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Can the Petro Industry Learn the Lessons of the Exxon Valdez?

The huge ship appears in Prince William Sound. Mountains are visible in the background, and several response vehicles surround the oil tanker.

The Exxon Valdez, with response vessels. Image via U.S. Coast Guard.

March 24 marks the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska, the largest spill disaster in American history, until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Before the tanker’s remaining cargo could be off-loaded, it lost at least 11 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the Sound. Mandated spill response equipment and vessels were under repair or unavailable, and a late spring storm spread the oil throughout the Sound and along more than five hundred miles of Alaska’s wilderness coast line. Tens of thousands of sea birds died. Many sea otters and harbor seals succumbed to heavy oiling, as did pink and sockeye salmon, clams and mussels. Today, oil remains embedded in the tidelands.

The investigative reports compiled by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission and the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Off-Shore Drilling, respectively, cited similar deep causes for both disasters, viz., corporate resistance to appropriate risk management regimes that could have prevented both. The investigators’ findings cited reliance on automated navigation and production systems, overworking of on-site work crews leading to fatigue, and misplaced confidence in supposedly fail-safe technology as contributing, correctable failures by industry leaders and managers. Both reports, twenty-one years apart, concluded that only with stringent government oversight could such disasters be prevented in the future.[1]

The Exxon spill remains a potent symbol of the vulnerability of the environment to corporate failures. It is also a reminder of the hollow nature of corporate and government assurances that environmental disasters will not happen, or can be adequately contained when they do.[2] As recently as last month, another oil tanker, MV Solomon Trader, went aground in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia and began leaking oil into waters very near Rennell Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Authorities are investigating to determine if a failure to post night watches on the vessel may have been responsible for the grounding and spill.[3]

Just prior to the Exxon tragedy, on March 16, 1989, the U.S. House of Representatives took up a proposed oil pollution act. Following the Exxon Valdez spill eight days later, Governor Steve Cowper of Alaska established the Alaska Oil Spill Commission to investigate and document the causes of the spill.  Many of the commission’s findings and recommendations became part of the subsequent Oil Pollution Act of 1990. One provision was the formation of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council whose mission is to promote environmentally safe operation of the Alyeska Pipeline Company’s Valdez oil terminal and associated tanker operations. The pollution act provides that the citizens’ advisory council work with Alyeska but is fully independent of it. Members of the council include residents of Prince William Sound communities. The citizens’ council has made impressive contributions to environmental protection in Alaska including new regulations for escorting tankers through the Sound, the training of response teams, promotion of a radar ice detection system, a new weather tracking system, and research into invasive species related to tanker traffic.[4]

The pollution act also incorporated other recommendations of the Alaska Spill Commission, including a requirement for double-hull tankers transiting Prince William Sound, large and powerful tug vessels to assist tankers at the port of Valdez, and improved monitoring of the radar systems used to track the vessels.[5] These measures, together with persistent vigilance by citizen groups, have forced more due diligence on oil operations in Alaska and elsewhere. But the Deepwater catastrophe seemed to confirm that the industry had by 2010 inadequately recognized and implemented the lessons of the Exxon calamity. Moreover, a recent study showing that the chemical dispersants used in the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill had no effect and may have exacerbated or retarded the clean-up effort suggests that the science of spill response is still inadequate.[6]

Three decades of government and citizen oversight in Alaska has produced some positive results in restoration of the Prince William Sound ecosystem and the operations of the oil industry there. The civil court settlement negotiated by federal and state governments established the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council with $900 million in funding to oversee restoration of the injured ecosystem. Comprised of three federal and three state trustees and variety of scientific committees, the council has worked well in monitoring the damage, including annual assessments of the status of species.

Since 1999 the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has sponsored the annual Alaska Marine Science Symposium, open to the public. Over seven hundred people attended the most recent gathering in Anchorage in January 2019.[7] That meeting was dominated by information and analysis of the effects of climate change in Alaska. But the trustee council also presented its annual assessment of recovery in Prince William Sound. The council reports that thirty years after the spill there is still lingering oil, especially in the inter-tidal zone where oil has penetrated deep into the zone’s sub-structure. But it notes that many species affected by the spill have recovered. These includes pink and sockeye salmon, bald eagles and common loons, river and sea otters, harbor seals, and clams and mussels. Those species that are rebounding but not fully healthy include orcas, black oyster-catchers, Harlequin ducks, mussels and clams.

Several species have not recovered substantially at all, including marble murrelets and pigeon gullemots, and particularly, herring. Prior to 1989 Prince William Sound supported a vigorous herring fishery. It has since disappeared; there are no herring in the Sound.[8] In the summer of 1993, while Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was visiting Alaska, herring fishers blocked the Valdez shipping channel for two days, demanding that more of the trustee council funds be used for research into the demise of the herring fishery and a decline in the pink salmon runs.[9]  Babbitt and Alaska Governor Walter Hickel met with the fishers and promised that some council funding would be directed toward their concerns. However, this additional funding has not led to a recovery of the fishery.

