No one has forgotten the footage of the stranded tanker belching waves of thick, black crude into Prince William Sound, or the photos of oiled otters, belly up on blackened beaches. Yet while major gains in tanker safety have been made since the Exxon Valdez disaster that began five years ago today, some of the Sound's protectors say Alaskans are forgetting how difficult it is to clean a catastrophic spill and are losing the will to fight for costly protection.
The resulting complacency, those activists say, is slowing needed reforms and threatening to undo some of the improvements in spill protection made since 1989.
Only months ago, there was a striking echo of the unpreparedness that marked the early effort at cleaning up the 11-million-gallon spill from the Exxon Valdez. In each case, a barge was involved.
Just how badly the industry was prepared in 1989 became apparent after the 12:27 a.m. radio message from Capt. Joseph Hazelwood to the Coast Guard in Valdez.
"We've fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef," Hazelwood said in a slow, deep monotone. "Evidently we're leaking some oil, and we're going to be here for a while."
In the hours that followed, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. workers struggled in the dark to reload cleanup equipment onto the company's spill-response barge. Some equipment was in warehouses. Some was buried under mounds of Valdez snow.
The barge had been unloaded weeks before for repairs and had not been readied for service.
The barge made it to the stricken ship 14 hours later and hours too late. By then, the bulk of the oil that spilled had escaped into the Sound.
Last December four years and eight months after that disaster Alyeska sent its largest barge out of state for maintenance.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation could have demanded the barge stay put until a replacement was found. But it didn't.
Steve Provant, the department's top man for spill prevention in Valdez, believed Alyeska's assurances that it could handle a spill using backup equipment on other barges.
Provant, the official who directed the state's cleanup effort after the Exxon Valdez spill, changed his mind when a test of a backup skimmer failed. But it was too late. The barge was gone, and a new one couldn't get there for several weeks.
Alyeska, owned by seven of the North Slope oil producing companies, won't be punished for the barge incident. But the state has proposed fining the tanker companies that have spill-cleanup agreements with Alyeska a total of $110,000.
"Complacency is insidious and this is how it starts," said Joe Banta, a spill specialist with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, an oil-industry watchdog group. "People say nothing happened, so it's OK. But we can't say that because what's the next step backward? The point is, had we had a spill, we might really not have done as good a job because this barge was gone."
Even the most die-hard environmental defenders of Prince William Sound agree the oil industry's ability to prevent and react to spills has dramatically improved since March 1989. In most cases, the changes were mandated by a flurry of state and federal laws passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.
Tankers that relied mainly on the skills of their crew to keep them out of trouble in the sometimes stormy Sound now have a virtual armada of escort vessels to choose from. Each ship is trailed by at least one tug, which could push or pull the tanker away from danger, and a response vessel carrying cleanup equipment in case the rescue fails.
The escort vessels' much-expanded inventory of spill-fighting equipment is considered among the best in the world, and their crews have practiced cleanup maneuvers countless times during the past five years.
The Coast Guard stiffened rules for safe travel through the Sound, forbidding sailing in high winds. The agency also expects to finish installing a tanker tracking system this summer that will finally allow it to keep tabs on ships all the way through the Sound.
Alyeska has instituted tight procedures designed to catch drunken crew members before they board their ships. Hazelwood was charged with drunkenness after the disaster, though a jury acquitted him.
And in case the Coast Guard or other regulators go soft on industry as was widely charged after the Exxon Valdez disaster two citizens' groups have been created that bird-dog their activities and those of the oil companies.
The older of the groups, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, spends a lot of time nudging regulators to take a tougher stance with industry on such issues as how much spill equipment is needed. The group receives more than $2 million a year for its work from the oil industry and spends much of its money on scientific and technical studies that test oil-industry assertions about pollution and spill preparedness.
But even with all the improvements, environmental regulators and activists say, more needs to be done to keep history from repeating itself.
Some major battles have ended in compromises that will delay improvements for years.
In 1990, Congress required oil tankers to have a double hull, but allowed ship owners up to 25 years to switch. The hulls would add what government and other experts say is a critical layer of protection between a ship's cargo tanks and the rocks and reefs that could tear them open.
That same year, Arco Marine tried unsuccessfully to interest Alaska's other oil shippers to join it in designing a super skimmer to augment crude cleanup by small skimmers that slurp oil.
