Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The T/V Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, about 25 miles from the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal at Valdez, on March 24, 1989, at 12:03 a.m. Eight of the 11 cargo tanks were ruptured and Alaska North Slope crude oil began gushing from the tanker into the waters of Prince William Sound. The state and federal governments estimate that 250,000 to 260,000 barrels of North Slope crude oil (11 million U.S. gallons) spilled from the tanker.|
The state's response effort began with Dan Lawn, the Valdez District Office manager from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Lawn was notified of the spill by Alyeska at 1:05 a.m. He then spoke with the Coast Guard captain of the port, CMDR Steve McCall, and made arrangements to accompany the Coast Guard to the site of the grounding. Before setting off for the high-speed trip to the tanker in a Valdez pilot vessel, Lawn triggered (within state government) a chain reaction of notification that called up responders from Anchorage, Wasilla, and Juneau beginning about 4 a.m. Within 24-30 hours, DEC would have more than 30 people in Valdez setting up the aerial surveillance, general monitoring, computer mapping, and other programs that would function in one form or another for the better part of three years.
Lawn would remain on the tanker for the next 15 hours, using the ship's satellite telephone to call Anchorage and Valdez with regular updates on the amount of oil lost and the stability of the vessel. He also made regular calls to the Alyeska terminal, asking when the equipment and responders required by the Alyeska contingency plan would arrive. Alyeska officials repeatedly assured Lawn that the gear was on the way, when in some cases it was not even loaded on barges or vessels.
Commissioner Dennis Kelso of the DEC got word of the spill about 6 a.m. from his deputy, Amy Kyle, who had been phoned at home by Anchorage DEC staff at approximately 4 a.m. Kyle and the department's environmental quality staff set up some preliminary plans and arranged a full briefing for the Governor and the commissioner at 8:30 a.m., as the magnitude of the spill began to become clear. Governor Steve Cowper had learned of the spill about an hour earlier, from a reporter who was conducting an early-morning interview with the Governor in his hometown of Fairbanks. At the close of the interview, the focus of which was completely unrelated to oil or the environment, the reporter asked Cowper his thoughts on the spill. When Cowper heard the details, he immediately began making arrangements to get to Valdez. After speaking with Cowper by phone from Juneau, Kelso caught a regularly scheduled flight from Juneau to Cordova, on the southeast rim of Prince William Sound. From there, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter took him to Valdez, where he met the Governor. About 4 p.m., the Governor and Kelso flew by float plane to the Exxon Valdez. On board they met Lawn and DEC investigator Joe LeBeau, who pointed out that equipment was overdue, and that what was on-scene was not working very well.
Two skimmers -- which were full at the time were motoring somewhat aimlessly around the massive slick. There was little or no boom deployed, and what was in the water were tiny strings of boom that were neither containing nor deflecting any significant amount of crude. Cowper was incensed by what he would later call a slow and inadequate response. He was also aware of the possible use of dispersants. Kelso and Lawn gave him a quick briefing on the zones of use and the approval process, and Cowper gave no instructions that would alter or affect the pre-approved strategy. He understood, correctly, that the system had been designed to make sure that chemical dispersants were used in a controlled and effective manner, and that critical habitats would not be put at risk by bad targeting or misuse of the chemicals.
Back in Valdez, after visiting the tanker, Cowper appeared at a community meeting and press conference at the Valdez civic center. Exxon's chief executive officer Frank Iarossi had spoken to the group earlier, noting that Exxon would be moving quickly to use dispersants on the growing slick. This made the public, especially the fishing community, somewhat uncomfortable. The implication of Iarossi's statement was that dispersant use was the response of choice, and that Exxon was moving in to do it. This was at odds with the plans in place -- which the fishing organization had reviewed -- and it implied that Exxon had some authority to take controversial and potentially risky steps to deal with the oil spill that threatened public health and public resources. Fishermen wanted some assurance that someone other than Exxon was at the switch, someone or some entity that was accountable to the public. They were not eager to hand over to a private company the authority to make critical decisions about public resources -- resources that were literally the foundation of area's economy. And from Iarossi's comments, it seemed the decision was all but made.
When Cowper stepped before the group, he was asked about Iarossi's statement He replied, "There has been a lot of speculation on the use of dispersants. Everybody realized the risk that that poses to marine life .... I want to assure everybody that dispersant is not going to be used in anything other than a carefully targeted way want to make sure that we check back with the fishing community, that we check the [Alaska Department of] Fish and Game, and do as little damage as possible. You can't use dispersants without doing damage to marine life. That's clear. But want if possible to keep the oil off the beaches."