The close attention to Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez spill attracted attention to other vulnerable waters in Alaska and on the Northwest Coast. Such attention led in 1997 to Congressional establishment of the North Pacific Research Board which recommends research activities to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The board supports research into fisheries and fisheries management, and the ecosystems of all Alaska’s waters. Increasingly over the last decade a primary focus of the board’s effort has been understanding the effects of climate change in Alaska. One hundred twenty institutions have received funding from the board resulting in over 580 peer-reviewed journal publications covering fish habitat, oceanography, seabirds, marine mammals, and humans.[10]

The human costs of the spill still linger. Residents in the Native villages remain skeptical of the safety and purity of traditionally harvested subsistence resources. With the failure of the herring fishery, many fishers and their families have had to re-orient their lives. A class-action suit filed soon after the spill generated a jury award of $5 billion. Exxon corporation appealed, and the case went back and forth between the Alaska federal district court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court several times before finally being settled in 2008 for twenty percent of the original jury award, a conclusion that left many affected by the spill dissatisfied and bitter.[11] The $900 million settlement of the civil suit filed after the spill included a “re-opener” clause allowing for additional litigation for restoration of the Sound. In 2015 the judge who oversaw the suit found that sufficient species had recovered that additional judicial action was not required. Many scientists were unhappy with that decision, arguing that further penalty should be required.[12] There is some mitigation for them in the continuing work of the North Pacific Research Board.

But the question of an industry-wide rethinking of risk management in its everyday operations, as explained in both the Alaska Oil Spill Commission and the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill reports, remains open. That evaluation is now part of the global discussion of climate change and the potential elimination of fossil fuels as the principal source of world energy. Given world demand and abundant supply, it is likely that fossil fuel consumption will continue strong for some time, as the conversion to non-fossil renewables will be a gradual process. Meanwhile, oil spills continue both on land and at sea, as the grounding of the tanker Solomon Trader near the Rennell Island heritage site demonstrates.[13] Whether the oil industry will accept the responsibility to reconfigure its assumptions about risk avoidance remains to be seen.

Stephen Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

For more works on environmental history, click here.

[1] Ernest Piper, The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Final Report, State of Alaska Response (Anchorage, 1993), 1; National Transportation Safety Board, The Grounding of the Tankship Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef, Prince William Sound (Washington, 1990), 1–4; Alaska Oil Spill Commission, Spill, iv; National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling (Washington, 2011), vi; Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss, “Gulf Spill Is the Largest of Its Kind, Scientists Say,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 2010, p. A6.

[2] Stephen Haycox, “’Fetched Up:’ Unlearned Lessons from the Exxon Valdez,” Journal of American History, June 2012, 219-28.

[3] “Ship Owner Apologises for ‘Totally Unacceptable’ Oil Spill in Solomon Islands,” The Guardian, March 6, 2019, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/06/ship-owner-apologises-for-totally-unacceptable-oil-spill-in-solomon-islands, accessed March 18, 2019.

[4] PWSRCAC website, http://www.pwsrcac.org/, accessed 1 March 2019

[5] “A Final Farewell to Single Hull Tankers,” Dec. 11, 2014, NOAA, Office of Response and Restoration, https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/final-farewell-oil-tankers-single-hulls.html, accessed 1 March 2019

[6] Tauren Dyson, “Chemicals Used in Deepwater Horizon Spill Were Ineffective, Study Says.” UPI, Nov. 1, 2018, https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/11/01/Chemicals-used-in-Deepwater-Horizon-spill-were-ineffective-study-says/3941541097180/?st_rec=3481551441585, accessed 2 March 2019

[7] AMSS website, https://www.alaskamarinescience.org/, accessed 1 March 2019

[8] EVOS Trustee Council website, http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/, accessed 1 March 2019

[9] New York Times, August 23, 1993

[10] NPRB website, https://www.nprb.org/, accessed 1 March 2019

[11] In re Exxon Valdez, No. A89-0095-CV (9th Cir. Jan. 28, 2004); Judge H. Russell Holland, public remarks on In re Exxon Valdez, Aug. 22, 2010, notes (in Haycox’s possession); David Lebedoff, Cleaning Up: The Story behind the Biggest Legal Bonanza of Our Time (New York, 1997); Joseph J. Chambers, “In re Exxon Valdez: Application of Due Process Constraints on Punitive Damage Awards,” Alaska Law Review, 20 (Dec. 2003), 195–212.

[12] “Alaska, U.S. Won’t Seek Additional Damages in Exxon Valdez Spill,” October 15, 2015, Associated Press, Voice of America, VOA website, s://www.voanews.com, accessed 1 March 2019

[13] Clyde Hughes, “Official Worry Grounded Ship Could Leak 600 Tons of Oil Off Australia,” UPI, 1 March 2019, https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/11/01/Chemicals-used-in-Deepwater-Horizon-spill-were-ineffective-study-says/3941541097180/?st_rec=3481551441585, accessed 2 March 2019

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