Voices of Alaska: Measure would preserve spill response, prevention efforts

25 years has passed since the Exxon Valdez oil spill and this recent anniversary reminds Alaskans, and the world, of the importance of oil spill prevention and need to improve oil spill response. Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council has worked hard since the spill to ensure that prevention and response measures are as strong as possible. Clearly the Alaska State Legislature has also been mulling over these same issues with the introduction of House Bill 325 (HB325).

 

HB325 was introduced this past February by Representative Cathy Muñoz (R-Juneau), and supported by Representatives Paul Seaton (R-Homer), Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell), Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks), and Sam Kito III (D-Juneau). The bill would amend state law and bring the state’s oil spill prevention and response fund into the 21st century. The amendments proposed by the bill would largely fill the current budget gap faced by the Spill Prevention and Response (SPAR) Division in the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The fund and the SPAR division’s two-fold job, of responding to disastrous oil and hazardous substance spills and working to prevent spills, is at risk unless this budget gap is filled.

The SPAR division budget comes almost entirely from the five-cents-per-barrel surcharge on oil transported through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Under the Oil and Hazardous Substance Release Prevention and Response Fund (formerly known as the “470 Fund”), one cent of the surcharge goes to the response side, while the remaining four cents goes to prevention. The prevention portion pays for SPAR’s daily operations, which includes both preventing spills and preparing to respond to spills that do occur.

However, with inflation and declining throughput (and therefore declining oil revenues), this funding has eroded. In addition, SPAR has taken on more and more duties, including overseeing refined product spills and hazardous substance releases. The current funding regime no longer covers SPAR’s operations and will not support this essential program into the future.

Amendments suggested by state legislators in HB325 would increase the cap on the response fund to $75 million (currently capped at $50 million) and also increase the surcharge on oil transported through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System to seven cents per barrel, instead of the current five cents.

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council supports HB325 and its amendments. The council would also consider supporting alternate approaches as the bill moves through the house and senate, as long as the final version permanently stabilizes the SPAR budget. If nothing is done, the value of this fund will continue to shrink, quickly becoming inadequate for a meaningful response to a major spill.

The council feels that a failure to maintain the response fund, and the spill prevention and response programs managed by SPAR, would put at risk the health of the marine resources that member organizations and residents of our region depend upon for subsistence, recreation, and livelihoods. With effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill still experienced 25 years later, let’s ensure that State agencies have the funding they need to do the vital prevention and response work they were tasked with. Please join us in supporting HB325 and its amendments.

By Mark Swanson is the Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, with offices in Anchorage and Valdez, is an independent non-profit corporation whose mission is to promote environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and the oil tankers that use it. The council’s work is guided by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and its contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The council’s 19 member organizations are communities in the region affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, as well as aquaculture, commercial fishing, environmental, Native, recreation, and tourism groups.

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