HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989



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Daily News outdoors editor

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 03/27/89
Day: Monday
Edition: Final
Section: Sports
Page: B1

ANCHORAGE- And so the inevitable has come to pass. Every sailor, every smallboat skipper, every fisherman, everyone with any experience on the water knew that one day there would be an oil tanker disaster in Prince William Sound. It was as inevitable as a flood or an earthquake or any natural phenomenon.

No one can predict with certainty when these disasters will strike. Neither can anyone ignore that they are destined to happen. The laws of probability dictate that catastrophes are unavoidable.

The oil companies might have promised there would never be a major oil spill in the Sound, but anyone who believed them was a fool.

Man made disasters are no more avoidable than natural disasters, probably less so. Humans are prone to err, and the machines they build are fraught with weaknesses.

Machines fail with frightening regularity. The most expensive, the most sophisticated, the safest, the newest, they all break at some time or another.

Among Alaska environmentalists, there are some who now believe that doublehulled tankers or some other trick of technology would have prevented the devastation that is spreading across Prince William Sound. They are only kidding themselves.

They want an infallible system, and no such system exists. Alaskans wanted an oil port in Valdez, or at least a majority of them did, and now we are reaping what was sowed almost 15 years ago.

Alaskans wanted an "allAlaska" pipeline. Alaskans fought the ecologically safer alternative, a pipeline through Canada to the markets and refineries in the Lower 48. A pipeline to the Lower 48 wouldn't have provided Alaskans with as many jobs.

Jobs, jobs, jobs: It's the holy grail of every developer in Alaska.

Just think of the mess in the Sound as the price of a few of those jobs. And then think about this:

The oil companies were lucky to be able to ship Alaska crude from Valdez through Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska for a dozen years without a major spill.

Back in January of 1980, a supertanker by the name of The Prince William Sound drifted powerless in the Sound for 14 hours. Onboard that tanker was 835,000 barrels of Alaska crude. That the vessel managed to get under way before it went on the rocks was something of a miracle.

This time, there was no miracle. This time, the Exxon Valdez went hard aground, ripping open her hull and spilling more than 10 million gallons of crude, an accident the oil companies insisted would never happen.

It was so easy. Someone on board the Exxon Valdez made a wrong turn coming out of the Valdez Narrows, and a supertanker ran onto a wellmarked reef. We all know how that can happen.

The catchall phrase is "human error."

Have you ever backed your car into a telephone pole you didn't notice in the parking lot? That's human error. It works much the same on tankers.

I have been aboard boats that went aground. The first time, my exwife was at the tiller of our 30foot sloop when it hit a wellcharted reef at 6 knots. The reef was invisible beneath three feet of water. The boat drew 5 feet. Kathy wasn't paying attention to the chart.

Human error; it is so easy, so common, so natural.

And so inexcusable.

The exact answer to the question of why the Exxon Valdez ran aground has yet to be resolved, but it is abundantly clear someone made a terrible mistake.

For that, they ought to pay and pay dearly. They ought to pay to make it clear these kinds of mistakes are unacceptable. They ought to pay to send a message to the skipper of every other supertanker and to the oil industry itself that this kind of inexcusable accident will not be, cannot be, tolerated.

This accident is going to cost everyone who uses the Sound for years to come. There has been significant damage to one of the richest ecosystems in Southcentral Alaska, and there will be more damage.

Eventually, as always in nature, the Sound will heal itself. Time will cure more of the ills than all of the cleanup efforts man has so far mustered.

"A permanent decrease in a fish stock has never been demonstrated to have been caused by even the largest oil spills," respected scientist Theodore R. Merrell Jr. has observed. But some of the shortterm damage, both to fish and wildlife, has been devastating.

In the Sound, commercial and sport fishermen, wildlife watchers and tourists, tourboat operators and kayakers will suffer the consequences. They will all pay for the fact that human shortsightedness, greed for a few extra dollars and some hoopla about jobs built an oil port in Valdez.

And the rest, as they say, was inevitable.

Craig Medred is the Daily News outdoors editor.

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