Throughout the mid-1970s, as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was being planned and debated, the pipeline’s builders said chances of an oil spill in Prince William Sound were extremely remote. The normal safety precautions used in domestic tanker trade would provide sufficient protection to coastal waters.
But environmentalists and Alaska state officials strenuously argued that a tanker accident there was inevitable and that the fleet designated to carry the North Slope oil should be specially designed. Its ships needed to be maneuverable in the close confines of the sound, they said, and to have special ballast tanks and double bottoms to limit leakage in case of a tanker accident.
Until Friday, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, the oil industry had won the argument.
The debate over threats of oil spills from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System ships, or TAPS fleet as it became officially known, began almost from the day in 1968 when Atlantic Richfield and Humble Oil & Refining (now Exxon USA) discovered the Prudhoe Bay oil field, and the planning began for the 800-mile pipeline, its terminus at Valdez and the fleet.
The pipeline’s marine leg represented the first time that large amounts of domestic crude oil would be transported by means other than pipelines.
Some members of Congress sought a study of the feasibility of bringing the oil by pipeline through Canada, but that idea was cut off even before the planning stage. A frustrated Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said at that time: “The saga of the trans-Alaska pipeline is at once one of the most remarkable and regrettable of the decade.”
In order to shortcut the review process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, Interior Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the consortium of eight oil companies building the pipeline, testified in 1972 that the TAPS fleet would “set new and exacting standards to govern the marine transportation of American oil.”
Morton told a congressional committee that “newly constructed American flag vessels carrying oil from Port Valdez to the United States ports will be required to have segregated ballast systems incorporating a double bottom. . . .”
The environmental impact statement on the project made repeated references to the “modern Alyeska tanker system,” and Alyeska published a brochure promising that its fleet of tankers would be “thoroughly modern and unique” and would be “precedent-setting in the petroleum and marine industries.”
Alaska regulators and environmental groups opposed to the pipeline interpreted those promises as meaning that the ships entering Prince William Sound would be a specially dedicated fleet with segregated ballast tanks to be used as defensive space, with double bottoms and added maneuvering systems, such as double screws and bow thrusters.
Innovations Did Not Apply
However, as the pipeline neared completion in August, 1977, it became clear that only a handful of the ships that would carry the North Slope oil would have double bottoms. The Times reported a series of decisions by the U.S. Coast Guard and oil companies that eventually meant most innovations built into other tankers did not apply to the TAPS fleet.
It was increasingly recognized that a large oil spill in the sound would be difficult to contain. “Except for onshore or well-sheltered offshore spills, attempts at control and restoration by conventional means will be extremely difficult,” a Coast Guard analysis said in February, 1974.
Moreover, the 500-member Cordova District Fisheries Union, as well as Alaskan officials and scientists, urged Alyeska and the Coast Guard to take special precautions in case of a tanker accident in Prince William Sound, where its fiord-like topography might magnify the effects of an oil spill by many times.
“The contamination will be widespread and the oil’s residence time can be very high because it will become entrapped,” said M. P. (Pat) Wennekens, an oceanographer with the state’s Arctic Environmental and Data Center, who spoke at an oil-spill planning conference at Cordova in April, 1977.
Chancy Croft, an Alaska state senator, told the conference, “Sometime there’s going to be an oil spill” in Prince William Sound. The only questions, he said, are how soon and what size.
Sought Cleanup Equipment
The fishermen and state officials argued that because of the remote area’s logistics problems, oil skimmers and oil-containment booms should be located at specially designated areas on islands in the sound or on a barge.
“In most cases, equipment coming from Port Valdez will arrive too late to contain a spill in Prince William Sound before it reaches shore,” said an Alaska Department of Fish and Game report in 1977 that was critical of Alyeska’s planning for responses to an oil spill.
Coast Guard officials agreed that response times would be critical. “It could take two days, two weeks or two months, depending on the weather, before we could get our equipment in,” one officer at the Cordova conference said. “You’ve got to remember the logistics problems of this area.”
Large oil spills in other parts of the world have required the mobilization of thousands of people to deal with the pollution as it hits shore. But “in Alaska it’s no simple chore to clean up oil,” Al Allan, a cleanup specialist with offices in Anchorage, told the conference. “You are not going to have hundreds of thousands of people to call on. You are dealing with a large, potentially adverse marine environment with a small labor force.”
Plan Called Unrealistic
However, an Alyeska spokesman told the conference that to locate equipment and emergency crews in the sound--another suggestion of the fishermen--was unrealistic. He said a tanker spill in the sound was “a one-in-a-million chance.”
Further complicating the debate over TAPS tanker safety was a U.S. Geological Survey report in early 1977 that showed the Columbia Glacier was showing increasing signs of instability and could pose a problem for oil tankers by shedding icebergs in their path as they enter and leave Port Valdez.
The tanker route passes within eight miles of the terminus of the glacier, and the study indicated that icebergs migrated into Valdez Arm more frequently than previously suspected and that some weighed more than 1,000 tons.
Scientists found that it was technically feasible to contain the ice chunks behind a rope barrier while they melted. The cost was put at $30 million to $35 million, but no decision was made to do anything about the potential problem.
An Exxon spokesman said Friday that the company tanker “was trying to avoid the ice” from the glacier when it ran aground.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND-INVENTORY OF RESOURCES Location: At the top of the Gulf of Alaska, 1,000 nautical miles northwest of Seattle. Extends 150 miles along the gulf, has 15,000 square miles of water, ice and mountain. Birds: Of the 224 species of birds recorded in the sound, 111 are water related. The Copper River Delta is estimated to host 20 million migratory birds in late April and early May. The delta also accounts for one-fifth of all trumpeter swans in the world. Fish: Millions of salmon and probably billions of herring enter the sound on their spawning migrations beginning in the early spring. Pacific cod and Alaska pollack are abundant, as are sharks, rockfishes , halibut, skulpin and flounder. Marine mammals: Harbor seals are most common, as well as harbor and Dall porpoise, killer whale, minke and humpback whale, sea otters and sea lions. Invertebrates: Jellyfish are widespread. On the bottom live sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea pens, starfish, snails, sponges, octipi, crab and shrimp. Tide zones are rish in worms, snails and clams. Source: The Alaska Geographic Society