Picture the Exxon Valdez pulling away from the Alyeska pipeline terminal next Feb. 1, bound for Long Beach, Calif., with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude.
The water is calm and the night foggy as Capt. Joseph Hazelwood points the tanker west along Port Valdez and through the 3-mile-long Valdez Narrows.
Hazelwood is on the bridge with Third Mate Gregory Cousins and Ed Murphy, the local pilot in charge of directing the vessel's course by hazardous Middle Rock, where the tanker channel shrinks to less than a mile.
The Exxon Valdez clears the narrows without incident and leaves Rocky Point behind. Murphy is still on the ship. Unlike in 1989, when he boarded a pilot boat 30 minutes before the tanker reached Bligh Reef, a boat isn't due to pick him up for some time.
Hazelwood stays with Murphy on the bridge instead of going down to his cabin and turning over control of the tanker to Cousin, who isn't licensed to pilot through that part of the Sound.
Something else is different. A tug boat and escort vessel shadow the Exxon Valdez, their crews watching for engine failures or wrong turns.
Shortly after midnight, the Exxon Valdez slams into Bligh Reef anyway, tearing open its hull and emptying its oil into Prince William Sound.
Crews on the two escort vessels scramble to get containment boom in the water, trapping the thick crude before it thins out over the ocean surface and heads for shore. Already, millions of gallons have spilled.
Word is sent for skimming equipment and barges to hold the oil and water mixture that is scooped up. The first wave of equipment reaches the crippled Valdez in six hours. Enough is stashed throughout the Sound to tackle, as best as possible, a 300,000-barrel spill.
But more help is needed. Hundreds of fishing boats under contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. are called in to tow boom and skimming pumps. More manpower and gear, brought in from other parts of the state or Outside, is on the water and working in three days.
Picture that. That is how an Exxon Valdez spill might be handled now, if new equipment and state and federal regulations work the way they are supposed to in Prince William Sound. It is a different scene from March 24, 1989, when 14 hours passed before a single barge of aging and inadequate spill cleanup gear was on its way to Bligh Reef.
But while the regulations go far to prepare for the next disaster, some question whether they have gone far enough to prevent it.
THE NEW PLANLast month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation finally issued regulations to prevent another catastrophic spill and botched cleanup.
DEC officials say the details of the regulations could still change. But if approved by Attorney General Charlie Cole and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill, the broad outlines will go into effect Feb. 1.
The 122-page "final agency draft" spells out what some 300 tankers, barges, terminals, on-shore exploration and production facilities and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System must do to plan for cleanup of major spills. Those requirements are reduced for tankers and facilities that take steps to lessen the likelihood or size of spills.
But mostly, the regulations tell oil companies what they must do to prepare for the Exxon Valdez Disaster II.
In Prince William Sound, much of that work has already been done. In the more than two years since the spill, Alyeska has put in place a $175 million spill response equipment and training program that most experts agree is among the best in the world.
New regulations have also thrown roadblocks in the way of the accidents and errors in judgment that could lead to another Exxon Valdez:
* Full crude tankers are escorted to Seal Rocks, 44 miles beyond Bligh Reef, by a tug and escort vessel loaded with boom and other cleanup gear. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez traveled alone.
* Alyeska has barred escort vessels, and thus tankers, from sailing through Prince William Sound in high winds and bad seas, and speed limits have been set in and out of the Port of Valdez.
* Strict new rules on drug and alcohol testing are in place for tanker crews and Alyeska workers. Hazelwood had been drinking before the Exxon Valdez left the Valdez terminal.
* Two licensed officers are required on the bridge beyond Bligh Reef. In 1989, the local pilot got off before then, and Hazelwood left the vessel in the hands of an unlicensed third mate.
DEC officials say Alyeska's oil spill preparations, on paper at least, have already met the state's new requirements. The company must keep enough boom, skimmers and other equipment in Prince William Sound to tackle a 300,000 barrel spill that's 40,000 barrels more oil than spewed from the Exxon Valdez.
But Alyeska only provides the first line of spill response for its seven owner companies: Exxon, Arco, British Petroleum, Mobil, Amerada Hess, Phillips and Unocal.
