Environmental protection regulations compromise between risks, costs

Are standards tough enough?

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2000

In the struggle to make sure the oil industry complies with regulatory standards, we citizens may risk losing sight of another important issue. Do those standards guarantee a clean, healthy environment?

In fact, compliance with state and federal regulations does not mean the environment is safe from all harm. Regulations are set in a complicated political and bureaucratic process that tries to balance environmental protection against cost. The final compromise allows what regulators consider an acceptable level of risk, but people who depend on the environment for food, recreation and income may want stricter standards.

For example, current rules allow the discharge of more than 14,000 gallons of crude oil components into Port Valdez each year from the ballast water treatment system at the tanker terminal operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. If that much oil went into the water in a single incident, it would be considered a major spill.

Before the vapor recovery system was installed on the berths at the Alyeska terminal, 120 tons of toxic hydrocarbon vapors were legally vented into the air each day as tankers loaded oil, creating a health hazard for Valdez residents and terminal workers alike.

Even with the vapor system in place, regulations this year allow more than 10 tons of vapors to be released daily as tankers load. While that allow-ance will decline over time, some uncontrolled loading will always be permitted under the regulations as they currently stand.

Moreover, vapors released during loading are only part of the picture. Vapor releases from the ballast water system and from the oil-storage tanks on the hillside above the tanker berths are not even measured, much less regulated.

Non-indigenous species represent another kind of pollution. These are alien marine species that arrive as plankton in the ballast water of large ships like oil tankers. They are discharged alive into Prince William Sound where some, possibly including harmful species, may take up permanent residence.

In other ports, such invasions have created serious environmental problems. One example is the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes.

Despite the well established risk of such invasions, the discharge of plankton-carrying ballast water into Prince William Sound is largely unregulated. The one minor exception is the handful of tankers that arrive in Valdez from foreign ports. They are required to exchange their ballast water at sea, replacing plankton-rich water taken on in port with relatively plankton-poor water from the high seas.

Because of an exemption in federal law, however, tankers arriving from domestic ports -- such as Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and Long Beach -- are not subject to the requirement for at-sea ballast exchange. This is despite the fact that such tankers make up the bulk of the traffic into Valdez and may come from ports where alien species have already become established. One example is San Francisco, which has been invaded by the Asian green crab.

One of our chief missions has always been to battle the kind of complacency that caused the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Complacency can take many forms, however, and one of them is when citizens do not demand strict enough standards of regulatory agencies.

Are today's standards in Prince William Sound strict enough? Or is it time for new and tougher rules?

John S. Devens is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

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