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Seeds of Alaskan Catastrophe : Promises Broken, Warnings Ignored, Spill Was Preordained

<i> Celia M. Hunter is a writer on Alaskan environmental matters. </i>

Twenty-five years after a tsunami roared into the small Alaskan town of Valdez and drowned 30 residents as they were unloading a cargo vessel, another Good Friday catastrophe--this time man-made--has again rendered Valdez a disaster area.

The oil spill from the Exxon Valdez temporarily closed Valdez harbor to all shipping and shut down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on which the town’s new-found prosperity has been built. In analyzing this incredible fiasco, the history of the battle over the location and destination of the pipeline to deliver Prudhoe Bay crude to the “lower 48" states contains the seeds of this destructive oil spill.

Early on, environmentalists in Alaska and various national environmental organizations forced a four-year moratorium of oil-industry plans to accelerate pipeline construction following the discovery of oil on Alaska’s North Slope. They feared that the oil industry lacked sufficient knowledge of the problems associated with building a pipeline through permafrost, and questioned the drive by Alaskan business interests to make it an “all-Alaska” venture by terminating the pipeline in Valdez rather than an overland route through Canada.

The delay did allow engineers to build a safer pipeline by putting 40% of it above ground. However, it also led to the decision in favor of the “all-Alaska” route. This meant that tankers would have to thread through the narrow passages of pristine Prince William Sound, then travel several thousand miles down the Canadian and American coasts to refineries in Washington, California or, in some cases, through the Panama Canal to Texas ports.

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Oil began flowing through the pipeline in July, 1977, and within four months a small spill of barely 500 gallons demonstrated the inability of oil-industry equipment and crews to perform cleanup operations.

Since then, numerous instances have underscored the failure of the industry to live up to its promises of maintaining an adequate oil-spill response capability in all areas of operation.

The lurking danger of human error combined with harsh and difficult climate and terrain increasingly troubled Alaskans dependent on the natural resources threatened by toxic oils spilling into sensitive wildlife habitats and fisheries.

Five years ago, staff members of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation blasted Alyeska, the pipeline consortium, for cutting back on cleanup personnel at the Valdez terminal. The Environmental Protection Agency raised questions about both the training of cleanup people and the type of equipment kept on hand by the oil industry for emergencies.

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When a tanker ran aground in Cook Inlet in 1987, the Coast Guard had to take control because the tanker owner and the oil-industry cleanup teams proved incapable of handling the situation.

The industry’s claims of having fail-safe technology built into the tanker fleet proved untrue in a 1980 near-disaster when a fully loaded supertanker lost both its major and backup electrical systems and drifted helplessly in a gale for 14 hours in Prince William Sound south of the present grounding. It managed to get under way just short of crashing onto the rocky coastline.

Supposedly the oil industry had an emergency response plan calling for a maximum of five hours’ response time for any oil spill within a 30- to 40-mile radius of the port. Yet in the present grounding only 25 miles from the terminal, no booms had been deployed and only minimal equipment for handling the oil--skimmers, etc.--was in place 18 hours after the accident.

Gov. Steve Cowper, flying over the scene a few hours after the Exxon Valdez went aground, called the situation a disgrace. He condemned the oil company efforts to deal with the rapidly spreading slick as “totally inadequate.”

Cowper also insisted that the state of Alaska would demand reparations and compensation from the oil industry for the destruction of natural resources, but pointed out that while the oil companies would pay the obvious costs of the damages and cleanup efforts, there is no way to calculate the overall harm to fisheries and wildlife resources in Prince William Sound, nor to figure out how long the impact from this spill will be felt by those dependent on the sound for their livelihoods.

Among the intangible losses that are irrreparable in the foreseeable future are those of the Alaska tourist industry and outdoor recreationists. Over the years, increasing opportunities have been provided for thousands to enjoy Prince William Sound’s unequaled scenic attractions--be it as passengers on cruise ships and tour boats, or as active participants aboard kayaks, sailboats or small pleasure craft.

This environmental castastrophe underscores the reality of the worst fears that hang over all oil development in fragile northern areas. An immediate issue that could be affected by this incident is the proposal to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and development.

A major argument of those supporting such development is to point to the record of the oil companies in Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline operation and the tanker transport operation. Today, those claims lie in ruins, along with the unsullied beaches and pristine water quality of Prince William Sound and the sea mammals, fish and waterfowl fatally immersed in lethal oil.

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