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While Alaska's Prince William Sound is safer, questions linger about preventing oil spills

  • Author: Carey Restino
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 23, 2014

This is the second of a three-part series examining the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the changes that occurred in the community and state as a result. Part one is here.

As Alaska nears the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, memories are still so raw that some Alaskans say they don't want to recognize the date or remember the experience.

But while many may not want to revisit March 24, 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez rammed hard aground on Bligh Reef near Valdez, spilling 11 million gallons of oil, others say it is important to remember the devastation that complacency can cause. Even though advances have been made, particularly in Prince William Sound, critics say that other areas of the state are not as protected. And questions remain about the use of so-called dispersants, particularly in Alaska's cold waters.

The safest place to ship oil

In Prince William Sound today, oil tankers winding their way through icebergs and rocks do so only with numerous safety measures, including two tug escorts, marine traffic monitoring, and mandated double-hulled vessels. If the unthinkable were to happen and oil was once again spilled into the sound, a comprehensive spill response plan would be triggered that would in no way resemble the confusion of 1989. Steve Rothchild, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council's administrative deputy director, said the many protections in place in the sound today are the result of vigilant citizen oversight enabled in large part by the regional advisory council, one of only two in the country created and mandated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

"There hasn't been a tanker accident, so the prevention system seems to be working," Rothchild said. "It is one of the most rigorous prevention systems anywhere in the world. So how do we make sure the prevention system is continually updated and doesn't slide?"

It might seem that a place such as Prince William Sound, with the continual oversight of a well-functioning advisory council, would rarely face push-back from the oil industry on safety regulations. But that's not so. When the fleet of oil tankers transitioned to entirely double-hulls five years ago, the industry wanted to do away with the expensive dual tug escort system. But the advisory council along with partnering agencies adamantly pushed for the escorts to remain, and the U.S. Coast Guard ruled late last year that the system would stay in place.

Prince William Sound also has a fishing vessel response program, some 350 fishing vessels ready and waiting to respond to a disaster within six hours of an emergency. These contracted vessels fulfill the state mandate that the oil industry be able to recover 300,000 barrels of spilled oil in 42 hours.

Contingency planning and constant drills in the sound help prevent mistakes of the past, when spill response efforts were disorganized and equipment was buried under Valdez' deep snow pack. But even so, the best plans can be challenged by weather. A drill last fall proved that when spill response efforts were entirely thwarted by a storm.

"They couldn't respond at all," said Lisa Matlock, the council's outreach coordinator. "It was one of those real-world experiences. From doing those real-world drills, we get better planning put in place."

Protections weaker in Cook Inlet, rest of Alaska

While the regional citizens advisory council set up in Prince William Sound has helped protect that 15,000 square mile body of water, other areas of the state, such as the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and even Cook Inlet, which has an advisory council, are significantly less protected, many say. In those regions, if a tanker runs aground, rescue equipment can be hours or days away, and limited to what is available regionally.

Most who have followed the Exxon oil spill saga and the Gulf Coast oil spill suggest that prevention is the answer. At best, spill response efforts can hope to recover 10 percent of the oil that hits the water. At worst, the number might be much lower.

"The key to the whole thing is prevention," said Mike Munger, executive director of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council. "Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it's really hard to get it back in."

Munger said the Cook Inlet council has made significant improvements in safety and prevention measures in the Inlet, which sees increasing traffic, ranging from tankers with crude oil to shipments headed for the state's commercial hub of Anchorage. Better technology, navigation systems and some improvements in equipment have helped reduce the risk. But only after a tanker was ripped off the dock and beached at the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski by extreme ice and tidal conditions did the industry chose to put a tug in place to assist with docking. No escort tugs are required in the Cook Inlet, despite the large tides and other dangerous conditions.

Frank Mullen, a longtime Cook Inlet fisherman, former Kenai Peninsula Borough assemblyman and one of the founders of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council said the council started off as the "second stepchild of the Prince William Sound Council." Congress mandated the Cook Inlet Council, but funding was limited to no more than $1 million — at best, half the funding of the Prince William Sound Council. And unlike the sound, where there was one funding source and a single oil operation to deal with, the Inlet has oil platforms, storage tanks in the floodwaters of a still-active volcano, and shipping traffic crisscrossing its waters. Since many oil companies operate in the Inlet, funding has to be arranged from multiple sources.

