Exxon Valdez oil spill spawned 1990 act creating citizen advisory councils

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001

Earlier this summer, the 900-foot-long tanker Polar Endeavor made its maiden voyage to Valdez. What was important about the $200 million double-hulled ship's arrival at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System terminal was that it was just one more promise fulfilled from my 1990 legislation that toughened oil tanker safety procedures in Alaska and across the country.

Shortly after the true extent of the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez oil spill became clear, I sent my staff to the British port of Sullon Voe in the North Sea's Shetland Islands to inspect a system devised there to improve tanker safety as a result of a previous tanker accident. Observing that system of oversight made me a firm believer that it should be adopted for use in Alaska. I then proposed an amendment, while helping craft what became the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, that Regional Citizen Advisory Councils be created for both Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Fashioned after Sullon Voe's review process, the goal was to give local residents -- the ones with the greatest knowledge of local conditions and with the greatest stake in oil safety because their livelihoods come from the sea -- the authority, the resources and the ability to oversee operations. Another goal was to give local citizens the chance to recommend improvements in all aspects of oil transport, planning and cleanup.

The 1990 law also required companies to phase double-hulled tankers into the Alaska trade. The result is that between now and 2006 eight new double-hulled tankers will begin transporting Alaska crude oil to the Lower 48. The ships, sporting 10-foot spaces between the inner and outer hulls, should prevent the leakage of any oil should the outer hull be breached in a collision or grounding.

The creation of the RCACs and double-hulling of tankers were just two of the changes the 1990 act required. Other improvements that grew out of the act:

n New tug-tanker escorts to shadow tankers for the entire journey through Prince William Sound to open sea to prevent an engine failure from causing a grounding.

n A new vessel radar system covering all of the sound so the U.S. Coast Guard can track tankers continuously.

n A boost in oil spill prevention equipment and personnel, so that now more than $60 million a year is spent on spill response in Valdez, compared with $1 million prior to the spills.

n And a new incident command system.

The big advantage of the 1990 act is that by creating the citizen advisory councils it added a major safeguard to our system for moving oil -- public participation. In hindsight, it's easy to attribute the oil spill to the human failure of the tanker's captain and crew. But the real cause of the spill was probably complacency and the tendency of all of us to underestimate the potential for multiple human and mechanical mishaps. By mobilizing concerned residents to oversee oil movements, we've reduced the chances that complacency will underlie another accident.

But as the citizen advisory councils celebrate their 10th anniversary of full-fledged operation, they need to refocus their attention on their mission of safeguarding Alaska's oil transportation system.

They must not allow bureaucratic hassles or turf battles to distract them from their primary objective of making decisions based on sound science, not rhetoric.

The councils need to encourage innovation, but also show real diligence to make sure that both the equipment and human resources that move Alaska's oil to market are at their best every day.

The new millennium-class oil tankers represent the former. It is up to the councils and government agencies to make sure that the people involved every day represent the latter. That was the intent of my authorizing legislation that created the councils and gave them their authority.

I know they are up to the challenges of these changing times.

Frank Murkowski, a Republican, is Alaska's junior senator.

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