The Blog Aquatic » Exxon Valdez http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 12 Sep 2014 13:20:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Four Reasons Why an Arctic Oil Spill Could be Catastrophic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/25/four-reasons-why-an-arctic-oil-spill-could-be-catastrophic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/25/four-reasons-why-an-arctic-oil-spill-could-be-catastrophic/#comments Tue, 25 Mar 2014 14:00:42 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=7893

Photo: NOAA

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?

• Be realistic about our ability to clean up spilled oil. Of the 11 million gallons of oil that spilled in Prince William Sound in 1989, responders were able to recover only about 14 percent. More recently, during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, on-water skimming resulted in the removal of just 3 percent of the total volume of oil released. In other words, once a significant volume of oil is in the water, it is all but impossible to remove it effectively. In fact, no existing technology has proven effective in removing oil from icy water, or cleaning oil that has collected under sea ice.

• Things won’t be any easier in Arctic conditions. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in the comparatively sheltered waters of Prince William Sound, where environmental conditions were relatively favorable for spill response. In contrast, if an oil spill occurred in Arctic waters, response efforts could be hampered by extreme cold, fog, hurricane-force winds, low light conditions or constantly changing ice conditions. In fact, it is likely adverse weather, sea or ice conditions would make it impossible to implement any spill response measures at all for significant periods of time.

• Deploying spill response assets in the remote Arctic will be a significant challenge. The U.S. Arctic is incredibly remote. There are no major highways at all. Only two airports in the region can handle cargo planes, and they service only a small fraction of the Arctic coast. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard base is 950 air miles from Barrow, Alaska, and the nearest major port, Dutch Harbor, is more than 1,000 miles from proposed drilling sites in the Arctic Ocean. In the case of an oil spill in the Arctic, remoteness and lack of infrastructure would be major obstacles to the effective deployment of spill response assets.

•Impacts could be catastrophic. A significant oil spill could cause irreparable harm to the Arctic marine ecosystem. Arctic waters are home to species found nowhere else on earth, including polar bears, ice-dependent seals and bowhead whales. Thousands of seabirds depend on the region’s rich waters. Arctic people are also part of the ecosystem. Many Arctic communities engage in subsistence hunting practices that stretch back for untold generations, and their food security is directly linked to an intact marine environment.

The stakes are high in the Arctic, and we must make informed and thoughtful decisions about whether, where and under what conditions we allow industrial activities. The most ecologically sensitive areas—including areas that support subsistence hunting activities—should be off-limits to industry. In areas where development is permitted, there should be a rigorous focus on preventing oil spills by insisting on the highest safety and environmental standards.

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, there is still oil beneath the surface of some Prince William Sound beaches. By taking a cautious approach to industrial activity, we can help ensure that Arctic waters and coasts avoid the same fate.

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Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster 25 Years Later http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/23/exxon-valdez-oil-disaster-25-years-later/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/03/23/exxon-valdez-oil-disaster-25-years-later/#comments Sun, 23 Mar 2014 14:00:16 +0000 Denny Takahashi Kelso http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=7907

Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons

On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.

After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.

Although much has been written about the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, here are some surprising facts.

Emergency decisions and orders. Prior to the spill, response requirements were weak. The governor had to declare a state of emergency before I could issue an emergency order substantially increasing the spill preparedness requirements for tankers operating from the oil terminal at Valdez—the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill experts from Norway arrived unexpectedly, and they worked with the state’s experts to hammer out details. We wrote the orders by hand in a makeshift office using a cardboard box as a table; and despite these primitive beginnings, many of the orders’ terms later were adopted as part of Alaska law.

Oil spill response plan abandoned. Exxon was legally in charge of the spill response, limiting other authorities’ ability to act. But Exxon didn’t carry out its preapproved oil spill response plan because the response barge was “out of service and unavailable for use.” As others have pointed out, even if it had responded, there were not enough skimmers and boom available to do an effective job. Exxon’s failed response made it clear that we needed a backup plan. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for the first time enabled federal officials to direct the response in a major spill.

Volunteers and state agency staff put together their own cleanup: “The Mosquito Fleet.” Frustrated at the slow response, local residents joined with state agency employees to organize their own response using low-tech equipment, local knowledge and plenty of hard work. They based the operation on a borrowed ferry and secured a vacuum truck—dubbed “Miss Piggy.” Miss Piggy sucked up oil corralled by containment booms deployed from skiffs. The Mosquito Fleet successfully protected Sawmill Bay, 15 miles from the town of Valdez, and it stimulated changes in Exxon’s management of the response.

A small percentage of the oil was actually contained and removed. No more than 14 percent of the spilled oil was actually removed. According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “[N]early 11 million gallons of oil spread slowly over open water during three days of flat calm seas. Despite the opportunity to skim the oil before it hit the shorelines, almost none was scooped up. … Dispersants were applied, but were determined to be ineffective because of prevailing conditions.”

Even with 22 years of response preparedness improvements, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that only 19 percent of the spilled oil following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was removed or was dispersed by chemicals.

