The Prince William Sound oil spill prompted the introduction Tuesday of legislation toughening federal penalties for spills and promoting faster federal intervention in their cleanups.
A half dozen congressional committees are gearing up for hearings on the catastrophe, beginning Thursday with sessions scheduled by the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee.
The oil spill occurred March 24, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles southwest of Valdez. More than 10 million gallons of oil poured into the Sound, making the spill the largest in U.S. history. Subsequently, investigators said the captain of the vessel was too drunk to operate it and that an unqualified third mate was in charge of the tanker when it hit the reef.
Efforts to contain the spill were too little and too late. And after three days of delay by officials, the wind kicked up and spread the oil all over the western Sound, confounding any containment effort that might have been tried and making cleanup a very difficult chore.
When Congress returned from its Easter recess, Senate Democrats were especially perturbed that the Bush administration refused to act swiftly to assume control of the cleanup effort.
"Within a few days after the spill occured, it was clear that the cleanup was inadequate," said Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, DMaine. "Valuable time, the most valuable time was lost. There should have been a decisive response. Unfortunately there was not."
Sen. Max Baucus, who teamed up with Mitchell on three remedial bills, used the spill to rail against the Bush administration's advocacy of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
"There will be more spills and environmental degradation," he said. "Given that, I belive it would be prudent to hold off on subjecting another area of pristine beauty and abundant fish and wildlife the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development at this time."
Baucus is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's environmental protection panel, which has scheduled a hearing for April 13 to look into the spill and arctic pollution problems caused by oil development.
Even within the Bush administration, however, there were signs that the spill was having a policy impact.
William Reilly, head of Environmental Protection Agency, told a House Appropriations Committee panel that his agency is reevaluating the environmental threat oil development poses.
Reilly, noting the administration's review of offshore drilling in California and Florida because of environmental concerns, said that review will be extended to Alaska.
"We'll do it in Prince William Sound and look very carefully at future contingency planning there," Reilly said. "And we will do it on the North Slope. I think we owe that to the environment. We owe that to common sense."
Despite Bush's unwavering support of opening the arctic refuge to drilling, Reilly said "there is a very clear understanding" that the administration will not move forward "if we have any significant concerns that have not been addressed."
Mitchell and Baucus introduced three separate bills.
One of the measures would amend the federal Clean Water Act to require the president to initiate cleanup of oil spills unless he makes a specific finding that the cleanup was being satisfactorily done by the vessel owner or operator.
Mitchell said the Clean Water Act now gives the president authority to invoke federal control of the cleanup.
"The president so far has chosen not to use the legal authority available to him," Mitchell said. "To reach that decision, the president had to conclude that the cleanup was being conducted properly by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and Exxon Shipping Co. I disagree."
A second bill would authorize penalties of as much as $50 a barrel against those responsible for a spill. That penalty would be separate from any liability payments. In the case of the Exxon Valdez, such penalties could amount to about $13 million.
The third legislative proposal would create a $500 million fund, paid for by a tax on offshore and imported oil products, to pay the costs of spill cleanups not otherwise covered under liability laws or where responsible parties cannot be found.
The aggressive response of Senate leaders and the fastpaced schedule of congressional hearings put Republicans on the defensive.
Sen. John Heinz, RPa., introduced a resolution shifting the onus to the Bush administration to find ways of ensuring that spills such occured in Alaska "do not happen again."
The resolution would give the administration 30 days to propose ways to "prevent, contain and disperse oil spills."
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens tried to focus the disaster on the captain of the Exxon Valdez, who has been charged by the state with being intoxicated when he turned over control of the vessel to its third mate.
"This was not an act of God," Stevens said in a floor speech. "It was an act of a drunken driver."
Stevens said that while inadequate spillcontainment plans must be addressed, one of the reforms that he said must be considered also is prohibiting "rehabilitated alcoholics" from being put in charge of tankers.
In an address earlier Tuesday to the National Ocean Industries Association, Stevens said that "every time I think of (the captain), I think of rape. This oil is going into a new virgin bay every hour."
Both Stevens and Alaska Rep. Don Young expressed concern that hearings on the spill could draw away federal, state and industry officials from the cleanup operation.
"I think it is too soon," said Young, a member of the House Merchant Marine panel. He said he hopes the hearings will not become stages for "pointing fingers" and instead will be aimed at finding ways to avoid similar spills in the future.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, who on Thursday was downplaying the impact of the spill, reversed field Tuesday and wrote to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan asking him to ban drilling in Bristol Bay pending a review of oil spill response plans there. He asked for the review, Murkowski said, "In light of the woeful inadequacy of the Trans Alaska Pipeline|Prince William Sound oil spill contingency plan . . ."
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