When Exxon spilled millions of gallons of crude in Prince William Sound, it immediately hired an army of spin doctors to re-write history. One of Exxon's paid scientists even claimed the Sound was healthier than before the spill, despite pockets of oil remaining on countless beaches and the crash of the herring fishery, among other lasting impacts.
Now, we're seeing the very same historical shape-shifting with the Drift River Oil Terminal incident.
Chevron operates the Drift River Oil Terminal at the base of the Mount Redoubt volcano in Cook Inlet. When Mount Redoubt awoke in late 2008, Chevron refused to disclose how much oil remained in its storage tanks.
The Homeland Security Act --al-Qaida apparently posed a greater threat to our fisheries than a simmering volcano. When Redoubt's massive eruption on March 22 sent trees, mud and debris through the facility, Chevron finally revealed the truth: More than 6 million gallons of oil remained perched above our salmon, cod and halibut fisheries.
Chevron knew the risks. The same scenario unfolded during the 1989-90 Redoubt eruption. They reinforced protective dikes, but reinforced dikes can only do so much against the forces of nature. In fact, volcanic floods this year over-topped the dikes, showing the dikes had no safety margin for a slightly larger eruption.
Despite months of warning, there was no actionable plan in place to address a catastrophic spill from the facility. The spill plan required by laws passed after the Exxon Valdez didn't address a 6 million gallon spill, and it didn't even envision oil from the tank farm hitting open water.
In what should have been a day, it took more than a week to activate a Unified Command to coordinate spill prevention and response. And most disturbingly, the initial response priorities were not to protect our invaluable fisheries, but instead to ensure the continued flow of oil.
Chevron also had no plan to address significant economic losses when the facility went offline. Aside from contractor layoffs and their debilitating effects on local families, Alaska lost up to $2 million a month in revenues while the facility remained closed, according to state figures.
Finally, Chevron repeatedly put workers in harm's way at Drift River, and in some cases left them stranded on the ground while eruptions, lightning and lahars raged around the facility. Oil field work is dangerous enough, and the bravery of those who went back into Drift River at the peak of seismic activity was exceptional.
Had Chevron truly been concerned about worker safety, it would have reconfigured the facility to bypass the tank farm prior to the latest eruption. That way, the size of the eruption would not have been a risk factor, operations would not have been so drastically disrupted, and fewer people would have been put at risk.
Chevron Corp. knew all this, but its only plan was to hunker down and hope for the best. Hoping for the best, however, is not a lesson we learned from the Exxon Valdez.
So, we dodged a bullet at Drift River. Yet to hear the corporate public relations machine recount the story, you would think the Drift River response was flawless. No oil spilled, no injuries. No harm, no foul.
We appreciate all the incredible work done to help avoid a catastrophe, but whitewashing this incident prevents us from learning from our mistakes and having better preparedness and worker safety in the future.
The fact remains the Drift River Oil Terminal incident stands as the most significant breakdown in spill prevention and response in Alaska since the Exxon Valdez. That breakdown put our fisherman, workers and countless families and businesses around Cook Inlet at extreme risk. And know that what we see in Cook Inlet will invariably unfold in Bristol Bay and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas if we allow our governments and the corporations to push into those frontier waters.
Bob Shavelson is Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, a citizen-based nonprofit organization with offices in Homer and Anchorage that is dedicated to clean water and healthy salmon.