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VALDEZ - Oil industry representatives and government regulators gathered here Sunday to mark the progress made in preventing oil spills in the decade since the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
But a group of industry critics said those efforts have focused too much on cleaning up spills and not enough on preventing them.
"Specifically, we're calling for double-hull tankers," said Jim Sykes, executive director of Oilwatch Alaska, an industry watchdog group.
It was March 24, 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, gashing its hull and spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
Since the spill, no double-hulled tankers have been added to the fleet that carries Alaska North Slope crude from this port.
"While you can't guarantee that a double-hulled tanker won't be breached, it is an extra layer of protection," Sykes said. Under federal regulations, oil companies are not required to begin using double-hulled tankers until 2015.
Sykes made his comments at a news conference before the start of the two-day symposium, which has the theme "Partners in Prevention." The conference is sponsored by the Prince William Sound Community College, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the Coast Guard and the City of Valdez.
A Coast Guard study found that the Exxon Valdez spill would have been reduced by 60 percent if the tanker had had a double hull.
Sykes accused the state of not lobbying hard enough for tougher tanker standards. The absence of double-hulled tankers in the Alaska fleet leaves Prince William Sound at risk of another catastrophic oil spill as great as the Exxon Valdez, he said.
But Michelle Brown, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, disputed Sykes' assertion.
"A risk assessment study done in 1995 found the risks of another spill have been reduced by 75 percent," Brown said. She also disagreed with Oilwatch's criticism that efforts have focused more on cleaning up spilled oil than preventing spills.
"Tugs and escort vessels are about prevention, not response. Our first effort is prevention," Brown said.
Sunday's events included tours of Coast Guard facilities and Alyeska's spill response fleet as well as panel discussions with community leaders from towns affected by the spill.
"We're proud to have the oil industry in Valdez. We're not proud of what happened," Valdez Mayor Dave Cobb said. "We all were complacent. We let it happen to us. We can't let it happen again."
About 150 people attended Sunday's events, including representatives from Scotland, France and Russia's Sakhalin Island. Texaco, Exxon, Shell and other oil companies have been working to develop Sakhalin's huge offshore oil fields, and the first production is expected later this year.
"We don't want a similar sort of spill to happen in Sakhalin like the one that happened here in Alaska," said Dima Lisitsyn of Sakhalin Environment Watch.
Some in attendance criticized the upbeat theme of the symposium and suggested government regulators are getting too close to the oil industry.
"Partnership means we do not criticize our friends. I don't want to get too friendly," activist Rick Steiner said.
But Stan Stephens, a Valdez tour boat operator and president of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, said it is important to recognize the improvements that have been made in preventing another spill.
"I strongly believe that when good things are happening, we need to talk about the good," Stephens said. "We still have a long ways to go, but the difference between today and the difference between 10 years ago is great."