Those companies must plan to add enough equipment and manpower to Alyeska's stockpile within three days to clean up a spill of up to half a tanker's full cargo 600,000 barrels in the case of the Exxon Valdez.
Oil industry officials contacted had no comment yet on how they would meet that requirement. But Michael A. Conway, DEC's spill response director, said tanker operators will probably sign agreements to share equipment with oil spill response groups in Cook Inlet, the North Slope and out of state.
Environmental and watchdog groups had hoped the regulations would go further, prodding oil companies not just to prepare for cleanup, but to install costly technology to prevent spills such as tankers with double hulls.
"The best way to handle a spill is to prevent one from happening," said Ann Rothe of the National Wildlife Federation.
CAN'T CLEAN IT ALLThe problem with these oil spill cleanup plans is that they're only pieces of paper. They will not prevent serious environmental damage, even if they work perfectly.
If the Exxon Valdez were to disgorge into the Sound again, a lot of oil would escape even the best plan. The spill would still kill otters and oil birds and disrupt communities.
DEC simply requires that oil companies show how they would clean up the mess, if they could.
"I am not in favor of creating the impression that we are prepared to clean up a 300,000-barrel spill," said Mike Mansker, an environmental specialist with DEC, who helped write the new rules. "The technology just isn't there for that."
"The only way to entirely eliminate the possibility of environmental damage is to eliminate the possibility of a spill," he said. "And the only way to do that is to stop transporting oil."
On average worldwide, spill cleanups scoop up only about 8 percent of the oil lost, said Steve Provant, DEC's Prince William Sound district office manager, who overseas Alyeska's spill drills and planning.
But Provant expects recovery to be much better than that in the Sound because of the Alyeska's still largely untried spill response program. Under the best weather conditions that could be expected, up to 266,000 barrels could be recovered from a 300,000 barrels spill, he estimates.
Under the worst weather conditions that could be expected although not the worst that could happen about 225,000 could be cleaned up, he said.
Tim Robertson, who chairs the oil spill committee of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Council, a watchdog group set up by Congress and funded by the industry, is less optimistic. With ideal weather conditions, he estimates, only about 40 percent 80,000 barrels could be captured from an even smaller spill of 200,000 barrels.
Under the worst conditions, Robertson said, spill response workers could be stuck in motel rooms, unable to do much of anything until the crude oil washes up on shore.
HOLES IN THE PLANOutside Prince William Sound in Cook Inlet, and along Kenai Fjords and other parts of the outer coast the chances of cleaning up a major spill are even less.
John Beitia of Unocal, president of Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc., the industry's oil response program in Cook Inlet, said his group has spent $50 million on spill equipment and training since the Exxon Valdez.
That's sufficient spill preparation, he says, to meet DEC's new requirement to plan for cleaning up a 50,000 barrel spill from the smaller crude loads hauled through the Inlet.
But Ken Rogowski, an environmental specialist for DEC, said that capability on paper may not translate into effective oil-spill cleanup in the Inlet's temperamental current and weather conditions.
"I don't think there is a responder in the world that says they can go into Cook Inlet in ice conditions at 30 below," he said.
A draft report on Cook Inlet oil spill conditions released late last month said CISPRI was not ready to tackle a serious spill. Cleanup equipment and manpower stationed there could be "quickly overcome" by the current and bad weather, the study said.
The report was done on behalf of the Cook Inlet RCAC by James T. Dickson, who heads up oil pollution control at a facility similar to Alyeska's in Scotland. The citizens council has taken no position yet on its findings.
Beitia had not seen the draft report, but he said Dickson did not have the experience in Cook Inlet to make recommendations.
There are other holes in the state's spill response: Neither Alyeska nor CISPRI has said it will clean up a spill between Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, along environmentally sensitive areas of the outer coast.
"It's a real high risk area," said Robertson of the Prince William Sound RCAC. "And there is zero capability now to respond."
Other than Tesoro Alaska's Overseas Washington, which hauls crude, it is mainly gas and diesel fuel barges that carry cargo to communities and facilities along that coast.
