Alaska News

How the Exxon Valdez spill gave birth to modern oil spill prevention plans

Over the past 25 years much has been written about the failure of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. to respond to the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef. Even more has been written about Captain Hazelwood, alcohol, crew fatigue, the third mate and the actual cleanup efforts. But little has been written about how this accident changed the way we look at oil spill prevention and response today.

The hard facts are that neither Alyeska nor the federal and state governments were prepared to deal with such a disaster. A few months earlier there had been a spill from the tanker Thompson Pass at the Valdez Terminal, but little was learned from that accident even though some state and Alyeska employees expressed concerns about the inadequacy of Alyeska's response, preparedness, and equipment. However the Exxon Valdez incident was such a significant event that the oil industry and government were forced to examine how they would respond to future oil spills.

Alyeska failed to learn from the Thompson Pass spill because it was a dysfunctional company. Although BP controlled over 50 percent of the Alyeska stock, it took BP's vote, plus a vote from Arco Alaska Inc. or Exxon (who each controlled about 23 percent of the vote) plus a vote of one of the three "midget" owners to make a decision. And that did not happen easily. Former Alaska Governor and Secretary of the Interior Wally Hickel is reported to have said that Alyeska had more colonels than Kentucky and not one general. He also commented that it seemed to take the company six months just to agree on the color of a toilet seat at one of the pipeline camps.

I worked for BP in the company's legal department at the time and was on spring break with my family when I heard reports that the Exxon Valdez had grounded, but I was soon back in my office in Cleveland, Ohio, meeting with the BP Crisis Management Team. There I learned that Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper had issued an emergency order dictating that if the terminal was to remain open, Alyeska had to be prepared to respond to a 10 million gallon spill anywhere within Prince William Sound within two hours of notification and have available on site a defined amount of skimming capacity and boom. The order also required that all tankers be escorted by tugs out to Cape Hinchinbrook and that a response team be on duty at all times.

This new plan had to be presented to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation by May 1, 1989, and the industry had to show that all of the equipment was physically on its way to Valdez by May 15.

There was not a port in the world that required such a response. Plans for Valdez and other ports had always been written for "the most likely spill," a spill of about 10,000 barrels. These new standards meant that the new plan would have to be revolutionary.

The BP crisis management team recognized that the probability of getting Alyeska to approve a new plan before the deadline was remote, and that the only way forward was for a task force of experts from the maritime industry to work independently of Alyeska. I was then informed that I was to lead the BP team.

Before sending me off to Long Beach, Calif., to help explain this approach to the other Alyeska owners, John Morgan, a senior vice president made two recommendations. The first was to use offshore anchor handling tugs for escort vessels, since these ships had good deck working space and high horsepower, and secondly that we should establish an advisory committee along the lines of the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group, (SOTEAG) which worked with BP at its terminal in Scotland.

BP's plan was accepted by the other owners, and I immediately flew to Anchorage to inform Alyeska management of the decision. Because they were still totally involved with the Exxon Valdez, most were grateful that the task force had been formed.

The following day task force members from around the world started arriving in Anchorage. They belonged to two very different professions: oil spill remediation specialists and lawyers! The meeting was not held in one of the corporate offices in Anchorage, but in the Captain Cook Hotel's Sir Francis Drake Suite; magnificent rooms with fantastic views.

There was a reason for choosing such a place. Most people on the task force had not met before and were from different countries, different companies and different cultures. Meeting in the formal business environment of one of the oil companies would not be conducive to the type of thinking that was going to be required to meet Gov. Cowper's demands.

Among those who joined the team was Don Esche and Rosemary Stein from Exxon, Arco was represented by Les Ludlum, while Keith Cameron and Nick Mitchell were sent over from the United Kingdom by BP. Alyeska sent Judith Andress, a plain-spoken attorney who had only worked for the company for a few months but who had been actively involved in the Thompson Pass spill. After introductions, the task that was before us was examined.

By seven o'clock that evening, very little had been accomplished. No matter what combination of equipment was suggested we could not meet the target skimmer capacity requirements nor could we get equipment to a possible spill site on time. We knew that Framo Transrec skimmers would provide the required nameplate skimming capacity, but there were none available, and they could not be built in time to meet Gov. Cowper's deadlines. It was time to take a break.

We all went down to a small Indian restaurant close to the hotel. Over dinner everyone became more willing to share ideas. This openness had to be encouraged, and so on our way back to the suite I asked the hotel staff to bring up a bar.

The strategy worked; everyone began participating in the discussions. About an hour or so into the second session, Keith Cameron said "Well, this may be a dumb idea, but what if we brought the Weir Boom over from Southampton? We could put it on the deck of an anchor handling tug and have it on standby every time a tanker sailed." The Weir Boom was a large ocean boom/skimmer system that had been developed to contain possible well blowouts in the North Sea, but it was only available on a temporary basis. Brilliant! This was the breakthrough we were looking for since it bought us the time we needed for the Transrecs to be built.

On large sheets of paper we started listing equipment available and evaluating "what ifs." Based on that information we calculated that we would need at least three anchor handling tugs to escort the loaded tankers and storage barges with over 350,000 barrels capacity. Even though it was the middle of the night in Cleveland, I called Dennis Burgess, BP's Marine Chartering Manager to ask him if the vessels we needed were available for immediate deployment. Within minutes we learned that they were. That news brought an audible sigh of relief.

