25 years after Exxon Valdez, lessons are still relevant

Twenty-five years ago tonight, workers at the Alyeska Marine Terminal in Alaska loaded fifty-three million gallons of North Slope crude oil onto the supertanker Exxon Valdez. Across Valdez bay, a group of citizens met in the city council chambers, expressing their concerns that a spill in Prince William Sound was inevitable. A fisherman, Bobby Day, readied his boat for a herring season that would never open. Their lives collectively changed course just after midnight when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

On that fateful night, the lookout aboard the Exxon Valdez burst through the door of the bridge, noting once again that the red light marking the reef was on the starboard side of the ship, when it should have been to port. Her cautionary words were, in retrospect, the last of a litany of warnings sounded by fishermen, tour boat operators, regulators, and industry insiders that circumstances were ripe for disaster.

In the five years prior to the grounding, the state issued 150 “notices of violation” related to tanker operations, but only once sought monetary damages. State regulators never threatened to halt production despite these violations, or the 400 smaller spills that sullied the waters of Port Valdez and Prince William Sound. The concerns leveled by citizens and regulators apparently weren’t weighty enough to serve as a counterbalance to the oil industry.

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez caused a sea change in the environmental consciousness of an entire generation and created a new awareness about the risks of resource extraction and transport. Twenty-five years later, these issues are both timely and timeless as residents in the Puget Sound area contemplate proposed massive increases in the amount of crude oil and coal transported by rail and through our waters.

Now, the waters surrounding San Juan Islands are slated to become one of North America’s busiest fossil fuel trans-shipment corridors. With new and expanded projects in Canada and Washington, 2,620 additional deep draft vessel transits are proposed per year in our waters. A single spill from the larger tankers or cargo ships could have an equally devastating impact in our area as the Exxon Valdez had in Prince William Sound.

Currently, three proposals are being considered that would dramatically increase the risk of a man-made environmental disaster in our waters. Trains that would deliver coal for export, and the Northern Gateway pipeline that would bring tar sands from Edmonton to export facilities in British Columbia, are two well-known proposals. These proposals would add to the existing oil tanker transits to Anacortes and Cherry Point.

A third, lesser-known proposal by Kinder Morgan would utilize the right-of-way of the Trans-Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to British Columbia, also for the purpose of exporting tar sands oil to Asia. The Kinder Morgan Proposal alone would increase tanker vessel traffic from five tankers per month (60 per year) to up to 34 tankers per month (408 tankers per year). These increased tanker transits would significantly increase the risk of a major oil spill in the waters surrounding the San Juan and Gulf islands in the Salish Sea.

These proposed new projects would transport a type of crude oil known as “dilbit,” short for “diluted bitumen.” This thick, biologically degraded and sticky petroleum product must be infused with lighter fuels, or condensates from natural gas, naphtha, or a mix of other light hydrocarbons, in order to transport it through the pipeline. Current oil spill technology is based on crude oil. The fate and effects of a dilbit spill is an emerging science. It is unclear whether Washington state and the U.S. Coast Guard are prepared to fund dilbit oversight and spill prevention measures.

If a major spill were to happen, would there be sufficient resources to adequately respond, contain, and clean up a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez? How would the private and publicly owned shorelines get completely cleaned up? Would dispersants be used? Who would pay for the cleanup and what assurances does the public have that funds are available to cover the full cost of the cleanup and the economic, environmental, and health impacts that would be the result of a major spill?

These questions have not yet been answered by public agencies charged with reviewing proposals in our area. In Prince William Sound, promises outlined in legislation and contingency plans weren’t enough to keep a fully loaded tanker from grounding on a charted reef, nor to effectively clean up the spill. As we look to the future of the Salish Sea, it should be with a wary eye to the past. We would do well to consider how one wrong turn by a supertanker could forever change our lives, livelihoods, and the quality of our environment.

Angela Day is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Washington. Day’s book “Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster” was published by the Washington State University Press in February 2014.

Stephanie Buffum, MPA/MURP, University of Oregon, is the executive director of Friends of the San Juans, a nonprofit organization based out of Friday Harbor. Friends of the San Juans is hosting events around the San Juans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Event information can be found at www.sanjuans.org.

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