U.S. to Restudy Alaska Oil Drilling : Will Impose Better Accident Safeguards, EPA Chief Says
The federal government will take a broad new look at the environmental impact of oil drilling in Alaska and will require better safeguards against accidents as a result of the massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Sunday.
“I think we’re going to take the environmental planning completely apart for every aspect of Alaska oil development and make sure that it is as sound, as careful as we can possibly make it,” EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said.
“We’ve got to look at our worst case and assume that it could happen,” Reilly said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Says Planning Fell Short
“The planning for this disaster did not anticipate anything like the magnitude of the spill that occurred,” Reilly said. “I think the worst case that was talked about in the environmental impact assessment for the trans-Alaska pipeline and the shipments down that sound talked in the range of 140,000 barrels. We had a 240,000-barrel spill--and, in fact, that was less than a quarter of what was on that ship.”
The tanker Exxon Valdez, carrying 1.2 million barrels of oil that had been shipped by pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope to the port city of Valdez, strayed out of normal sea lanes March 24 and ran aground, puncturing 10 of the ship’s 15 oil compartments.
By Sunday, the spilled oil--240,000 barrels equals about 10.1 million gallons--had spread across an area the size of Rhode Island. Rescuers captured oil-smeared sea otters in airline dog cages and boxes of plywood and chicken wire and worked to clean them. “Beaches are getting hammered by oil,” said Dennis Kelso, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Reilly’s promise of a strict review of Alaska oil drilling appeared to be at least partly in response to a threat by Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper to close the trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries almost one-fourth of the nation’s oil supply, if a new plan for dealing with oil spills is not produced.
“If they don’t do it, we’ll shut it down,” Cowper said on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley,” although he acknowledged that the state may not have the authority to halt the pipeline’s operations.
Suggests Broad Shift
But Reilly also suggested a broad shift in the EPA’s attitude since the Ronald Reagan Administration ended. He promised that his agency henceforth will pay more attention to environmentalists’ warnings.
“We’ve got to take people seriously more than we have, perhaps, when critics other than the experts say these things can happen,” he said.
Blame Governments, Exxon
Reilly and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner said that the blame for inadequate emergency planning in the Alaska oil spill is shared by the federal and state governments as well as by Exxon, the operator of the tanker.
Skinner, speaking on the Brinkley program, said he believes that Exxon bears the largest share of the responsibility for the spill, the first in the 12 years of Alaska pipeline operation.
“Frankly, over 15 years, in my opinion, the industry had gotten a little . . . cavalier about the thought that a spill of this magnitude would happen,” he said. “And they didn’t have enough equipment there, they didn’t have enough of a lot of the things that you need.
Major Response Expected
“The first thing that is supposed to happen is that within five hours (of an accident), a very major response put together by industry is supposed to be in place,” Skinner said. “That did not happen.”
But Lee Raymond, Exxon’s president, said charges that his company had acted too slowly to contain the spill are unfair.
“We moved as fast as we could move,” he said on the ABC program. He blamed the Coast Guard for refusing to allow oil industry experts to use chemical dispersing agents on the oil slick. The Coast Guard and Alaska state officials previously have said that dispersants would not have worked.
Skinner confirmed that the Justice Department is considering federal criminal charges in the case--not only against tanker Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who already has been charged with three misdemeanors by Alaska authorities, but also against Exxon.
“If there is evidence of guilt, there should be penalties imposed,” Skinner said. FBI officials have said that Exxon could face potential criminal charges under the Clean Water Act, which outlaws “negligent discharge of a pollutant into navigable waters.”
Skipper Still at Large
Hazelwood, of Huntington, N. Y., remained at large Sunday, one day after Alaska officials asked authorities in New York to arrest him and extradite him to face three misdemeanor criminal charges of operating a ship while under the influence of alcohol, reckless endangerment and negligent discharge of oil.
According to documents filed in a court in Alaska, the first investigator to board the Exxon Valdez after the disaster asked Hazelwood what the problem was, and Hazelwood replied: “I think you’re looking at it.”
EPA chief Reilly, despite his kind words for environmentalists, said that he still favors allowing oil companies to drill exploratory wells in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, a move opposed by several environmental groups.
“In my opinion, the oil and gas development on the North Slope has been conducted responsibly; environmental impact has been kept to a minimum there,” he said. “And I think we have reason to believe that would be true in the refuge itself.”