Cowper had crystallized in his comments exactly the type of discussion the Alaska Regional Response Team and state agencies had gone through in developing the preapproval process for dispersants two weeks before the spill. He was merely asking the people in the Valdez civic center that there was an established mechanism making these public policy decisions, and that no one had unilateral authority to circumvent the process or change the rules.
At the time Iarossi made his comments, he was not familiar with the process and was, perhaps, assuming more authority than Exxon actually had. Cowper's comments were not some new state policy; the Governor was, instead, letting people know that the government understood the risks and the benefits of dispersants, and that the protection of the fisheries and the local economy was among the government's central concerns.
Aside from the obvious priorities of public and environmental health and safety raised by the tanker disaster, the first three or four days of the spill were dominated by four principal issues:
a) the inadequacy of the Alyeska response;
b) the confusing and unauthorized "hand-off" of the spill by Alyeska to Exxon;
c) the dispersant disagreement;
d) the gross lack of cleanup resources.
Alyeska's response was slow and weak; it did not meet the requirements of the contingency plan. It is important to keep in mind that the contingency plan was not so much a set of requirements established by the government, but rather a set of response standards that Alyeska had agreed were reasonable and attainable.
The "hand-off" of response authority by Alyeska to Exxon caused confusion and delays. Exxon assumed for itself a role as chief responder, and comments made by Exxon officials sent a message to the public that the governments were not really charge of making key decisions and protecting public resources and the public interest.
From the standpoint of the progress of the response, Exxon's insistence on following its own preferred strategy and its reluctance to concentrate on the strategy preferred by the government, even after the technical results of dispersant drops were inconclusive -- compounded I botched response by Alyeska.
All of this, however, is tangential to the real issue, which was becoming increasingly clear to the Alaska public: No one was fully prepared to deal with a spill of magnitude. There wasn't enough equipment, and technology did not provide deep redundancy or a broad range of options. The mechanical capabilities were overwhelmed, and the chemical possibilities had severe limitations. Burning worked for a little while, but the window of opportunity closed quickly as the oil slick began to have a higher water content. The conditions were marginal for dispersants, regardless of the risks the chemicals presented.
The public was outraged. The fishing community, especially in Cordova, was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with the fact that industry and government either didn't know or didn't fully explain the fragility of the safety net underneath the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline System and the tankers that cruised almost daily through Prince William Sound.
In any case, the weather put a quick end to the initial response. Late on Easter Sunday, March 26, a severe, late-winter storm was approaching the Sound. Between Sunday and early Monday morning, the wind blew gusts up to a maximum of 73 miles per hour (70 mph is considered "hurricane force"). Flight operations were seriously curtailed, although a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) helicopter got into the air before noon Monday. Observers noted that the oil was no longer in a single, compact slick. Breakaway patches and thick windrows of oil and mousse hit shorelines in the vicinity of Smith, Seal and Naked islands. Oil stretched as far as 40 miles south-southwest of the grounding site. Skimmers and other response vessels had retreated into more sheltered areas, away from the oil, to wait out the weather.
By afternoon, the winds had fallen somewhat, but were still high. Within Valdez Arm itself -- more protected than the relatively open waters between Bligh Reef and the western islands of the Sound -- northeast winds were running a steady 30 knots with gusts to 40; seas were four feet within the arm, higher and choppier and sloppier outside. A few surveillance aircraft got into the air that afternoon. Later reports showed that oil and mousse were already on or near the shores of Eleanor and Knight islands.
If the spill was at first overwhelming, it was now out of control. Throughout the rest of March and most of April, various configurations of skimmers and boom and barges would attempt on-the-water cleanup, but actual recovery of oil was extremely low, compared with the size of the problem. By March 30, a week after the spill, various estimates of recovery hovered around 5,000 barrels (about two percent of what was spilled), and even that figure was somewhat misleading, considering that the total estimate of recovery included water and mousse, not just oil. NOAA estimated that an additional 75,000 - 100,000 barrels had probably evaporated, as the lightest fractions of the crude oil turned to gas and dispersed in the atmosphere.
After the Easter storm, the effectiveness of on-the-water recovery could really not be judged in a cumulative sense. Oil patches were spread widely throughout the western Sound and, as the weeks went by, to the Kenai Peninsula and the Kodiak archipelago. Recovery varied from site to site, and success could most realistically be judged against a specific threat to a specific resource or shoreline. As a whole, on-the-water recovery was hampered by weathering oil, long distances, equipment limitations, storage limitations, and spotting capability. By the first week of May, there was no real effort to contain and collect free-floating oil.
The agencies and responders turned to several major tasks: planning and coordination for shoreline cleanup; defensive booming, especially at the Prince William Sound hatcheries; and stabilizing the Exxon Valdez and getting the remaining one million barrels of oil off the ship.
Final Report, State of Alaska Response
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, June 1993