The next breakthrough came when someone suggested that if we placed a spill response team, with a skiff, boom and skimmers on the escort vessels. then that response team would be able to immediately tackle a spill. And so the Escort Response Vessel was born.

By midnight we realized that we were very close to meeting all of the targets except total nameplate skimming capacity. With that issue still hanging over us we called it a day.

As we assembled for breakfast the next morning I was amazed to see Nick Mitchell walk in with a big grin on his face. Everyone else had a tired and harried look. "Boss, the problem is solved," he said. We all looked at Nick in amazement. He then explained that he couldn't sleep worrying about the issue, but then he thought of Marflex Arms. These were two long arms that were positioned either side of a tank barge. As the tank barge moved slowly through the oily water the arms would concentrate the oil against the side of the barge and it would then be pumped up into hold. "A great idea, but Nick, can we get a set in time?" There was an even bigger grin from Nick. He had already called the UK and a pair arms were available for immediate delivery. We had reached our target.

We moved out of the Captain Cook into temporary office space and started turning these concepts into an acceptable plan. Purchase orders were created and vessels chartered. We created more "what if" scenarios and started drafting the actual document.

On May 1, just 39 days after the spill, the plan was presented to Michelle Brown at the DEC and the necessary documents filed. By the end of May, the Ship Escort/Response Vessel System had been established and ERVs were escorting tankers through the sound.

It was now time to get out and sell these new spill prevention concepts to the Oiled Mayors (Mayors whose communities had been affected by the spill), legislators and the public. Although no one realized it at that time there was still one great innovation to be added to this revolutionary plan. That was the Incident Command System.

At a meeting in a room over the fire station in Cordova, I had just finished making a presentation on the new plan, when Fire Chief Dewey Whetsell, asked me why we hadn't used the Incident Command System. I liked Dewey because we both thought that Dylan Thomas was one of the world's greatest poets, but when he asked that question I thought that he had gone a bit off track. What did a forest fire management system have to do with an oil spill?

When Dewey first explained to me the structure of the ICS it sounded just like any other management system; a boss (the Incident Commander), and four deputies to head up logistics, finance, planning and operations teams. It was not until the next morning that I understood how applicable the system really was to an oil spill.

Each time a loaded tanker was escorted through Prince William Sound by two ERVs, one of them had the response supervisor on board. If there was an incident the response supervisor's first job was send a message back to the Spill Response Center and to immediately take action to mitigate damage.

He was at that moment the incident commander and head of logistics, planning, finance and operations all rolled into one. As trained personnel arrived at the Spill Response Center they would take over their function but only after the response supervisor had briefed them on what he had done. Gradually all of the positions in the command structure would be filled and the response supervisor would then only be responsible for the operation of his own tactical unit.

Within days the Incident Command System was included in a revised plan and exercises took place to ensure it worked. At a hearing of Walt Parker's Alaska Oil Spill Commission, Esther Wunnike asked if we were going to incorporate ICS into our new plan. I was delighted to confirm that we already had done so. Walt Parker's subsequent report also recommended that ICS should be mandatory throughout the state.

The concept of an Alaska version of the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group was discussed with the Oiled Mayors and slowly the concept morphed from being an advisory body of university professors and consultants into the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen Advisory Council.

After a few drills we realized that the there could not be just one incident commander, because of the mandated roles of the spiller, the state and the federal government. The concept of a unified command was proposed and we worked out the wrinkles of this new concept during the many very realistic oil spill drills held at the Valdez Convention Center over the next few years. The era of tabletop drills was over. These new drills had substantial public and political input from the start and a lot of lessons were learnt.

During the next legislative session in Juneau, the Senate Committee on Oil and Gas, chaired by Senator Drue Pearce was drafting new oil spill legislation. Many people presented evidence and views to the committee. Dr. Riki Ott, an environmental activist from Cordova, represented the fishermen, and I represented the oil industry.

Opinions as to what to include in the bill were so diverse that compromise seemed impossible. Senator Pearce resolved this conundrum by locking Riki and me in a room and threatening to throw away the key if we didn't reach a compromise. After many days, with David Rogers acting as moderator, compromise language was thrashed out. The language reflected the task force's plan, plus a lot of additional protection for villages and hatcheries.

Both Riki and I were ostracized by our respective constituencies for the compromise, but much of the legislation that emerged from that compromise was then used by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski as a basis for OPA 90, the federal Oil Pollution Act that governs oil transportation in the U.S. today. I hope Riki is as proud of that effort as I am.

It had taken the Exxon Valdez spill and Gov. Cowper's emergency order to force the government and industry to recognize that modern tankers carried at least 15 times more oil than did the standard tankers of the 1950s. This realization that there had to be a new approach to prevention and response led our small international task force of marine experts and lawyers to develop the core parameters of a 100-page plan that became the foundation of all modern spill response plans.

During those two days at the Captain Cook Hotel in April 1989 I don't think any of us could have imagined that outcome.

Michael Williams was the first Vice President for Environment at Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. He is one of the owners of Spill Shield Inc.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)