More than two years after spill response workers arrived unprepared and hours late to the site of the Exxon Valdez spill, the state has issued new regulations to keep catastrophic oil spills and botched cleanup efforts from happening again.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Sandor signed the new regulations in Anchorage Saturday.
"We have every reason to believe these are the most stringent regulations in the country and maybe the world," Sandor said.
The regulations are required by an anti-spill law passed by the legislature last year. If approved by Attorney General Charlie Cole and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill, they will go into effect Feb. 1.
Deputy Commissioner Mead Treadwell said the regulations are only a first step. The DEC will call surprise drills, he said, to ensure that oil companies have the required cleanup equipment and know how to use it. "We need to maintain readiness," he said.
But members of environmental and oil industry watchdog groups including some who spent months helping draft the new regulations said the result provides too little incentive for oil companies to go beyond what they are already doing to prepare for and prevent future catastrophic spills.
Under the new DEC rules, tanker operators are required to show the state how they would clean up the largest possible spill the contents of a whole tanker within the shortest possible time.
But more specific and enforceable standards are set for the volume of spills oil companies must be prepared to clean up in the critical first three days of a spill before the crude oil thins and spreads out over the ocean surface and begins to wash up on beaches.
It is these standards that have been debated most. The Oil Reform Alliance and the Regional Citizens Advisory Council, a watchdog group set up by Congress and funded by the oil industry, wanted tanker operators to have enough equipment and manpower available within three days to clean up the largest possible tanker spill, dubbed the "full bucket."
Oil industry officials said they should only be required to clean up 33 percent of a crude tanker's cargo within three days. They said that is the most that could leak out in that time.
The DEC chose 60 percent. But that requirement can be trimmed to as little as 30 percent if tanker operators earn prevention "credits" for steps to reduce the chance or size of spills.
For example, in Prince William Sound, where escort vessels carrying tow lines, booms and other spill equipment shadow every tanker, oil companies only have to prepare for spills of 49 percent of a tankers' cargo.
Some of that equipment enough to clean up 15 percent of the cargo must be kept within the immediate region. The rest can be brought in from elsewhere in Alaska or from Outside.
That means for the largest tanker in Prince William Sound, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is required to have enough equipment and people to clean up a 300,000-barrel spill about 40,000 barrels more than poured from the ruptured tanks of the Exxon Valdez in March 1989.
Alyeska, which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Valdez tanker terminal, is owned by seven oil companies: Exxon, Arco, British Petroleum, Mobil, Amerada Hess, Phillips and Unocal.
Nick Mitchell, Alyeska's contingency planning manager, said the company has already met that requirement. The company has spent $175 million to beef up its oil spill response capability since the Exxon Valdez spill, Mitchell said, and continues to spend about $50 million a year in operating costs.
Alyeska began improving its spill response capability after former Gov. Steve Cowper threatened to shut down the Valdez facility.
John Beitia of Unocal, president of the industry's oil response cooperative in Cook Inlet, said his group has spent about $10 million so far and has the equipment to meet the 50,000-barrel spill response requirement for the smaller crude tankers in the Cook Inlet region.
DEC officials who review spill response plans for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet said while both groups meet the requirements on paper, further efforts may be needed to prove they have the training and equipment to clean up those spills under bad weather conditions.
But critics still question whether the standards are tough enough.
Virtually no one thinks it is possible to clean up a spill of a full tanker. The idea behind a 100 percent cleanup standard, said Tim Robertson, chairman of the Prince William Sound citizens council, was to encourage oil companies to adopt stronger spill prevention measures to get reductions in the amount of cleanup equipment they have to stockpile.
"We wanted to hold their feet to the fire," Robertson said. "You either prove to us you can clean it up the full bucket, the whole thing, and we know they can't or you prove to us that you are using every (prevention) capability that you can."
Treadwell said Friday that the regulations would likely keep the Prince William Sound escort vessel system in place and encourage a similar program in Cook Inlet. But, he said, the regulations probably would not force oil companies to install other big-ticket prevention measures double hulls and bottoms any faster than the 25-year phase-in schedule already required by federal law.
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