Lawmakers, bill reflect on Valdez spill

Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz had just finished dinner with her mother at a since-closed French restaurant on South Franklin when she heard the news.

“I felt a huge sadness and despair over what was happening; I think that was common to all Alaskans at the time,” Muñoz said of hearing about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“It’s one of those pivotal events in your life,” she added.

At 12:04 a.m. March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound carrying oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline terminal. The spill resulted in approximately 11 million gallons of oil pouring into the water.

Muñoz’s chief of staff, Christopher Clark, was working for the United Fishermen of Alaska at the time, and he found out from a friend while walking outside.

Just like these days, Clark was working on policy related to oil spills just days before learning about the Prince William Sound catastrophe. His reaction to hearing about the spill for the first time was one of denial, he said.

“It was eerily quiet that day,” Clark said of the day word reached Alaska’s capital about the spill. “It was like sound lost the ability to travel. It was like a deadened feeling around here when it happened — just utter disbelief”

Now, Muñoz has sponsored legislation, HB325, which aims to prevent another such disaster while also bolstering the state’s ability to “respond without pause” if and when future spills occur.

“I grew up on the water and now spend a lot of time at our (remote) cabin, and a big part of our diet is from the ocean,” Muñoz said, later adding, “We want to be ready so we never face that again.”

The state oil and hazardous substance release prevention and response fund has two accounts — one for prevention and one for response. Currently, the response fund is capped at $50 million, and the prevention fund is fueled by a $.04 per barrel of oil surcharge.

Muñoz is trying to change that.

Her bill would increase the cap in the response fund to $75 million and increase the per-barrel surcharge to $.07. As-is, the prevention funding will be facing an approximately $6.5 million shortfall by 2016.

“That’s very concerning because the division is really integral to being prepared and ready in the case of a major disaster,” Muñoz said.

She added that her bill aims to make the funds reflect the “modern-day cost of a major spill response.”

The policy — which is backed by legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Juneau’s Democratic representative, Sam Kito III — is sorely needed, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

“If there’s a spill, we have nowhere near the amount of money we need to pay for it,” Wielechowski said.

He added that traveling to the sound, picking up a rock and finding oil is a constant reminder of the magnitude of the effect on the area, even 25 years later.

“It’s devastated the region, and it’s devastated the economy for years,” he said. “It’s had a huge, huge impact on tens of thousands of people… and yet we have this spill fund which is woefully inadequate.”

Muñoz said she is currently working with other legislators on possible amendments to the bill. There is not a set date for the bill’s next hearing.

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