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



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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 01/06/90
Day: Saturday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

JUNEAU- The wreck of the Exxon Valdez was caused by the failure of government to regulate an industry more interested in profit than safety, the Alaska Oil Spill Commission said in its report released Friday.

The commission spreads blame throughout society, from the public for not caring enough about the environment, to government from the legislature to the president to the capitals of the world for being too complacent and the oil industry, which has "focused on economic efficiency and opposition to government regulation."

"The wreck of the Exxon Valdez was not an isolated, freak occurrence, but simply one possible (and disastrous) result of policies, habits and practices that for nearly two decades have infused the nation's maritime oil transportation system with increasing levels of risk," the report said.

The harshest criticism, though, was leveled at the Coast Guard, the agency with primary responsibility of making sure tankers move their loads safely. The Coast Guard is too cozy with the industry it is supposed to regulate and shows little desire to change, according to the report.

"It really needs to take its job a great deal more seriously," Commission Chairman Walt Parker said.

The Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound early in the morning of March 24. Its hull ripped open and nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the water, killing sea otters and thousands of birds and contaminating hundreds of miles of shoreline.

The report released Friday is an executive summary of commission's sevenmonth investigation of the spill. The full report will be released in about 30 days.

The commission was created by the legislature to find the cause of the accident and come up with recommendations on how to prevent future disasters. In the 59 recommendations in its preliminary report, "Spill: the Wreck of the Exxon Valdez," the commission calls for a complete revamping of the way oil is moved through U.S. waters.

"Obviously, the present system providing minimum penalties for creating massive environmental damage has not deterred the industry from putting the coasts and oceans of the world at constant hazard," the report said.

The recommendations are similar to those in a draft report released late last month. The report was given to Gov. Steve Cowper and state lawmakers Friday morning.

Legislators were generally supportive of the recommendations and said they thought some of them would be implemented this session, which begins Monday.

But hints of a fight over how to fund the increased regulation were evident.

"The legislature will try to pass a lot of that off as user fees and we can expect the industry to object to that," said House Majority Leader Mike Navarre, DKenai.

But Senate President Tim Kelly, RAnchorage, said the state should bear the costs of increased safety and the money should come from the state's general fund.

Said House Speaker Sam Cotten, DEagle River, "It's not like we want to go out and find a fight." But, he said, when legislators decide how to fund better environmental laws they will have to decide if they want to be seen as "pursuing the public interest or backing away from the powerful oil industry."

Commission counsel and director John Havelock said he thinks the big legislative fights will be over money, not the substance of the recommendations.

Parker, Cowper and legislators talked most Friday about the commission recommendation that the state pass laws giving it authority over tanker safety in Alaska waters. The state did that in the late 1970s but the laws were thrown out by a federal court as preempting federal law.

Cowper said that was a "key event" in the long decline of the state's ability to prevent an oil spill. Parker said the state could have won the fight and should have appealed the ruling. "The surmise of our legal researcher is the state should have been much more aggressive."

The commission said that Congress is likely to adopt legislation this year that makes it easier for "the state to reassert its historic role in resource protection."

Other recommendations in the report are:

* The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been unable to adequately regulate the oil industry because it has been given too many other duties and it has been seriously underfunded. Parker also said that DEC commissioners "should have tried to maintain a stronger emphasis" on spill prevention.

DEC Commissioner Dennis Kelso said he has not read all of the commission's reports but said he agreed with Parker's comments.

* The state should strengthen its authority to conduct inspections and spill drills. "The lack of any quality control or assurance program on tanker operations from Prince William Sound or Cook Inlet allows serious hazards to arise," according to the report.

* DEC officials should have office space at the Alyeska oil terminal at Valdez to "maintain a continuing presence, instant response and constant vigilance over environmental safety." In the past, DEC officials have complained that Alyeska personnel stopped them from doing inspections. The committee said, "A more cooperative posture by Alyeska staff might result if state personnel were seen not so much as an opposing force, but as a normal and integral part of the operation."

* The state should negotiate agreements with other coastal states covering oil spill prevention and cleanup plans.

* The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and the Alaska National Guard, should take primary responsibility for the state's response to a spill. The commission said that the guard is better prepared than DEC to respond to emergencies.

* The company responsible for an oil spill should not be put in charge of cleaning it up. Under current federal law, the spiller has primary responsibility and authority over cleanup. The commission said either the state or federal government should play that role.

* Congress should either boost the Coast Guard's spill response capabilities or give the job to another federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Problems with the Coast Guard, though, go beyond money. In October, a Daily News investigation revealed a close relationship between the Coast Guard and the industry dating back at least to the early 1970s. Under industry pressure, Coast Guard officials repeatedly backed away from safety requirements they had proposed, such as double bottoms on oil tankers and sophisticated radar coverage in Prince William Sound.

"Simply, the Coast Guard is an extremely weak regulator," Parker said. "It makes its regulations in concert with the industry." He complained that the Coast Guard takes very little public input in its decisions and has backed off substantially on vessel inspections.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Simpson, a spokesman for Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost, said he had not seen the report and could not comment on its findings.

The release of the report Friday brought relief to one commission member who has been a serious, although sofar quiet, critic of the sevenmonth investigation.

In October, Edward Wenk, a Seattle professor and adviser to Congress and three presidents on maritime safety, was ready to resign his commission post because of what he said in a letter to Cowper were questions about the "integrity of the commission."

Wenk wrote at least two letters to Cowper last fall, which he said Friday were "very restrained compared to my feelings," warning that the commission could fail in its mission.

He said the commission was spending too much of its time worrying about the specifics of the Exxon Valdez disaster and not looking to the larger causes of the spill and the entire oil transportation system.

"It was that fantasy of failure that really alarmed me," Wenk said Friday from Seattle. "I was concerned with the fruitless, even foolish, direction they were taking. . . . The heavy emphasis and handwringing over the poor preparation for a spill and the cleanup ineptness."

Wenk also had complaints about how the commission was run and organizational and administrative problems.

But about six weeks ago, when the final report started coming together, Wenk found that his concerns were addressed. "The direction of the commission completely turned around," he said.

Havelock said there were a lot of disagreements among commission members that were difficult to settle before writing began on the report. "I suppose that helped give reassurance" to members concerned their positions were being ignored.

Friday, Wenk had nothing but good things to say about the report.

"This just doesn't look at the aftermath of the spill. This looks at why the hell did it have to happen in the first place.

"The whole system was diseased."

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