Jay Kitchener, an Arco Marine official, said at the time that such improved spill technology was crucial to giving oil companies a fighting chance to pick up more than just a fraction of Exxon Valdez-sized spills.
Other battles continue.
The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, or RCAC, is leading the fight to get more weather stations installed in the Sound, arguing that the Coast Guard's wind restrictions make sense only if the agency knows how hard the wind is blowing.
The Valdez Coast Guard station agrees that it knows very little about the weather in much of the Sound and relies on ships to report on high winds by radio. Officials there have asked for more money from their Washington, D.C., headquarters to add reporting stations, but have not yet won approval.
RCAC also is pushing regulators to consider making Alyeska add versatile tugs to its response fleet. The citizens' group has joined shippers in paying for a study of the tugs and other response equipment that is expected to be completed this year.
Fishermen and environmentalists are still pushing the Coast Guard to order tanker escorts in less-traveled Cook Inlet. And Dan Lawn, a longtime DEC official and oil-industry critic, is still hoping for rules that would increase the size of tanker crews to reduce fatigue on ships.
At the same time, battles that already were won are being refought.
RCAC's Joe Banta is trying to get regulators to adhere to post-Exxon Valdez legislation that required agencies to stash spill-response equipment at depots around the state.
The law, passed in 1989, was written to ensure that communities would have good equipment to protect themselves from spills if industry and government spill-fighters were overwhelmed. Banta recalled that volunteers were forced to build booms made of logs during the Exxon Valdez spill because no other boom was available.
No depots have been created yet. Pete Wuerpel of the state's division of emergency services, which is charged with creating the depots, says the division has so far purchased a communications system for use in remote areas. He says such systems are essential to efficient spill cleanup.
Wuerpel blames the DEC for delays in getting other equipment, saying the agency officials haven't said what they think would work best. The DEC says it has been difficult to figure that out because each community's needs are different. The agency is testing equipment this year so it can make recommendations to the emergency services division.
RCAC also is expecting to follow up results of a 1992 study showing some tankers plying Prince William Sound would need hours and in one case, days to deploy towing gear mandated years ago. Tankers that lose power can use the cables to connect to tugs that can control the bigger ships' movement. The Sound's tugs also have towing gear, but the author of the study said a good towing system deployed from a tanker would likely work better in stormy seas.
With so much to accomplish, oil-spill activists say they need every ounce of support they can get from the public, the regulators, the legislature and the industry. Instead, they say, attention is straying, threatening not only future reforms but those already made.
Stan Stephens, a Valdez charter boat operator who heads RCAC, and others say DEC will need to be more aggressive if it hopes to keep up with an oil industry increasingly concerned with saving money as production declines.
That decline already has had an effect. Late last year Alyeska announced it would cut the number of people who tie up tankers for loading. The company cited declining oil production for the cutbacks. Company officials said that if they needed help with the tankers, they would call in workers whose only job had been to prepare for oil spills.
Alyeska said the move won't hurt oil-spill preparedness because it will only need the workers occasionally. But environmental activists see history repeating itself. Alyeska dismantled the crews dedicated to oil-spill response in the early '80s. Those crews were re-created June 1, 1989, after a frustrated Gov. Steve Cowper put pressure on Alyeska.
In the legislature, politicians sympathetic to the oil industry, including Republican Rep. Joe Green, continue to try to roll back a 5-cents-a-barrel tax imposed on Alaska crude after the Exxon Valdez spill. The tax is expected to raise $26 million this year.
The legislature enacted the tax in 1989 so the state would have the ability to clean up oil and other hazardous spills. But the money is paid into a fund with broader uses, and it has become an important funding source for the DEC. The agency is using the money in part to beef up monitoring of companies' abilities to clean up oil and other types of spills.
Mead Treadwell, deputy DEC commissioner, said the idea behind the increased inspections is to avoid repeating past mistakes. Although Alyeska had a spill-response plan in 1989, regulators hadn't carefully checked to see if it was doable. It wasn't.
Industry supporters have argued that the oil industry shouldn't have to pay for nonoil cleanups, but a recently released legislative audit says the tax money can be used for those purposes.
The audit also says funding cuts could jeopardize DEC's ability to maintain a viable prevention program, which it suggests is key to avoiding another Exxon Valdez disaster. The auditors noted that the state oil spill commission investigating the spill blamed the disaster in good part on the lack of focus on prevention and on complacency.
"We wonder whether complacency is again taking root," the audit said.
story 283 of 380
story 50 of 72