"The oil industry in Cook Inlet was not excited at all," Mullens recalled of the early days setting up the council. "They had to be forced kicking and screaming to participate and they wouldn't have funded an RCAC if there wasn't a federal law that said they had to."

Mullen and others attribute the difference in the effectiveness of the two councils to a different political culture, one that is more supportive of oil and gas industry.

Former council member Bob Shavelson, director of the environmental watchdog Cook InletKeeper, said he was voted off the council's board after questioning action concerning the Drift River oil storage terminal, which sits in the flood plain of Mount Redoubt. When the volcano began to erupt in 2009, Shavelson said information and action were scarce. After the site was evacuated, information that 6 million gallons of oil were in the Drift River tanks. The facility was damaged, but not breached, by ensuing flash floods from the volcano. Munger said the council advocated for restarting normal operations of the facility after the volcanic activity subsided because holding less oil in the tanks meant more risks – including that ships were docked for longer periods of time as oil was pumped to the vessels. Shutting down the facility would have had far-reaching impacts, he said.

"Without Drift River, Cook Inlet oil production would be shut down," Munger said, noting that the facility is the only one in the region that accommodates a deepwater dock. Munger said the council pushed for a undersea pipeline from Drift River to the Tesoro refinery to reduce the Inlet's ship traffic, and steps are being taken in that direction.

He said a comprehensive navigational risk assessment is under way in the Inlet, which the council hopes will lead to a better understanding of the waters.

Mullen said, however, that the council's action and inaction in situations like the grounding of the Seabulk Pride in 2006 after it was ripped off the Tesoro dock and the Drift River situation suggest that too many risks are being taken. Shavelson agrees. "CIRCAC takes a very tepid, middle-of-the-road approach," he said. "They've done some good work, but overall they have failed to satisfy what many would see as the edicts of (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990)."

Munger said, however, that the council does its job. "Any time you have an organization looking over the shoulder of regulators and industry, it makes everybody pay more attention," he said.

Dispersants raise questions, concerns

Back in 1989, dispersants were used in the early days of the spill in an experimental attempt to make headway. The move was neither effective nor popular, and questions were raised about the impact such dispersants would have on the environment and workers in the area. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist, author and former commercial fisherman based in Cordova, said that if you fast-forward 25 years, some of the same questions about dispersants remain. Following the Gulf Coast spill, where dispersants were heavily used, a flurry of industry-sponsored studies sprang up to look at the effectiveness of these chemicals. Ott said it's not yet proven that the environment is better off if dispersants — themselves a proprietary cocktail of unknown chemicals — are used or avoided.

"Studies are coming out now that are showing that the combination of oil and dispersants is worse than oil alone," Ott said.

Ott, whose background is well-suited to critically examine the impacts of chemical compounds on marine life, said dispersants themselves are industrial solvents that target the same organs of the body as crude oil, so organisms exposed to both get a double hit. "The properties that facilitate the movement of solvents through the oil, to break it up, also facilitate the movement through organisms," she said. "The dispersants act like an oil delivery system."

But the oil industry and regulators are enthusiastic about the prospects of dispersants. While some say that enthusiasm stems from a desire to minimize the visible impact of an oil spill — fewer oiled birds and beaches to stain company image — others attest that the intent is to find a solution to the problem of spilled oil.

Ott said the commonly held belief that dispersants break down the oil and allow the naturally occurring bacteria in the water to consume the oil more easily is questionable.

"No one actually studied it, and now it turns out, the dispersants are toxic to the naturally occurring bacteria," she said.

Rothchild, with the Prince William Sound council, said there needs to be more research into the impacts and effectiveness of dispersants in the cold waters of Alaska. Some of that research is being done.

Oil dependency, corporate control

Conversations about the lessons learned, and not yet learned, from Exxon Valdez often bring up questions of corporate power. There is no end of hard feelings among plaintiffs about the reduction in the punitive settlement awarded to Exxon Valdez claimants from $5 billion originally to $507.5 million in 2008.

Mullen said Alaskans were not "made whole" as Exxon officials said they would in the early days of the spill. "If this wasn't an obvious case of who was right and who was wrong, what is there?" Mullen asked.

Shavelson said the Exxon spill offers lessons in the dangers of depending on fossil fuels. "The Cook Inlet is blessed with world class renewable resources. If we developed geothermal energy or tidal energy we could be a world leader."