In July 1977, as the first barrels of North Slope crude were making the 800 mile journey down the trans Alaska pipeline to waiting oil tankers in Valdez, questions were being raised about the ability of the oil companies to control and clean up a major spill in the Valdez area.
Four months later, when 500 gallons of oil seeped from the tanker Glacier Bay into Port Valdez in the first real test of contingency and cleanup plans, state officials found those plans in a "deplorable state."
Lack of adequately trained crews and equipment were major problems. Said the state Department of Environmental Conservation's thenValdez supervisor, Randy Bayliss: "If they couldn't effectively clean up something that small, what are they going to do when there is a major spill?"
More than a decade later, state officials have the answer to that question, which has been asked time and again over the last 12 years as tanker traffic has increased in environmentally sensitive Prince William Sound. The answer appears to be not much better than it was in November 1977.
The 987 foot Exxon Valdez on Friday ran aground just after filling its tanks at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal, spilling some 11 million gallons of oil and becoming the first potentially devastating spill in the Sound.
It took Alyeska at least 12 hours to get cleanup equipment out to the Exxon tanker, even though the company through its contingency plan promised it could do it in five hours. A much needed barge was down for repairs, and the equipment arrived too late to make much headway on the quickly spreading oil.
The DEC dashed off a strongly worded letter to agencies overseeing the cleanup, calling the response "inadequate and slow" and a failure of the contingency plan.
Since pipeline operations began, there have been more than 400 oil spills in Port Valdez, the vast majority under a barrel in volume.
Two spills on the order of a million gallons occurred far offshore in the Gulf of Alaska a few years ago. And in the summer of 1987, the Glacier Bay again sprang a leak when it ran aground in Cook Inlet, dumping about 125,000 gallons of oil just as salmon were set to move through the area.
Those incidents have been enough to keep the state on edge about the potential for a devastating spill. And state and federal officials have long been critical of the oil industry's ability and willingness to make every effort to clean up the oil.
In Valdez, the state, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard join together to inspect Alyeska's cleanup equipment and capabilities. And they routinely conduct oil spill drills, dumping hundreds of oranges into the water to simulate oil.
As recently as five years ago, DEC and EPA reported major concerns over Alyeska's ability to respond to even a moderate sized spill.
A 1984 memo from Valdez DEC supervisor Dan Lawn to his superiors blasted Alyeska for substantial cutbacks in personnel at the terminal, including people to maintain and operate cleanup equipment.
"The reliability of certain equipment is questioned," he said then, "especially in a major spill situation."
Lawn also chastised the state for a lack of environmental officials to supervise the terminal, saying, "Unfortunately, this has been a signal to Alyeska that the state is no longer interested" in the pipeline.
After a 1984 spill drill in Port Valdez, the EPA said equipment used by Alyeska might not be suitable for oil spills in that area. An oil containment boom sank because of a design flaw that allowed strong currents to push it over, its report says.
A spill drill in 1985 showed Alyeska's inability to muster trained personnel and some equipment didn't work properly, according to a DEC report of the mock spill.
Some workers were unfamiliar with equipment and didn't know how to perform their assigned tasks, and a list of people to be called in case more help was needed was outdated and useless, DEC said.
The most recent drill, held in November 1986, went somewhat better, Lawn said.
"They didn't perform as good as they could have, but they weren't terrible either," he said recently, adding that the state still had significant concerns over the lack of trained people and equipment problems.
For instance, Lawn said, the person directing the cleanup effort was doing so from an office on land rather than at the site of the spill.
Last year, Alyeska practiced hooking tug boats to a disabled tanker, in response to an actual incident. In 1980, the tanker Prince William Sound lost power at the northern end of the Sound and tugs had difficulty attaching to it. The vessel was within 30 minutes of breakup on a rocky shoal when it regained power. In 1983, Alyeska's oil spill contingency plan was changed to require tankers to have a quick connect towing system.
The failure to do what has been promised in detailed contingency plans extends beyond the shores of Port Valdez. In 1987, when the tanker Glacier Bay ran aground in Cook Inlet on its way to a Kenai area refinery, the Coast Guard took control of the cleanup from the tanker owner and an oil industry cleanup cooperative because the company was doing an inadequate job.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Rene Roussel later told various groups that the contingency plan for Cook Inlet was of little practical use because industry experts had wrongly anticipated how crude oil would act in the cold, swift currents of the Inlet. He also said the Coast Guard failed to convince the tanker owner to put more of an effort into the cleanup, and that the cleanup cooperative couldn't effectively handle even a small spill.
Two relatively small spills earlier this year in Port Valdez also underscored the companies' problems in cleaning up spills.
The first, from the tanker Thompson Pass, dumped about 70,000 gallons of oil through a cracked hull. It was the biggest spill in the port to date, and most of the oil was contained because the tanker had been boomed off before loading.
But when the tanker Cove Leader spilled about 2,100 gallons into the port two weeks later, the cleanup didn't go as smoothly. Much of the oil escaped capture and floated out of the port.
"They've never lived up to what they said in the contingency plan," said Lawn.
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