POLITICS

25 Years After Exxon Valdez Spill, Environmental Advocates Say Oil Laws Outdated

Mar 24, 2014 | Updated Mar 24, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON –- Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Prince William Sound has not fully recovered. Oil from the 10.8-million-gallon spill still persists in the environment, and populations of killer whales and herring have not recovered.

Environmental advocates say the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster is a reminder of the need to update regulations on the oil industry, as well as the risks that linger. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the restoration of the Prince William Sound Ecosystem, says the oil that persists in the environment is "nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill," and is weathering or degrading very slowly. "At this rate," the council says, "the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."

A new oil spill over the weekend, this time from a barge in Texas' Houston Ship Channel, has provided another example of the dangers that can come from oil accidents.

At a press conference in Washington last week, environmental advocates said their concerns have not changed much over the past 25 years. They argued that the effects of that spill should be a cautionary tale for drilling in the Arctic, an issue currently at play in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, off the northern coast of Alaska.

"No matter how safe they think they can get drilling in the Arctic, there will be a risk of a blowout," said Richard Steiner, the former marine advisor for the Prince William Sound at University of Alaska and an Exxon Valdez oil spill response and restoration advocate.

"People will continue to make mistakes, equipment will continue to fail," Steiner said. "We can reduce risks as low as possible, but there's still a risk of things happening."

And when a spill does happen, "All the guys with hard hats and orange vests in the world are not going to be able to clean up an oil spill offshore," he said.

It's also a reminder, Steiner said, that rules dealing with the financial liability a company faces after an oil spill have not been updated in nearly a quarter of a century either. After the Exxon Valdez, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which required the parties responsible for an oil spill to pay for clean up, established the damages vessels and offshore facilities would have to pay in the event of an accident, and created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The limit on liability for vessels like the Exxon Valdez was set at $10 million; for offshore production facilities, the limit was set at $75 million.

But as environmental groups have noted, the amount of money companies would be forced to pay has not gone up with inflation. It's still at the same level it was in 1990. After the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, there was a brief effort to raise that cap, but it never became law. The Department of Interior is now moving forward with a measure to raise the liability on its own, noting that it is “necessary to keep pace with the 78 percent increase in inflation since 1990.” But that would only apply to offshore facilities.

Environmental groups also argue that the fee oil companies pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, currently set at 8 cents per barrel of oil, should be increased. And there is an effort underway in the Senate to get tar sands oil included in the types of oil for which companies must pay into the fund.

The House passed a package of reform measures in 2010 following the BP blowout. But it never passed the Senate.

Asked what it would take to get Congress to update laws governing oil spills, if not the BP spill, Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan wasn't particularly optimistic. "You'd need a new Congress," she said. "It's just that the oil industry has a lot of power. And until we hold them accountable … that's not going to change."

In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, the Ocean Conservancy's executive vice president, said both Exxon and BP were reminders that plans for dealing with spills are meaningless if companies can't actually execute cleanup. Takahashi-Kelso was the Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and says that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was a "very substantial improvement." But companies still struggle with execution of the response plans when a spill does happen. After the BP spill, the company was widely mocked for its spill response plans, which included animals that don't live in the Gulf like sea lions and walruses, as well as contact information for an expert who had been dead for five years at the time of the spill.

"OPA did not try to address the actual performance," Takahashi-Kelso said. Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez spill, he said, "We know a lot more about how to get oil out of the ground or out from underneath the Gulf of Mexico, but we have not had the kind of gains in response technology … You really have a widening gap between actual performance and the standards for having equipment and response capacity on hand."

When the BP spill happened, said Takahashi-Kelso, "It was déjà vu. The same materials, same kinds of boom, same. It does not mean that simple technology is a bad thing, but I would say that the tools available haven't changed much in 25 years."

Others noted that Exxon, and the spills since, are probably inevitable as long as the U.S. is still extracting, transporting, and using oil.

Said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at the Sierra Club, "It's sad that we're here 25 years later still talking about the same issue –- the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels."

