out what boom from what location if a spill happens. Nor, experts say, do some authorities and companies conduct enough drills.

``Most places have emergency plans,'' says Hugh Stephens, a specialist in maritime security at the University of Houston. ``But they are not always well rehearsed.''

Because it has been years since major amounts of crude blackened US shores, oil-spill prevention and cleanup has not been a priority. Some oil companies have faced lean times in recent years, the result of soft energy prices. This has meant staff cutbacks - including for oil-spill response.

Exxon cut its staff 29 percent across the board in 1985 and '86, though the company maintains marine safety did not take a disproportionate hit.

``I would like to see all the oil companies beef up their spill capabilities,'' says Gordon Lindblom, an industry consultant and former Exxon spill expert of 30 years. Mr. Lindblom nonetheless maintains that Exxon was, despite the reductions, adequately staffed to deal with the Valdez spill.

The federal government has had problems, too. Tight budgets forced the Coast Guard - the nation's lead agency for monitoring oil-spill cleanup - to reduce its staff, including marine-safety officers, in 1987. That year the agency consolidated its special oil-spill strike teams for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts into one unit. It now has two teams to cover the entire US, though their role in spills is usually an advisory one.

``Society as a whole has become complacent about this,'' says Skip Onstad, manager of Clean Seas, an industry cooperative that deals with oil spills off the central California coast.

Some specialists say boom, skimmer, and other cleanup tools have not advanced quickly enough.

``Technology in the US has not improved,'' says John Robinson, an oil-spill expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ``The Europeans have developed more, but their technology is not adequate either.''

Others, however, disagree. Consultant Lindblom, for instance, contends that ``the technology is fine, but only about 10 percent of those using it really understand it.''

Indeed, new technology is one area likely to receive a lot of attention in the wake of the Valdez accident. The American Petroleum Institute and the US Interior Department plan to spend $6 million over the next three years on research and development of cleanup and containment tools.

Already, debate has resurfaced over one technology, dispersants. These chemicals, when thrown on slicks, cause them to break up and degrade more quickly. Experts say they are effective tools if used immediately after a spill, before the composition of the oil changes.

But the chemicals can also harm fish and wildlife. Thus, companies must go through a complicated government-approval process before using them, consuming valuable time. Some specialists would like this procedure streamlined.

The only real answer to a major spill, experts agree, is to prevent it in the first place. This is where much of the attention is likely to be focused in Congress in the coming months - on such things as tanker design and certification, harbor-pilot training, and new radar for ships.

``There is nobody in the world that is capable of responding in a short period to a spill the size of Valdez,'' says Robert Mason, the Coast Guard's captain for the Port of Galveston, Texas. ``The only thing you can do is prevent it from happening.''

The new pact formed in the Pacific Northwest is aimed at both prevention and response. It was initially formed when a barge disgorged oil into waters off British Columbia in December, but was expanded after the Alaska accident.

The three states and the province intend to regulate more tightly the size and types of ships going into local ports. They plan to set up special strike forces to deal with accidents. The governments hope to pass new laws clarifying oil spillers' financial responsibility in a cleanup.

``The four governments talking together allows for more clout to regulate the industry,'' says Greg Sorlie with Washington State's Department of Ecology.

Florida decided to act after a three-member team journeyed to Alaska to review the spill and returned with the grim conclusion that the Sunshine State is ill equipped to handle a major accident.

In addition to trying to move shipping lanes farther offshore, the state plans to update emergency response plans, improve ways to capture and clean oil-stained wildlife, and work with federal lawmakers to ensure that foreign- and US-registered vessels are safe.

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