Spilled oil has lingered for decades: According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, “oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”

This persistence was unexpected. Only through research conducted on the ground, long after the cleanup had ended, were scientists able to detect tens of thousands of gallons of persistent, toxic oil. “Beaches in the area are unique because of their composition and structure, and the lack of waves and winter storm action. This, along with the colder temperatures, is partly why oil has persisted and remained toxic here.”

Among the lessons is that the potential for long-term damage remains wherever oil persists after an oil spill, whether it is on the ocean bottom or in marshes, mangroves or other habitats that are not dynamic.

Effective restoration requires science-based planning and long-term science. Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, resources and ecosystems continue to recover; and we have a better understanding of spill response needs and challenges. Restoration following the spill demonstrated the importance of three key factors: comprehensive restoration planning, projects based on clear criteria and tested by independent review, and long-term, scientific monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration. Most of the affected organisms have recovered, some after a long struggle. Today, populations of only two species, pigeon guillemot and Pacific herring, are still listed as “not recovering.” Through scientific monitoring of their status and understanding the factors that may affect their recovery, changes in restoration methods or management tools may be implemented.

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Lessons Learned from Exxon Valdez: The Devilish Details of Why We Must Keep BP on the Hook http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/06/lessons-learned-from-exxon-valdez-the-devilish-details-of-why-we-must-keep-bp-on-the-hook/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/06/lessons-learned-from-exxon-valdez-the-devilish-details-of-why-we-must-keep-bp-on-the-hook/#comments Wed, 06 Mar 2013 19:18:19 +0000 Ivy Fredrickson http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=4883

A sea otter swimming near the Exxon Valdez

There was a great deal of excitement in the courtroom across the street from Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf restoration office during BP’s first week at trial. Objection after objection from BP’s legal team have been over ruled by Judge Barbier, a culture of BP putting profit before safety has steadily emerged, and BP has found itself in perhaps one of the world’s largest finger pointing game with Halliburton and Transocean. The trial has allowed everyone the opportunity to begin learning exactly why 11 men died and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank. But as we learn about the past, we must also think about our future.

We know the people of the Gulf Coast and the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Gulf could feel the effects of the BP oil disaster for years, maybe even decades. That’s why it’s critical that however BP settles up , either in or out of court, the resolution of this disaster must keep options open for addressing any damages that may not be discovered until well into the future. One way to do this is to include a reopener clause in any form of a resolution.

A reopener clause is a sweetener to facilitate resolution of the case.  It represents an additional sum of money that may be accessed in the future, thus “reopening” the issue, but only if additional injuries not known at the time of the settlement manifest. It has advantages for both sides. With a reopener clause, the federal and state parties can rest assured that if any environmental problems from the spill show up later, the government isn’t left empty handed. The polluter, BP, can seek comfort in the fact that it won’t be held accountable for potential injuries that have yet to be proven or even hypothesized at this time. This may sound logical and simple, but the devil is in the details.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the settlement over natural resource damages included a reopener clause, which would require Exxon to pay an additional $100 million to fund restoration or rehabilitation of resources whose injuries were not foreseeable at the time of the settlement in 1989. However, nearly 25 years later and despite ongoing attempts, the reopener funding has never been accessed, in part because the government has been unable to meet the very high standard set by the clause.  The Exxon Valdez reopener read: “. . . injury to the affected population, habitat, or species could not reasonably have been known nor could it reasonably have been anticipated by any Trustee from any information in the possession of or reasonably available to any Trustee on the Effective Date.”

One of the main problems with this language is the word “anticipated.” The Trustees did not in fact anticipate that the Pacific herring population would collapse in 1993 or that there would still be essentially unweathered, buried oil on beaches in 2001, more than a decade after the spill. By rejecting anything that could have reasonably been anticipated, the clause denies a reopener claim for anything but an injury that was unprecedented or wholly new to science. If, for example, there was any mention in the pre-settlement scientific literature of oil persisting on a decadal scale or of impacts to fish at a population level, such mention could be cited as a reason to not invoke the reopener clause. The result of the Exxon Valdez reopener is that Trustees were left with no recourse for injuries from the spill that became evident after settlement.

The problematic “anticipated” language should not be included in reopener language for the BP spill case. Instead, the clause must put the focus on the ability to scientifically detect injury.

We suggest reopener language such as this: “Injury to the affected ecosystem, population, habitat, or species was not manifest or could not reasonably have been documented scientifically from information in the possession of or reasonably available to any Trustee on the Effective Date.” With this clause, rather than having to anticipate injury, the Trustees would have to prove that the injury could not have been scientifically documented at the time of settlement.

As with the recovery of Prince William Sound in the months, years and decades after the Exxon Valdez spill, it will take many years to understand the impacts to the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico from the BP disaster. Including an effective reopener clause in any form of resolution to the BP oil disaster will help to protect the Gulf of Mexico, one of the world’s greatest natural treasures.

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