The story of the last cataclysmic American oil spill has evolved over time into a straightforward tale of cause and effect: In 1989, a hard-drinking skipper ran his tanker aground in Alaska, and Exxon was unable to prevent crude from spreading along hundreds of miles of pristine shoreline.
But the full story of the Exxon Valdez wreck is far more complex, and it offers striking parallels to today’s events in the Gulf of Mexico — including a central role played by a consortium led by British Petroleum, now known as BP.
A commission that investigated the Alaska spill found that oil companies cut corners to maximize profits. Systems intended to prevent disaster failed, and no backups were in place. Regulators were too close to the oil industry and approved woefully inadequate accident response and cleanup plans.
History is repeating, say officials who investigated the Valdez, because the lessons of two decades ago remain unheeded.
“It’s disappointing,” said 84-year-old Walt Parker, chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, which made dozens of recommendations for preventing a recurrence. “It’s almost as though we had never written the report.”
Marine experts predict that the many panels investigating the Deepwater Horizon blowout — including a presidential commission that began work this week in New Orleans — will produce reports with numerous findings that could have been cut and pasted from the 20-year-old report written by Parker’s commission or another body that examined the Valdez accident. They also fear those findings may have no more impact than the Valdez conclusions have.
In the immediate aftermath of the Alaska spill, as in the gulf, there was confusion over who was in charge — oil companies or government officials. Federal authorities eventually asserted themselves but lacked the equipment and personnel to stem the damage. Storms slowed the response and spread contamination. Cleanup technology was old and ineffective. Environmentalists questioned the toxicity of dispersants and asked whether oil companies were using chemicals to hide damage.
The vast Alaska containment effort recovered only a fraction of the millions of gallons of oil dumped into Prince William Sound.
The players in the Alaskan drama also look familiar. Although Exxon owned the Valdez tanker, it was not responsible for the flawed emergency response plan and did not lead initial containment efforts. Those jobs fell to the Alyeska Pipeline Service, a consortium operating the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
The consortium’s controlling partner was British Petroleum. British Petroleum also supplied the consortium’s top executive, who later resigned under pressure. “BP called the shots,” said Tom Lakosh, an oil spill researcher.
The Alaskan commission concluded that cost-cutting by Alyeska contributed to the disaster, just as critics allege that BP’s focus on profits contributed to the gulf spill.
“British Petroleum’s leadership essentially was ‘asleep at the switch,’ ” the commission’s report concluded.
BP spokesman Steve Rinehart declined to discuss the company’s role in the Valdez response, saying that Alyeska is an independent organization that “works for an owner’s committee.”
“We will actually have very little to say about the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” Rinehart said. “In general terms, there were many lessons learned from the Prince William Sound spill, and improvements in response planning and technology were one of them.”
Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers declined to comment on how British Petroleum and regulators responded to the Valdez accident. But he said it was a “real turning point” at Exxon, which now makes safety a central corporate value.
To be sure, the two spills are different: The 1989 incident was caused by a grounded tanker, not a well blowout and a months-long gusher of crude. And the millions of gallons released in Alaska have been surpassed by the amount of crude swirling in the gulf. But experts said the many similarities eclipse the differences.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Zygmunt Plater, who worked for the commission and is now a professor at Boston College Law School. “The lessons weren’t met.”
‘Waiting to happen’
On March 23, 1989, Riki Ott, a marine biologist, was speaking to the annual Alyeska Pipeline safety banquet at the Valdez Civic Center. The discussion turned to the threat of a major oil spill.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “it’s not a matter of ‘what if,’ but when.”
About an hour later, just past midnight, the Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on Alaska’s south coast, rupturing eight of its 11 cargo tanks and dumping at least 11 million gallons of crude into the sound. The 990-foot-long ship had just left the Alyeska terminal in Valdez, headed toward Long Beach, Calif.
Over the next few months, the oil spread across 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline, destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.
Investigations determined that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood had been drinking earlier and was not on the bridge when the vessel strayed into the reef. He was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil.
