Tragedy in Alaska

March's massive tanker spill provides a horrible lesson in Murphy's Law that will have environmental ramifications for years to come

  • Thomas A. Lewis
  • Jun 01, 1989
"It's a heck of a way to win an argument."

Knute Johnson, a 62-year-old fisherman, was surveying the frenetic activity in and around his hometown, the fishing port of Valdez in south-central Alaska. What he was seeing, on March 27, 1989, was not the annual bustle of the beginning of the fishing season, nor was it the normal business of loading oil tankers with the more than 80 million gallons of crude oil that arrived every day through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Rather, it was the tumult of hundreds of journalists, officials, consultants, workers, public relations experts, scientists and local residents trying with increasing desperation and decreasing effectiveness to deal with the worst oil spill in the history of the United States.

Minutes past midnight on Good Friday morning, March 24, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, shortly after leaving Valdez. More than 10 million gallons of crude oil had gushed from the tanker's lacerated tanks in one of the country's most sensitive environments, at the worst possible time of year. It was anyone's guess when Knute Johnson would ever make a living fishing again, but it was clear that he had been proved right.

During the 1970s, when the Congress was debating whether to allow building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Valdez, Johnson and some fellow fishermen made a trip to Washington to argue against it. "We were concerned about what the biological damages could be," he recalled ruefully. "We were concerned about tankers piling up on reefs." The oil companies dismissed Johnson's worries. "All they said was that the latest technology would be used. They said not to worry about a spill because it would never happen. Now it's happened."

The story of what happened in Prince William Sound on Good Friday is a litany of predictions ignored, promises broken, precautions not taken, preparations not made, and regulations not enforced. The eventual impacts on the people and wildlife of the region and the fisheries of the sound remain unmeasured and unmeasurable months after the catastrophe. Whatever they turn out to be, they may pale in comparison with the effects on this country's attitudes and policies regarding the oil industry—especially in regard to the prospect of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or Bristol Bay.

"The scope of this disaster," observed National Wildlife Federation President Jay D. Hair, "will reach far beyond the fragile shores of Prince William Sound. It's time for this country to take a hard look at its dependence on oil, and its lack of a sound national energy policy." The Washington Post suggested a few days after the Exxon Valdez disaster that it may have been the oil industry's Three Mile Island.

Violations of policy, regulation and law began to multiply almost as soon as the Exxon Valdez, laden with 50 million gallons of crude oil, got underway on the evening of March 23. The first to go were state and federal regulations requiring the presence of the captain on the bridge until his vessel had negotiated the shipping channel through Prince William Sound into the Gulf of Alaska. Almost immediately after the vessel entered the sound from the tortuous Valdez Arm, Captain Joseph Hazelwood went below. The Coast Guard requires that anyone handling a commercial vessel in these waters have specific certification to do so. But the Exxon Valdez reportedly proceeded under command of third mate Gregory T. Cousins, who had just three years of experience and lacked the proper Coast Guard license.

The Exxon Shipping Company forbids drinking and the presence of liquor on any of its ships. And Coast Guard regulations prohibit the operation of a commercial vessel in these waters by anyone whose blood contains more than .04 percent alcohol. Nine hours after the accident occurred, Hazelwood's blood was tested at a level of .06.

The Exxon Valdez was making about 8 miles per hour in the outbound channel when shipboard radar detected icebergs floating in the area. Cousins requested Coast Guard permission to use the inbound channel in order to avoid them.  Permission was granted and Cousins attempted to change course. That set the stage for disaster. The enormous tanker became impaled on Bligh Reef, hemorrhaging oil into Prince William Sound at the rate of nearly 1,000 gallons a second—for the next three hours.

The violations continued long after the voyage of the Exxon Valdez was over. Responsibility for what happened next lay with the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of oil companies including Exxon that operates the pipeline terminal. Before the pipeline commenced operations in 1977, Alyeska was required to file with the Interior Department  and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) a plan for dealing with any oil spill. Once approved, the
plan's stipulations took on the force of law.

They envisioned a three-stage attack on any spill. The first priority was to boom it—surround it with floating barriers designed to contain the spill. Next task was to skim it—suck up the floating oil with vacuum cleaner-like machines mounted on vessels. The third phase, directed at oil that escaped the first two assaults, involved either burning it or dispersing it with detergent-like chemicals.

In 1987, Alyeska updated its contingency plan with a scenario detailing how it would handle an imaginary, "highly unlikely" spill of 8.4 million gallons (compared with the real spill of 10.1 million gallons) 30 miles from Valdez (the Exxon Valdez went aground 25 miles from the port). The report 's conclusions were optimistic. Working on paper. Alyeska  succeeded in recovering 50 percent of the spilled oil from the water and another 15 percent from the shore. With the 30 percent of the spill that would evaporate or disperse, that would leave only 5 percent of the oil remaining in the environment.