  • AP
    In this April 4, 1989 file photo, the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez, left, unloads oil onto a smaller tanker, San Francisco, as efforts to refloat the ship continue on Prince William Sound, 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. (AP Photo/File)
  • Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT
    A dead sea otter coated with crude oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill is found on the beach of Green Island in Prince William Sound, Alaska on April 2, 1989. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT)
  • John Gaps III/AP
    Thick crude oil washed up on the cobble beach of Evans Island sticks to the boots and pants of a local fisherman in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on April 11, 1989. The Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill on March 24, 1989, blackened hundreds of miles of coastline. (John Gaps III/AP)
  • Spill workers, one wearing a respirator, hose beach during Corexit application test (wide shot) - Quayle Beach, Smith lsland (Prince William Sound). (Photo courtesy of Alaska Resources Library & Information Services)
  • Rob Stapleton/AP
    This ship's barges and tug head to the worst of oil spill in Alaska's history in Prince William Sound to clean up the oil on the surface of the water, March 25, 1989 in Valdez. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 270,000 barrels of crude oil. This is the worst oil disaster in Alaska's history. (Rob Stapleton/AP)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: An oil cleanup worker walks through the oily surf at Naked Island on Prince Williams Sound 02 April 1989 as beach cleanup goes on in background, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    Three tugboats (R) push the oil tanker Exxon San Francisco (C) into place beside the crippled tanker Exxon Valdez (L) in Prince William Sound 30 March 1989 to begin off-loading the remainder of crude oil in Valdez, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.
  • Ken Graham/Greenpeace
    A sea otter pup covered in crude oil at the Homer, Alaska Center after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster March 30, 1989. (Ken Graham/Greenpeace)
  • John Gaps III/AP
    A clean-up worker uses high pressure, high temperature water to wash crude oil off the rocky shore of Block Island, Sunday, April 17, 1989. It was part of a demonstration of different techniques of beach cleaning, to be used against the oil left over by the spill of the tanker Exxon Valdez. (John Gaps III/AP)
  • Oily rocks glisten in the sun - Green lsland (Prince William Sound). This section of beach was signed off as being environmentally stable by both Exxon and the Coast Guard, was re-oiled July 4, 1989. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Resources Library & Information Services)
  • AP
    This Red Necked Greb is covered in oil resulting from a spill on Friday, March 24, 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound about 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. This bird found Thursday, March 30, 1989, on Knights Island, about 35 miles from the spill, was taken by photographers to the bird cleanup center in Valdez. (AP)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    Fishermen Greg Will (L) and Matt Kinney, both of Valdez, stand in protest outside an Exxon news conference room which was closed to local residents, 02 April 1989 in Valdez, more a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.
  • Members of the Oil Spill Task Force during tour of facility, surrounded by large pile of oily waste - Dayville Incineration Site, Valdez July 4, 1989. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Resources Library & Information Services)
  • John Gaps III/AP
    A pod of sea lions swim through a slick of crude oil off the shore of Ingot Island, Alaska, Thursday afternoon, April 14, 1989, three weeks after the oil tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef, March 24, and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. (John Gaps III/AP)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    Sea lions sun themselves on oil polluted rock formation 02 April 1989 in Prince Williams Sound near Valdez more than a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: An oil skimming operation works in a heavy oil slick near Latouche Island in the southwest end of Prince William Sound 01 April 1989 in Valdez, Alaska, one week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
  • Ken Graham/Greenpeace
    A heavily oiled loon found dead in Kenai Fjords, Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster March 30, 1989. (Ken Graham/Greenpeace)
  • Marion Stirrup/AP
    Two staffers with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are pictured patrolling the beach, May 1, 1989, in Anchorage, picking up oil-coated birds before they become toxic treats for predators. Steve Eng, left, and Max Schwenne were photographed on East Amatuli Island in the Barren Island group in the Lower Cook Inlet. That's about 225 miles from where the Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24, generating the nation's worst oil spill. (Marion Stirrup/AP)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    U.S. petroleum giant Exxon Corporation shipping President Frank Iarossi comments the cleanup operation 02 April 1989 in Valdez, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.
  • AP
    This March 26, 1989 file photo shows the Exxon Baton Rouge (smaller ship) attempting to off load crude oil from the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground in the Prince William sound, spilling more than 270,000 barrels of crude oil. (AP Photo/Rob Stapleton, File)
  • AP
    In this June 23, 1989 file photo, the Exxon Valdez is towed out of Prince William Sound in Alaska by a tug boat and a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: One baby and five adults oil-soaked sea otters lie dead on Green Island beach 03 April 1989 on Prince Williams Sound near Valdez more than a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.
  • AP
    In this April 9, 1989 file photo, crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez, top, swirls on the surface of Alaska's Prince William Sound near Naked Island. (AP Photo/John Gaps III, File)
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: Cleanup workers scrub large rocks on the oil-covered beach of Naked Island on Prince Williams Sound 02 April 1989 as beach cleanup goes on, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska, near Oil Pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.
  • CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
    VALDEZ, UNITED STATES: A sea otter, nicknamed 'Belle' by mammal rescue center volunteers, peers over towels while being dryed 31 March 1989 in Valdez, after being cleaned of oil, a week after the beginning of an oil disaster which occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground 24 March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska.
  • Getty Images
    A pylon marks the location of the Exxon Valdez shipwreck on Bligh Reef on April 6, 2004 near Valdez, Alaska. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
  • AP
    In this June 30, 2012 file photo, the Exxon Valdez is anchored some six nautical miles off the Bhavnagar coast near Alang ship-breaking yard in western Indian state of Gujarat, India. India's Supreme Court has allowed the Exxon Valdez, the oil tanker involved in one of the worst U.S. oil spills, to be dismantled in western Gujarat state. (AP Photo/File)
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