Two months after the spill, Alaska’s governor appointed a commission to study the accident. It concluded that the disaster was “the result of the gradual degradation of oversight and safety practices.”
The spill “was not an isolated, freak occurrence, but simply one result of policies, habits and practices that for nearly two decades have infused the nation’s maritime oil transportation system with increasing levels of risk. The Exxon Valdez was an accident waiting to happen,” the report said.
Rules then in place called for the British Petroleum-led consortium to handle the initial spill response. But its actions were unexpectedly slow and ineffectual, the report said. A 126-foot barge cited in plans as the centerpiece of any response was not loaded with the proper equipment, resulting in hours of delay.
Alyeska spokesman Matt Carle said the consortium does not challenge the commission’s findings but stressed the many safety improvements made in and around Prince William Sound.
The U.S. Coast Guard and other government agencies proved “utterly incapable” of containing the oil, the commission said. Contingency plans amounted to “toothless tigers,” and the equipment shortages and slow responses made a catastrophe inevitable, the report said.
Exxon eventually took control of the response effort, working with the Coast Guard and Alaskan authorities.
That mirrors the early days of the BP spill, when it was unclear who was in charge. It quickly became apparent that only BP had the submersible robots and other equipment needed to operate at the drilling site, a mile below the surface.
Studies suggested that the Alaska spill could have been reduced or eliminated by building in redundant protection: in that case, by equipping tankers with double hulls or double bottoms. A lack of redundancy has emerged as a critical problem in the gulf, where the failure of the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer — designed to instantly seal a well — has left BP with few alternatives.
Alyeska was found by the Alaska commission to have a long history of poor management and cost-cutting that contributed to the accident. One state official wrote that Alyeska “has proven that they will not take any major corrective action unless forced by the regulatory agencies.” Those complaints echo allegations made last month by Democratic Reps. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) and Bart Stupak (Mich.), who questioned whether BP repeatedly chose risky procedures to save time and reduce costs.
The congressmen wrote in a letter to the oil company that “BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure.”
When the Alaska commission examined response plans approved before the accident, they found a “serious gap” between the spill size that companies said they could contain and their true capacity, which was “ridiculously low.” Records showed that, as a number of response plans were being developed in Alaska, government reviewers had penciled expletives in the margins, described them as “garbage” and “shoddy,” and recommended that authorities “consider prosecution.”
One review of equipment listed in an Alyeska contingency plan in the 1970s found that of 170 pieces of apparatus itemized, 137 were broken or missing. A drill exercise found an outdated list of emergency contacts. At the time, the report concluded, the consortium “was not a model of preparedness.”
That echoes the findings of a congressional inquiry into BP’s spill response plan for the gulf, which asserted that the company could contain and clean up a spill much larger than today’s. Investigators found that the gulf plans also discussed the need to protect walruses, which aren’t found in the region, and listed the phone number of a long-dead marine expert.
The commission found that the “primitive” equipment available for oil recovery in Alaska — primarily boom lines and surface skimmers — represented ineffective methods that had not advanced for at least 20 years. The commission called on the federal government to fund a research and development effort to improve recovery techniques.
“Equipment and techniques should be tested well in advance of a spill,” the report said.
Today in the gulf, the same types of equipment and technology used in Prince William Sound are at work. There is no research effort on the scale sought by the commission. “Never again should the spiller be in charge of a major spill” response, the report said.
As if foreseeing the gulf disaster, the commission said that focusing too closely on the individual details of the tanker accident would be counterproductive because “the next great spill is likely to have some other cause completely.”
The report also gave a hint of what might lie ahead. In Alaska, the environmental and economic damage from the spill was followed by increased alcoholism, depression, anxiety, domestic violence and child suicides.
Another report prepared in 1989, this one for President George H.W. Bush, also recommended strengthening government preparedness, clarifying lines of authority and improving cleanup technology. The report was prepared by a team co-chaired by William K. Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, Reilly co-chairs the commission looking into the BP spill for President Obama. It is expected to issue its report by January.