Setting Us Up For More Of The Same


As media attention focuses on capping the BP oil gusher, a very important background story in the Washington Post looks at how lessons of the Exxon Valdez spill were mostly ignored

Overall, it’s about what oil company observers would have expected: Lies instead of planning, chaos that’s quite beneficial in the coming court battles, and stalling tactics that eventually abandoned victims. The story details the similarities between the Gulf spill and the Valdez spill … in effect, showing us how this disaster was not so much an “industrial accident,” as BP would say, as a “catastrophe waiting to happen.”

And the Washington Post saved one of the most vital observations for last, looking at a key report in the wake of Valdez, it notes that the document “… 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.”

Now, to the congressional response…

The Washington Post story about how little the Exxon Valdez lessons were heeded is, of course important, but it leaves the indication that Congress was indecisive and took no real action after the disaster.

Not true. Congress moved quickly. It’s main goal seems to have been limiting the liabiltiy of oil companies with the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. That meant BP’s non-cleanup liability under the act, absent certain findings of gross negligence, would have been capped at $75 million. There are a variety of other laws, like the Clean Water Act, that will come into play … but the most decisive action, the one that lingers today, was to try and limit corporate liability.

And we wonder how we were setup for more of the same?

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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