Reality turned out to be quite different. First, the plan specified that Alyeska was to encircle any spill with booms within three hours. But the only containment barge in Valdez was in dry-dock for repairs. The plan also required that any  change in readiness be reported to the Alaska DEC. An Alyeska spokesman admitted the company had failed to do so. By the time the barge was refloated and taken to the scene, ten hours had passed.

In the 1987 Alyeska scenario, skimmers were capable of recovering 50 percent of the spilled oil. Under the terms of the plan, seven were supposed to be on the scene within five hours. Instead, three arrived 12 hours after the spill and did not begin work for another 18 hours.

Two more days passed while company officials debated, and experimented with, ways to deploy chemical dispersants and cope with potential fire. By Sunday evening, nothing more could be done in the face of strong winds. When cleanup  operations were again possible on Monday, the oil slick extended across nearly 40 miles of the 70-mile-long sound. At least 99 percent of the spilled oil was still in the water, moving into the Gulf of Alaska to threaten distant fisheries and stretches of coastline. The cleanup would take months, and experts guessed that along with damage claims it would cost Exxon at least $500 million. That would represent less than 7 percent of Exxon's profits for 1988.

The costs to Prince William Sound fishermen were numerically smaller but proportionately much larger. In 1988, these waters yielded $ 131 million worth of salmon, herring, halibut and shell fish. The spill occurred just weeks before the herring were to begin their spring runs, and before the scheduled release of millions of salmon fry expected to return to the sound as marketable fish in 1991. The herring season was canceled, with a loss to local fishermen of about $12 million.

The long-term effects on the fishing industry were difficult to predict. A Chevron Oil Company researcher, Clayton McAuliffe, had told an Anchorage workshop in 1986 that "extensive studies show it is highly unlikely a crude oil spill or the chemical dispersion of the spill will cause mortality of marine organisms in the water column or in bottom sediments."

But a marine toxicologist who works as a commercial fisherman in the area, Riki Ott, did not agree. She cited a 1984 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that oil persists longer in cold water. Hydrocarbons toxic to sea life, she said, were found in sediment in subarctic waters at least 12 months after an oil spill.

After what they had seen, the fishermen might be forgiven for not trusting expert opinion on oil spills. And if they turned instead to the nearest real-life example of what they were facing, they found no comfort. In July 1987 (the year Alyeska conducted its successful oil-spill cleanup on paper), a Standard Oil Company tanker carrying crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to a Kenai Peninsula refinery struck a rock and leaked 125,000 gallons into Cook Inlet. In this case, too, cleanup crews failed to contain the spill. It soon contaminated part of the annual salmon catch, shutting down the area's $50 million seafood harvest. One fisherman said at the time, "We just can't believe this happened."

Valdez fishermen felt the same way two years later, with 80 times as much oil in their waters. Exxon officials repeatedly assured the fishermen and all other Prince William Sound business people that it would pay all claims for those losses due to the spill. However, similar assurances were given French fishermen 11 years ago, after the tanker Amoco Cadiz sank off the coast of Brittany. But as the ordeal of the Valdez fishermen began, the French fishermen had yet to receive a dollar in compensation.

Whatever the economic losses turn out to be, the impact of the spill extends far beyond them; it occurred in an ecosystem that is, biologically speaking, one of the world's richest. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist estimated just a week after the spill that more than 15,000 sea birds already had been exposed to the oil. And there was concern about the impending arrival of millions of migratory birds, which flock each spring to the sound.

Another worry focused on the area's 5,000 sea otters. They are especially vulnerable to oil because it reduces the insulation and buoyancy of their fur. If they do not die from cold, they can ingest fatal doses of oil while licking it off their coats. Of the dozens of otters brought in for cleaning in the weeks following the accident, only a few could be saved. Hundreds more died slow deaths on remote, oil-fouled shores.

Other longer term and less visible effects remain to be catalogued: on the plankton that are the foundation of the food chain in the sound; on the spawning habits of herring and salmon that survive the spill; on bald eagles that are dying, and bears that may die, from eating polluted animals; on the whales and sea lions that pass through the area. The list is long, the prospects gloomy. According to Exxon environmental biologist Al Mackie, such tolls are to be expected. They are, he said, the "cost of civilization."

Concerns about precisely this kind of environmental damage delayed the building of the Alaska Pipeline for years.  Environmentalists insisted it should be built overland through Canada to avoid shipping large quantities of oil from Valdez, with its icebergs, reefs and storms. Michael McCloskey chairman of the Sierra Club, recalled that during the  debates, "we predicted major mishaps, spills and casualties." But the oil industry insisted that the application of modern technology to tanker navigation and oil-spill cleanup had made such worries obsolete.

