As Alaskans commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Monday, the citizens group established after the incident to protect Prince William Sound and provide oversight to the oil transportation industry warns that complacency is now a major concern as the years pass.
“I think I want people to remember that eternal vigilance is the price of safety," said Mark Swanson, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. "You have to be vigilant, you have to focus on prevention, and you can’t just focus on response. If you prevent the next spill you’re miles ahead.”
Shortly after midnight on Good Friday, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef, which is a well known navigational hazard in the area. The rocks tore open eight of the ship’s eleven cargo holds, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.
The oil slick spread more than 460 miles from the shipwreck. According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the carcasses of 35,000 birds and 1,000 otters were recovered, but biologists say the full death toll isn’t known since it’s believed most of the remains of dead wildlife sank to the bottom.
Former Valdez Mayor John Devens says the spill is still painful to talk about, even 25 years later. Devens had appointed a special committee just a few weeks before the Exxon Valdez ran aground because he felt the oil industry and community were not prepared to deal with a major oil spill.
“We were all at fault,” Devens said. “The city (of Valdez) was at fault because we had never read the contingency plans."
The state was at fault, Devens explained. “They hadn’t read the contingency plans,” he said. “The industry was at fault, because they wrote the contingency plans and it was a great work of fiction.”
In the years after the oil spill, efforts to safeguard tanker traffic and respond to any future spills were expanded. The Ship Escort/Response Vessel System (SERVS) operates 11 escort vessels that guide tankers in and out of Prince William Sound. The company also has nine oil recovery barges pre-positioned in locations around the Sound.
“The way to fight complacency is that you continuously challenge yourself and you drill and test, so we do over a hundred drills a year,” said SERVS director, Andres Morales. “We live here, our families live here, our friends. We have employees that have families that go back generations in Prince William Sound. It is an absolute mandate that we will not have an incident like that again.”
The PWS Regional Citizens Advisory Council has concerns going forward about what it feels is the oil industry’s over-reliance on chemical dispersants in oil spills response, and the group is pushing for an increase in the federal government’s oil spill trust fund and to expand it to include spill prevention.
As for the efforts during the last 25 years to protect Prince William Sound, RCAC Executive Director Swanson says that “there’s a justifiable pride.”
“There’s a really good system of prevention and spill response in place, but I think a humble acknowledgment is not enough,” Swanson said. “We could be doing more; perhaps we should be doing more.”
Officials of Exxon Mobil in Alaska declined comment on the anniversary of the spill, but the corporation’s website said “The 1989 Valdez accident was one of the lowest points in ExxonMobil's 125-year history.”
“However, we took immediate responsibility for the spill and have spent over $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines,” according to the statement. “The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.”
Exxon Mobil’s website also states the corporation “undertook significant operational reforms and implemented an exceptionally thorough operational management system to prevent future incidents.”
On the 25th anniversary of the spill, Devens worries the region is still vulnerable and the lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez incident will fade over time.
“Complacency has set in and I’m sorry to see that," Devens said. "But I think it’s natural – people forget.”