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What Went Wrong?

The 240,000 barrels of crude oil that have spewed from the ruptured hull of the tanker Exxon Valdez since it ran aground Friday have blackened more than the pristine waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

They also have sullied the credibility of Exxon Co. U.S.A, which owns the vessel, of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which manages the trans-Alaskan pipeline and of the state and federal officials whose responsibility it is to see that these private firms operate in a responsible manner.

This is a harsh judgment, but the facts of this shocking and unnecessary environmental catastrophe make no other possible. These facts also make it mandatory that Congress take a rigorous and skeptical look at the Bush Administration’s claim that oil drilling can be expanded into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without unacceptable consequences.

While the tardy and inexcusably chaotic cleanup of the worst oil spill ever to foul American waters proceeds, vexing questions demand answers:

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--Why were the vessel’s master, who has a history alcohol abuse, and two senior officers absent from the bridge when it strayed out of the shipping channel? Why was an unqualifiedthird mate piloting the ship?

--Why did Exxon officials fail so miserably in their responsibility to have an effective contingency cleanup plan in place? Why didn’t they have the requisite equipment on site? Why did the company’s officials move so slowly to contain the spill, thereby squandering the initial two days of good weather that might have made a quick cleanup feasible?.

--Why did Alyeska rebuff earlier offers by Valdez city officials to stockpile cleanup equipment, assuring the local leaders--falsely, as it now turns out--that the oil companies had adequate supplies on hand?

--Why did the Alaskan state government, which has the primary responsibility for legal oversight of these matters, fail to exercise it?

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--Why has the Bush Administration been so slow to intervene into what was from the first day obviously a major environmental crisis?

In fact, the President waited until Tuesday before sending senior aides to the scene of the spill, and even then seemed to express doubts that the federal government ought to take a major role in the cleanup. Bush’s approach to this disaster is perplexing.


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