The arguments were effective enough on both sides to produce a 49-to-49 tie vote in the U.S. Senate on the question of approving pipeline construction. On July 17, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew, reflecting the Nixon Administration's  approval of the oil industry's plans, broke the tie in favor of building the pipeline to Valdez.

Under tight restrictions, the pipeline began operations in 1977. But regulation and vigilance fell by the wayside in the absence of mishaps. Prohibition on tanker traffic after dark was lifted. The area where pilots were required to guide ships, and where Coast Guard surveillance was maintained, was reduced. Alyeska disbanded a full-time, highly trained emergency cleanup crew of 20, and then proceeded to replace it with part-time, inexperienced people.

The deterioration in readiness was no secret to Alaskan authorities. The Wall Street Journal reported that a drill conducted by the state in 1984 resulted in a Keystone-Kops sequence of sinking oil booms, defective machinery and a near-collision between a barge and a tanker. Canceled after an hour, the drill revealed what its supervisor called "obvious deficiencies and inadequacies in Alyeska's equipment and response capabilities."

After the Exxon Valdez disaster, Jay Hair summed up the feelings of many conservationists: "This is a classic example of the disease of corporate greed. Big oil, big lies. Big lie number one was, 'Don't worry, be happy', nothing's going to happen at Valdez. Big lie number two was, 'We're doing such a good job with the environment at the North Slope we ought to be allowed into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bristol Bay.' Two big lies are enough. We simply must not allow oil development in fragile areas."

Drilling for oil was about to commence in southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay area, site of a $1 billion salmon fishery. But after the Valdez spill, a strong movement in the Alaska state legislature called for temporarily delaying the project.

The decade-long debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has had much the same cast of characters and list of issues as did the pipeline battle. On the one hand, oilmen and the Interior Department insist that tapping this potentially major new source of petroleum is vital to the country's energy future and can be done without environmental harm.

On the other side, environmentalists predict inevitable, perhaps irreversible, damage to wildlife. The area is vital habitat for one of the world 's largest caribou herds and to millions of birds and other animals. It is, says Hair, "the finest Arctic sanctuary for wildlife in the world."

The oil industry's most effective argument in the debate has been its claim to a record of environmental stewardship at Prudhoe Bay. In January 1988, for example, the president of ARCO Alaska, Inc., Bill Wade, dismissed conservationists' claims of serious air and water pollution generated by oilfeld operations, and multiple permit violations, as "minor." The ten-year record, he insisted, shows "that oil exploration and production can take place safely" in the Arctic refuge.

But the avoidable calamity of the Exxon Valdez proves something else in the view of most environmentalists and some politicians. The chairman of the Senate Environmental Protection subcommittee, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, stated that the oil industry's record looks quite different in the aftermath of the Valdez spill. It provides, he said, "the latest and most tragic evidence of the gap that exists between past industry assurances and actual industry performance in  preventing environmental damage."

Whatever the impact of the oil spill on the Congress and the public, its effect on the support of the Bush Administration for the oil industry was, at least at first, negligible. Shortly, after the spill, the President said it would be "irresponsible" to change his pro-development policy, given the country's need for energy.

But the groundswell of opposition continued to rise. Even in Alaska, which gets 85 percent of its state revenue from oil taxes, support for the industry crumbled. Said Curt Menard, chairman of the Committee on Resources in the state House of Representatives: the "failure to respond to the spill responsibly was devastating."

We should not even talk about leasing the Arctic refuge or Bristol Bay," said Hair, "until this country has formulated a comprehensive energy policy on the keystones of conservation and renewable energy. We have to wean ourselves of our addiction to oil before it's too late."

Indeed, the nation could in the long run save an equivalent amount of oil to that which may exist in the Arctic refuge by simply improving fuel efficiency in motor vehicles. At best, drilling in the refuge might provide oil supplies for a decade or so—and destroy a pristine wilderness in the process—and then the nation would again be faced with what to do next. That thought was echoed in the press by Joseph Goffman, an Environmental Defense Fund attorney, who pointed out that oil spills, air pollution, acid rain and global warming caused by the greenhouse effect all are rooted in one thing: use of fossil fuels, he said, "is the central knot that's got to be untied."

Some good may yet be found in the Alaskan tragedy, added Hair, if it serves as a warning—not only of the need for vigilance where oil drilling and transport are concerned, but of the need to make fundamental changes in attitudes toward the presumed "cost of civilization." The experience, noted Tony Knowles, former mayor of Anchorage, "has shown the value of the environment over and above economic values. It has galvanized public support for new regulations to make sure this never happens again."

If that attitude broadens to include not only narrow choices of oil versus nature but larger issues of energy use and conservation, then the legacy of the Good Friday oil spill may not be entirely bad. Still, the most dedicated conservationist will have to agree with Knute Johnson. It was a horrible way to win an argument.

Virginia journalist Thomas A. Lewis is a roving editor of this magazine.

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