Safeguards in the Post-Valdez Era
Critics say big spill today would be out of control; companies say preparedness is now excellent. EXXON VALDEZ: ONE YEAR AFTER
VALDEZ, ALASKA — HERE on Prince William Sound, where otters somersault in the harbor and the snow is so deep residents project outdoor movies on snowbanks, the oil industry has amassed what it considers the most extensive machinery to handle an oil spill on earth. The waterfront bristles with spools of oil-corralling boom, skimmers, tug boats that have been turned into emergency response vessels, and snub-nosed barges that can hold 73,000 barrels of errant crude.
Despite the armada, however, many critics think Alaska still has not done enough to prevent or prepare for a spill and that another Exxon Valdez is just a seaman's slip away.
The arguments reverberating off the glacial walls here is part of a larger debate going on from Juneau to Washington, D.C.
In the year since the nation's worst oil spill, steps have been taken to safeguard the transport of oil in the United States and marshal cleanup resources should a mishap occur. But some of the most signifiant changes still await lawmakers' decisions in Congress and in wood-paneled hearing rooms in Juneau, the Alaskan capital.
To the oil industry, many of these new strictures, ranging from the design of tankers to greater liability for spills, go too far. But environmentalists and some others believe the United States still has not learned all the lessons it could from the Exxon Valdez, even though the accident has invigorated the environmental movement nationwide.
``We are in essence just as much at risk as we ever were,'' says Walter Parker, chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, referring mainly to Alaska. His task force investigated reasons for the accident and looked for ways to prevent them in the future.
Certainly things are different from a year ago. On a recent rare sunny day in Valdez, while an occasional bald eagle perched on naked branches overhead, an alarm went out about a tanker spill near infamous Bligh Reef. Ten cleanup vessels responded to the call, most within two hours. It turned out to be a drill.
While some citizen groups say the emergency boats are still not responding with roller-bearing smoothness, there was one difference from a year ago: Most of the response vessels did not even exist when the Exxon Valdez went aground. Today every tanker that leaves here bearing crude from the trans-Alaska pipeline is escorted by two tugs across Prince William Sound. Top crew members are screened for drug and alcohol use.
When storms make it too dangerous to dispatch escort vessels, Alyeska, a consortium of oil companies that has first responsibility to respond to a spill, will not allow tankers to leave port. An Alyeska-funded citizens' advisory group has been set up to monitor oil transport and cleanup, and three regional response centers, each with its own flotilla of fishing boats ready to react, are being established.
As for its cleanup arsenal, Alyeska has 11 boats or barges in the sound and by summer's end will have 200,000 feet of boom.
``There is no place in the world that has the capability we have here now,'' says Tim Plummer, manager of Alyeska's ship response unit here, donning a white hard hat and standing on a barge overlooking the equipment.
Yet as impressive as the tools are, the company probably could not cope with a spill the size of the Valdez, particularly if the weather was rough. By Alyeska's own admission in a recently released oil-spill contingency plan, there would be ``few circumstances in which a catastrophic spill [more than 4.2 million gallons, less than half that lost by the Valdez] would be substantially contained.''
Part of this is Alyeska protecting its own flank: After the Valdez accident, the state criticized the company for having previously suggested it could handle a large spill.
Still, oil industry officials - and many independent experts - say the technology does not exist to blot up huge amounts of oil once it hits the water. Hence the almost universal belief that preventative measures are the best defense.
Inability to clean up a massive spill does not stop more action to prevent accidents or limit damage once it occurs. Environmentalists and state officials say more can be done. Some would like Alyeska to gear its cleanup plans to the maximum possible spill that could occur in the sound, 75 million gallons, the amount the biggest supertankers carry, rather than an Exxon Valdez-sized event (10.8 million gallons).
``Even though a grease fire in the kitchen is the most likely thing that will happen, fire departments still plan for major building fires,'' says Marilyn Leland, a member of Alyeska's citizens' advisory group.
Others would like to see the weather conditions, during which tankers would not be allowed to sail, specified in writing.
In the state legislature, Gov. Steve Cowper (D) has introduced a package of oil-spill measures to follow up on several adopted last year. One would allow the state to inspect oil tankers and barges for structural defects, a measure aimed at Alaska's aging tanker fleet. Others would increase civil fines for spills and raise financial responsibility requirements on those transporting or storing oil.
``We're in a lot better position to prevent a spill now,'' says Gov. Cowper. ``Most states are looking to Alaska to see what we do.''
Many in the oil industry hope they do not. Small companies worry the increased liability strictures will drive them out of business, while large companies are uncomfortable with the growing thicket of rules.
``We have a lot of new measures in place. Isn't it time to see how these work?'' asks Hank Rosenthal, manager of state government relations for Arco. Others would like to see the state pound its chest a little harder.
``Right now the state is more of a lap dog than a bull dog,'' says Mr. Parker of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission.
That Alaska has become as bold as it has, however, underscores a significant political shift. This is a company, or, more accurately, industry state. Oil accounts for 85 cents of every dollar the state spends. There are no state income taxes. Residents receive an annual dividend check from oil royalties (about $850).
This has given the industry enormous clout and endeared it to the citizenry. But since the spill there has been, in addition to increased government oversight, a budding skepticism about how oil should operate in the state. While some recent polls show the industry's standing reviving with the public, some observers believe the changes are lasting.
``It is not ever going to return to the good-old-boy system where if industry says it's OK, it's OK,'' says state Senate President Tim Kelly (R), a key supporter of the oil industry who came here in the early 1970s to work on the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Silver-maned, leaning back in his chair next to a bowling pin on a side table, he adds: ``We're resource rich and cash poor without the oil industry. Nevertheless, we are all going to be much more cautious about just saying `yes' to everything it says.''
The future conduct of the industry here and elsewhere will be decided as much by political dynamics in Washington, D.C., as in Juneau. A House-Senate conference committee is considering a number of far-reaching oil-spill measures, including whether to mandate the use of double-hull tankers. Many of the same forces colliding here are clashing in Congress.
However it all turns out, there seems to be consensus on at least one point: the Exxon Valdez has not left Alaska - or the nation - quite where it found it. Part two of three parts. Tomorrow: Human impact of the spill - 1 yr later.