Those barge operators are going to have to come up with their own plans to meet the new DEC regulations. They are required to plan to clean up a spill of 15 percent of their full cargo of diesel, gasoline or other non-crude products within 48 hours.
"For me to say how I'm going to get to and clean up a spill anywhere along the coastline and satisfy the DEC that I'm going to be able to do it in 48 hours is beyond me at this point," said Bill Schoephoester, manager of planning projects at Petro Marine Services.
THE FULL BUCKETThe vagaries of Alaska weather and the inadequacies of spill cleanup technology convinced environmental and industry watchdog groups to push hardest for efforts to prevent another catastrophic spill.
A convoluted debate over how to accomplish that was at the center of months of negotiations among state, industry, environmental and citizens' representatives that followed passage last year of the anti-spill bill. The DEC regulations set out the requirements of that legislation.
While the legislature set the stage for that debate, they bucked most of the tough issues to the DEC. Among them, determining the largest spill oil companies must plan to clean up within the critical first three days.
But the working group never could agree on what the largest possible spill should be.
RCAC and the Oil Reform Alliance, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups that helped push the anti-spill bill through the legislature, wanted it defined as a whole crude tanker, or the "full bucket," even though they didn't think the industry really could clean up a spill of that size.
The idea was to make it so expensive to plan to clean up a spill that the industry would instead adopt double bottomed tankers or other innovations to reduce the chances of a spill.
Under the DEC regulations, oil companies get "credits" for such prevention technologies that they can use to reduce the amount, and expense, of equipment they need to stockpile,
DEC backed the "full bucket" approach in an earlier version of the regulations, winning the support, in public comments, of eight environmental groups, 58 individuals, five cities or boroughs and two state agencies the Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service.
But the oil industry and the Department of Natural Resources opposed that draft proposal.
No tanker would spill a full bucket in the first three days, oil industry officials said. The most oil that would be lost is 33 percent of the load, and that should be the standard, they said.
In the end, DEC opted to change its draft regulations. Oil companies must be prepared, within three days of a spill, to clean up 60 percent of a tanker's cargo. That requirement could be reduced to 30 percent if companies took specific steps to prevent spills.
Some critics are outraged. The 60 percent standard takes pressure off the industry to invest money to prevent spills, they say.
"It doesn't make industry strive," said Riki Ott, president of the Oil Reform Alliance, a coalition of fishing and environmental groups that helped push the oil-spill bill into law.
In Prince William Sound, she said, the regulations simply sign off on the status quo. "It's the equipment Alyeska has on site, for a spill that Alyeska has already had," she said.
DEC regulations grant "credits" for only four preventive steps : tankers with double hulls, double bottoms, escort vessels, or hydrostatic loading, a method of loading with less oil so seawater will go in when the hull ruptures, and less oil will come out.
Whether any of these steps will be taken is unclear.
DEC Deputy Commissioner Mead Treadwell said the regulations would provide a "strong incentive" for Alyeska to keep its escort vessels and encourage Cook Inlet operators to put a similar system in place.
But Jim Meintner, Tesoro's representative on the CISPRI board, said there were no plans to use escort vessels in Cook Inlet.
Tankers with double bottoms and hulls, which must be phased in by 2015 under federal law, will probably be deployed no faster because of the new state regulations, Treadwell said.
And Jerry Aspland, president of Arco Marine in California, questioned whether there were enough tankers in Alaska to make hydrostatic loading feasible. It reduces the amount of cargo a tanker can haul, and the value of its load, by about 20 percent.
ENEMY: COMPLACENCYOnce the regulations go into effect Feb. 1 for crude tankers and June 1 for non-crude tankers the burden falls on the industry to carry them out and on DEC to ensure that tanker operators are prepared for another Exxon Valdez spill, or worse.
Lisa Parker, executive director of the Cook Inlet RCAC said the agency, even now, does not have the resources to enforce its regulations. "They don't have the people to participate in the drills," she said.
Before the Exxon Valdez spill, DEC had 14 full-time technical positions to oversee spill prevention and response; 39 are authorized now to take on the agency's expanded responsibilities.
Treadwell said DEC would use its new authority to hold surprise drills. "The biggest cause of the Exxon Valdez accident was complacency," he said. "We can never get back there again."
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