Why Accidents Become Disasters

THE reasons the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on March 24 are interesting, but the real issue is why the accident was allowed to become a disaster. Whether an allegedly drunk master or, more probably, a mistake in setting the ship's satellite navigation was responsible, the vital facts are these: Confusion, delay, and piecemeal response allowed at least 240,000 barrels of crude oil to escape and spread throughout Prince William Sound. Despite the apologies of Exxon chairman Lawrence Rawl, the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez disaster raises two questions. First, why did an accident become a disaster? Second, is a disaster of this magnitude likely to happen again?

Let's address the second question first. Environmental catastrophes are indeed likely to occur in the future, and without forthright remedy, at an increasing rate. Oil spills and similar disasters are possible because modern societies are extensively interdependent. The United States relies almost totally on large-scale trade and commercial networks to facilitate exchange of goods, services, energy, and information. Ocean transport, electric power grids, and oil and gas pipelines are prominent examples. These are essential for the welfare of our society.

Unfortunately, interdependence carries with it the risk of great harm. An accident can quickly become a disaster because harmful effects can be transmitted quickly over great distances. The meltdown at Chernobyl not only endangered plant workers and those living nearby, but it affected herders in distant Lapland as well because the grass their reindeer ate became contaminated by radioactive fallout.

In the Valdez case, Exxon must settle vast environmental-damage claims and expend considerable funds and effort to restore the pristine landscape. The Alaskan fishing industry faces the specter of permanent damage. Consumers far from Alaska must pay higher prices for gasoline.

Two characteristics of these events must be recognized. First, surprise: No disaster ever occurs under any other circumstance. Second, responsibility will be diffused between agencies of state, local, and federal governments and corporate entities. A result of these conditions is that contingency plans are often ill-conceived and cannot contain the surge of shock and disruption that leads to calamity. In fact, poor contingency plans are almost worse than nothing, for these are likely to breed a false sense of security.

The requirements of action for tanker-fleet operators or the Coast Guard in event of an oil spill parallel those that law-enforcement officers face when confronted with a terrorist attack. Not only must reaction come immediately in order to minimize damage, but it must be well focused so that the remedy avoids additional harm or complications in recovery efforts. This in turn requires comprehensive, carefully drawn, flexible contingency plans that set forth unambiguous guidelines for decisionmakers. Those in charge of response in an emergency will be operating under stress created by unfamiliar duties, limited information about the accident, severe time constraints, and perhaps physical danger. Unfortunately, high-quality plans are not the norm; in many instances, these are apparently drawn up to placate public concern and the curiosity of an occasional government official.

This brings us to the first question: Why did the accident become a disaster? Information is still incomplete, but much of the available evidence about the response is disturbing.

Inquiry should focus on the contingency planning efforts of the Alyeska Pipeline Supply Company; participating major oil companies - particularly Exxon; the Coast Guard; and Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. Four matters cry out for investigation:

Did the plans share common assumptions? A contingency plan based on an oil spill from a 60,000-ton tanker isn't going to be worth much when the typical ship visiting the port is three times that size. Exxon's complaint that the Coast Guard did not authorize the use of dispersants until the day after the spill demonstrates what happens when common assumptions are absent.

Were the plans realistic? Were sufficient quantities of skimmers, containment booms, and chemical dispersants immediately available to contain a serious spill from a 200,000-ton tanker, or did they exist only on a tally sheet of equipment located somewhere on the West Coast? Given the limited amount of oil recovered in the first week of cleanup, certainly something was amiss. Personnel and equipment were not immediately available for even ``the most likely'' spill of 42,000 barrels foreseen by Alyeska Pipeline in 1987.

How well did these plans provide for communication and coordination among the major participating organizations in the event of an emergency? At issue is the question as to whether the efforts, capabilities, and understandings of the major players were truly integrated in the contingency planning.

Were the contingency plans subjected to rigorous and realistic testing? Rex Blazer, executive director of the North Alaska Environmental Center, has been quoted as stating that ``there has been no dress rehearsal.''

Another catastrophe of similar proportions involving petroleum products or hazardous chemicals is likely to occur because of negligent preparation. It is imperative that the American public becomes educated about the nature of disasters and directs its elected officials to mitigate the consequences of the next event.

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