The country has changed since March 24, 1989, the day the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and began two years of trauma and death for 1,000 miles of Alaska coast and the people and animals who lived there.
The country has become a place where tankers are a lot less likely to spill oil.
Measures to prevent and clean up oil spills that before the Exxon Valdez spill seemed out of the question are now written into state and federal law. Money is being spent on those efforts on a new scale. And the people who suggested doing those things a long time ago and were ignored have entered the corridors of power and have gotten used to having people listen to them.
They're not completely satisfied. They still want more. But even they say the country has changed in the last two years.
Among them is Riki Ott, a Cordova environmentalist, fisherman and scientist who fought the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. before the spill and now heads the statewide Oil Reform Alliance.
"In '87, '88, if I had had one wish, it would have been that more people would know about what was going on at Alyeska so it would take the pressure off the half-dozen of us who did, and who were working on it," she said. "And look I got my wish."
"It's a totally different world than it was in 1989," said James Hermiller, president of Alyeska.
Back then, Alyeska had no dedicated spill cleanup workers. When a drunken captain allowed unqualified crewmen to drive a tanker onto the rocks, causing the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, Alyeska workers responsible for containing the oil were caught with their equipment buried under a snowbank. Alyeska accomplished almost nothing before turning the cleanup over to unprepared Exxon officials arriving by plane from Texas.
Now Alyeska has 100 people whose only job is to prevent and clean up oil spills, and it is spending $50 million a year to train, equip and pay them. Two vessels escort every tanker, every tanker captain is checked for drug or alcohol use before getting on board, stockpiles of cleanup equipment are cached all around Prince William Sound, and government and industry officials are drilled in emergency decision-making.
Even today, a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez probably would be impossible to clean up completely, but experts say the port of Valdez now is among the best prepared in the world to deal with oil spills, and is becoming one of the best equipped to prevent them.
And Hermiller said it will stay that way, even if the industry and public lose interest in oil spill prevention.
"As far as our saying what would be an acceptable level of risk, that's pretty much a moot point because most of it is now mandated by law," he said.
A 1990 federal law also mandates a switch of all U.S. oil tankers to double-layered hulls over the next 20 years, increases tug boat and pilot requirements in Prince William Sound, toughens contingency planning, reduces the hours crews can work, allows the Coast Guard to check masters' driving records and revoke their maritime licenses more easily, and increases the penalties imposed on spillers, said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
New state laws address many of the same points, and are tougher in raising the cost of spilling oil.
"I really think it was a terrible disaster for us, but it was a lesson learned by the entire nation," Stevens said. "It facilitated achieving a whole series of goals we've sought for years."
The Coast Guard also improved its navigational marking in the Sound and its radar coverage. Vice Adm. Clyde Robbins, who oversaw most of the cleanup, said the new laws and systems make a spill much less likely. But he didn't blame the Exxon Valdez spill on the system as much as on the people responsible, including the Coast Guard. He said it had diverted too much of its attention away from oil-spill prevention to drug interdiction.
"We have to avoid complacency again. Don't let it happen again. Because I think that is the real issue here," Robbins said.
But the new system gives ordinary people a say in preventing spills, and supporters say that will prevent complacency.
"We have somebody who is going to keep the industry, and keep the government, on our toes because they'll be looking over our shoulders," said Steve Provant, who was Robbins' counterpart in state government during the cleanup. "I think as long as the citizen groups don't let down their guard, they will keep us from getting complacent."
A citizens' oversight group formed to keep an eye on Alyeska held its first annual meeting in Valdez this past weekend. It operates with a $2 million-a- year budget provided by Alyeska and has the blessing of Congress.
The 1990 Oil Pollution Act also created a citizens' oversight group in Cook Inlet. But the Inlet has, so far, played the role of the Sound's poor cousin, and many of the same improvements have not taken place there.
Homer environmentalist Larry Smith said the Cook Inlet citizens' group, of which he is a member, still is working on a funding contract with a cleanup co-op of local government and industry that formed early this year. The Inlet committee will have to make do with a third as much money and without the permanent guaranteed funding the Sound group has from Alyeska. The Inlet cleanup co-op's budget is five times what a predecessor co-op was spending, but its operating budget is a tenth as much as that of Alyeska's cleanup group.
The Inlet has fewer and smaller tankers passing through it than transit the Sound, but Smith said it also has worse problems more ice, bigger tides and stronger currents.
"Just to have someone standing by to keep a tanker from going on the rocks if it loses power just a vessel that is capable of that (environmentalists have) made that request, and no part of it has been answered," Smith said.
But Gene Burden, vice president of environmental and government relations for Tesoro Alaska Petroleum Co., said having escort vessels on standby would be too expensive with the amount of shipping in the Inlet. Tesoro has already doubled and redoubled its spending on spill prevention and response in the last year, he said. Smith agreed Tesoro has been a leader. It is paying 45 percent of the cost of the new spill co-op.
"We've got a diverse group here," Burden said. "We don't have an Alyeska, and we don't have the ability to charge off spill response costs as shipping expenses."
Those problems, as well as fights over new oil development in the arctic, implementation of state spill regulations, retirement of worn-out tankers, and chronic pollution from the Alyeska oil terminal, currently preoccupy environmentalists who already are on a winning roll from the last two years.
The Exxon Valdez spill has changed the ground rules of the fight. People inside and outside the oil industry say its attitude toward avoiding environmental accidents has changed.
"There were a lot of people in industry who saw Exxon had to pay $2.2 billion for the cleanup and $1.1 billion for the settlement and that's the kind of money that gets your attention," Stevens said.
Scott Nauman, who fought the spill for Exxon and now heads its Alaska operations, said the spill changed the company and nation more deeply than that.
"The impact it had, in that way, way overshadowed the dollars involved," he said. "In some ways, it's kind of a shock back to reality."
The spill became a national symbol of nearly irresistible power. And some of that power ended up in the hands of local environmentalists, like Cindy Lowry of Greenpeace, who before felt they were ignored.
A few days into the oil spill, Lowry found a dead, oily otter in a dumpster in Valdez and tried to smuggle it into an Exxon press conference. The mission failed, but she soon realized that demonstrations were unnecessary.
"There was no reason to do anything with direct action," she said. "The spill itself says it all."
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