What the oil spill of 1989 has taught us

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What resulted from the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident?

All Grillo / The Associated Press
All Grillo / The Associated Press

If there was a silver lining to this catastrophe, it was in a major overhaul and tightening of the nation's marine safety system, particularly in regard to oil transportation.

The federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a landmark act by Congress that imposed major new rules, was a direct result of the ship's grounding and resulting oil spill.

As for the public, oiled sea otters in Prince William Sound became the symbol of despoliation of a pristine environment by man-made industrial action and a reminder that we need to be vigilant. It was also good fodder for fund-raising by conservation groups.

Capt. Joe Hazelwood, who was in charge of the ill-fated tanker, became an icon of corporate carelessness.

There were clear improvements to the marine safety system, however, and a culture of safety was established among industry and government managers.

Requirements for double-hull tankers, now almost standard for shipping to and from industrialized nations, also resulted from the spill.

The initial clumsy responses to the accident triggered widespread organizational system changes and the adoption by government and industry of the incident command system, a standardized system for all types of quick response to emergencies first developed by forest firefighters in the Lower 48.

In the Sound itself, an elaborate and costly ship escort system was introduced to escort tankers in and out of the area. Radar coverage was extended to the Bligh Reef area, where the accident had happened, and new rules for real-time monitoring of vessel locations were put in place.

"OPA-90" also formed citizen watchdog groups, paid for by the industry, in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. There have been grumbles about the cost, but 20 years later, these groups continue to monitor industry preparedness and to push for continued improvements - advanced tugs in Valdez and upper Cook Inlet are examples - and are quick to criticize when they see lax enforcement or lags in industry performance.

The spill in 1989 also prompted the state of Alaska to enact new laws requiring detailed spill contingency plans with requirements for regular drills, some of them unannounced. The contingency plan and drill requirements were eventually extended to non-crude oil vessels, such as large cargo ships, fuel barges and eventually passenger cruise vessels.

In the wake of the spill state legislators also passed a nickel-a-barrel tax on oil to fund a $50 million spill cleanup fund. The state then went on to use the fund to finance cleanup of sites contaminated by fuel spills and to address problems not associated with crude oil or the companies that paid the tax.

As for the petroleum industry, it shed any complacency it had and engaged the new system. Concerns were focused on the North Slope as well as Prince William Sound. A spill cooperative on the North Slope, Alaska Clean Seas, was expanded and beefed up with new equipment and personnel, and its coverage was eventually extended from the onshore producing oil fields to the Alaska Beaufort Sea, where exploration was underway.

There was also considerable collateral damage for the industry in Alaska. In the months before the big spill, Congress was seriously considering opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife to exploration. The spill ended that. ANWR's coastal plain is still closed and likely to remain so.

A hardening of Alaska public attitudes toward the industry, which came to be reflected in the state Legislature, tipped the balance toward passage of a major increase in oil production taxes in a revision of an incentive formula in the tax law.

Inevitably, complacency settled back into the system, however. In 2006 Alaskans were rudely reawakened to this when corroded pipelines spilled crude oil in North Slope producing fields. Subsequently investigation showed the corrosion had remained undetected because the operating companies had cut back on inspections, possibly due to budget cuts that started in an era of low oil prices.

Although not on a scale of the Exxon Valdez, the North Slope spills triggered widespread lack of public confidence in the industry, which contributed to passage of major punitive tax legislation in 2007 and 2008, in changes to the state petroleum production tax.

There was a benefit of Exxon Valdez most Alaskans don't talk about, however. The massive cleanup effort launched by Exxon Corp. (now ExxonMobil) lifted the state out of a sharp recession that had hit in 1987 and 1988 that lingered into 1989.

An infusion of cash into the economy in purchases of equipment and supplies - most of this going to Alaska firms because they could deliver goods quickly - sent cash registers ringing across the state and set the stage for two decades of economic diversification and growth in the state.

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