One of the major lessons of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was that the spill prevention and response capability in Prince William Sound was fundamentally inadequate.
In March 1989, nearly 11 million gallons of oil spread slowly over open water during three days of flat calm seas. Despite the opportunity to skim the oil before it hit the shorelines, almost none was scooped up. A response barge maintained by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was out of service and unavailable for use. Even if it had responded, there were not enough skimmers and boom available to do an effective job.
Dispersants were applied, but were determined to be ineffective because of prevailing conditions. Even if dispersants had been effective, however, there was not enough dispersant on hand to make a dent in the spreading oil slick.
Since that time, several significant improvements have been made in oil spill prevention and response planning.
• The U.S. Coast Guard now monitors fully laden tankers via satellite as they pass through Valdez Narrows, cruise by Bligh Island, and exit Prince William Sound at Hinchinbrook Entrance. In 1989, the Coast Guard watched the tankers only through Valdez Narrows and Valdez Arm.
• Two escort vessels accompany each tanker while passing through the entire sound. They not only watch over the tankers, but are capable of assisting them in the event of an emergency, such as a loss of power or loss of rudder control. Ten years ago, there was only one escort vessel through Valdez Narrows. (link to SERVS web site)
• Specially trained marine pilots, with considerable experience in Prince William Sound, board tankers from their new pilot station at Bligh Reef and are aboard the ship for 25 miles out of the 70-mile transit through the Sound. Weather criteria for safe navigation are firmly established.
• Congress enacted legislation requiring that all tankers in Prince William Sound be double-hulled by the year 2015. It is estimated that if the Exxon Valdez had had a double-hull structure, the amount of the spill would have been reduced by more than half. There are presently three double-hulled and twelve double-bottomed tankers moving oil through Prince William Sound. Phillips Alaska Inc. is constructing two new double-hulled tankers the first of which, the Polar Endeavor, began service in July 2001.
•Contingency planning for oil spills in Prince William Sound must now include a scenario for a spill of 12.6 million gallons. Drills are held in the sound each year.
•The combined ability of skimming systems to remove oil from the water is now 10 times greater than it was in 1989, with equipment in place capable of recovering over 300,000 barrels of oil in 72 hours.
•Even if oil could have been skimmed up in 1989, there was no place to put the oil-water mix. Today, seven barges are available with a capacity to hold 818,000 barrels of recovered oil.
•There are now 40 miles of containment boom in Prince William Sound, seven times the amount available at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill.
•Dispersants are now stockpiled for use and systems are in place to apply them from helicopters, airplanes, and boats.
The debate continues to rage over whether a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster can be contained and removed once it’s on the water. But there is little doubt that today the ability of industry and government to respond is considerably strengthened from what it was at the time of the spill.
Complacency is still considered one of the greatest threats to oil spill prevention and response. To help combat that threat the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) conducts both scheduled and unannounced drills and participates in regular training exercises in Prince William Sound each year. Community training programs have been established and local fishing fleets have been trained to respond to spill emergencies.
In addition, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, established by an act of Congress, serves as a citizen watchdog over the Alyeska Terminal, the shipping of oil through the sound, and the government agencies that regulate the industry. A similar citizen’s organization watches over oil issues in Cook Inlet (Cook Inlet Regional Citizens' Advisory Council).