Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. says there's no way it can contain an oil spill even half the size of the March 24 tanker accident that dumped nearly 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound.
In fact, the company says in a new proposed response plan, it can't guarantee complete containment and cleanup of any spill because of unpredictable conditions in Prince William Sound.
The plan, which will be discussed at a public meeting tonight, already has raised concerns among state environmental officials. And an Alyeskafunded citizens' advisory group also has serious questions it wants answered.
Alyeska's disclaimer is aimed at ensuring there won't be any misunderstanding about the company's abilities or intentions if there's another big spill, company officials said
"The plan makes it clear from the onset . . . that there is no way that Alyeska or industry can guarantee against spills or that there will be a complete cleanup of these spills," said Alyeska spokeswoman Marnie Isaacs.
Within hours of the Exxon Valdez grounding on March 24, Alyeska and the state Department of Environmental Conservation began what would become a monthslong exercise in fingerpointing. DEC insisted Alyeska's spill plan promised that the company would be able to clean up an oil spill nearly the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez and that response equipment would be on scene within five hours. Alyeska said the plan was only a set of guidelines and that the company had always said a substantial amount of oil would get away.
The new plan, which must be approved by DEC, says: "Alyeska anticipates that in many circumstances spills of fewer than 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) can be substantially controlled and recovered. There will be few circumstances in which a catastrophic spill (over 4.2 million gallons) can be substantially contained."
Instead, Alyeska said, the company's strategy now is to prevent huge spills resulting from groundings and collisions by escorting tankers through the Sound, improving communications and other measures.
The proposed plan also makes clear that, in the event of a spill, Alyeska will act only as the initial response organization under contract to the tanker owner or operator. Alyeska will turn cleanup over to the vessel owner at the first opportunity, the plan says.
DEC also was upset with Alyeska last spring because the pipeline company let Exxon take over management of the cleanup within 24 hours. DEC officials said the old plan made Alyeska responsible for cleanup from start to finish.
"I think because there was so much unhappiness the first time around, Alyeska wanted to make it clear this was an "initial response' contingency plan," Isaacs said.
She said the tanker owners have signed off on the plan and have contracts with Alyeska to carry it out.
The DEC meeting for citizen comment on the proposal will be at 7 p.m. tonight at Romig Junior High School.
The plan is mainly aimed at preventing spills and preparing for them. The threevolume proposal details tons of cleanup equipment, response vessels and cleanup workers.
Alyeska wants to involve the community and is proposing to stock fish hatcheries with containment boom and train residents and fishermen in oilspill response, Issacs said.
Most of the equipment listed in the plan already is in Valdez and has been in use for the past few months. Two escort ships follow each loaded tanker out of port and through the Sound. Each vessel is equipped with booms and skimmers that can be immediately deployed.
The plan also requires drug and alcohol screening, stricter standards for harbor pilots and training drills and exercises.
Alyeska also is proposing that the Coast Guard adopt a 10knot speed limit for tankers in the Sound and rules for slowing down when ice is present in shipping lanes.
Bill Lamoreaux, regional supervisor for DEC, said the state still is reviewing the plan. But, he said, "I think when you look at it there are quite a few areas where they have qualified their response capability where you're just not sure what their response would be."
For instance, he said, the state had asked Alyeska to address spill cleanup in high winds and foul weather. The state has suggested that tanker traffic be stopped when winds get too bad to allow oil cleanup.
But Alyeska didn't include that issue in the plan, he said.
The state also isn't sure how it feels about Alyeska simply contracting spill cleanup with a tanker owner, particularly because some tankers are owned by foreign companies or smaller firms that are less financially stable than the big oil companies.
"That's an issue we've got to look at very carefully," Lamoreaux said.
"When they say they can't respond to something over 100,000 barrels, that raises the question, do they have the right equipment? Or should they have bigger equipment and more equipment so they can tackle a bigger spill?"
Ann Rothe, president of the newly formed Regional Citizens' Advisory Committee which is funded with $2 million a year by Alyeska said her group has a list of questions that need to be addressed before they'll be comfortable with the plan.
Rothe thinks Alyeska should decide what it will do in marginal weather conditions. "Basically, it's our feeling that you should probably stop shipping oil if you can't clean it up," she said.
Also, the plan has no performance standard. She said there should be some level that Alyeska must meet, like guaranteeing to clean up a certain volume of oil within a certain time.
Rothe said she expected the oil companies to balk at committing to a performance standard because pending federal legislation makes spill plans legally binding.
"But there's got to be some kind of bottom line," she said.
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