What We Still Haven't Learned From the Exxon Valdez Disaster

03/25/2011 06:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Twenty-two years ago today, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of heavy crude oil, which eventually covered approximately 1,100 miles of sensitive coastline. 

The environmental toll was devastating.  Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, and hundreds of seals were killed.  To this day, oil remains in the sandy sediments of Alaskan coastline, and evidence suggests that the Pacific herring fishery, which has been closed for 15 of the last 21 years, has still not recovered from the effects of the spill.

ExxonVa.jpgWhile the Exxon Valdez spill was a very different spill than the Deepwater Horizon disaster, in terms of the type and amount of oil, the physical environment and the types of wildlife impacted, there are some striking similarities that suggest that we didn’t learn our lessons from the Exxon Valdez disaster.  I sincerely hope that doesn’t turn out to be the case with the Gulf oil disaster, but to date, there is not much reason for feeling optimistic that things will change all that much this time around.

To date, Congress has largely turned a blind-eye towards the Gulf.  While Ranking Member Ed Markey has been a strong champion for the Gulf and for reforming oil spill legislation, his colleague, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Doc Hastings, has shrugged over needed reforms, and has chosen instead to side with Big Oil, announcing he intends to introduce two bills that would expedite Gulf deepwater drilling and expand offshore drilling in areas of our oceans that are currently off-limits to drilling.  (My colleague Luke Tonachel writes a compelling blog showing how fuel efficiency standards are more effective than expanding dangerous offshore drilling in our precious oceans).

While the administration has made some important safety reforms, there are large questions about whether or not we can safely move forward with drilling at this time.  I explore some of those questions in a previous blog.  But, the new spill in the Gulf of Mexico this week, and the devastating oil spill that is currently affecting a pristine island in the South Pacific, prove that we still have a long way to go.

Send a message to your members of Conrgess now to pass oil spill legislation.

Let’s take a moment to examine some lessons that we were supposed to learn from the Exxon Valdez. 

Need to adequately invest in oil spill cleanup technologies:   Exxon-Valdez-Oil-Spill-Trus.jpg

Much like the Deepwater Horizon response, the response to the Exxon Valdez spill was fraught with a lack of appropriate spill clean-up technologies.  As a result the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- Congress’ response to the Alaska disaster -- authorized millions of dollars for research and development of new spill response technologies.  Yet, as that spill moved off the front pages, Congress appropriated less and less money for research.  The result was that 20 years later, the exact same ineffective methods   -- booms, fires and dispersants – were relied upon for clean-up.   This time around, the National Oil Spill Commission is again recommending that Congress appropriate needed money for oil spill cleanup technologies -- and they suggest that some funding becomes mandatory, so the next time we have a major spill, we have a fighting chance of cleaning up more than just a fraction of it.

Need for more testing of chemical dispersants:  In the Exxon Valdez disaster, just over 5,000 gallons of chemical dispersants were sprayed on the spill.  Reports from the time indicate that use of the dispersants was controversial.  In the Gulf, approximately 1 million gallons of chemical dispersant was ultimately sprayed or injected at depth, and to say that the use of dispersants in the Gulf was controversial is an understatement.  As I’ve written previously, there is a paucity of information on the toxicity and efficacy of chemical dispersants.  While the Oil Pollution Act intended to bring both research and further regulation on the use of dispersants, such efforts fell short.  Needed research was never funded and carried out to the extent needed, and the process for approving dispersants is neither rigorous nor effectively answers the toxicity and efficacy questions.  Moving forward, the National Oil Spill Commission found that the EPA needs to review and update its dispersant testing protocols, and to modify the pre-approval for use of dispersants to consider in advance the conditions under which dispersant use is safe.

Need to monitor effects on public health:  The public health effects of the Exxon Valdez on clean-up workers and residents is largely unknown.  But, mental health studies conducted after the spill showed that clean-up workers who were subjected to high exposure were 3.6 times more likely to have increased anxiety, and nearly 3 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder.  Despite the uncertainty and concern, however, the government has failed to make the establishment of baseline data on public health a priority when a major spill occurs.  This is already a problem in the Gulf: baseline medical data of clean-up workers and Gulf residents did not occur.  Now that scores of citizens are stepping forward with health concerns, there is no real way to evaluate trends in symptoms compared to pre-spill levels.  My colleague Miriam Rotkin-Ellman also published an article that evaluates a number of gaps in emergency response as it pertains to public health monitoring.

Need to ensure oil spill polluters are held fully accountable for spills:  After the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- a seminal piece of legislation written to ensure that oil spills are properly monitored, cleaned up and the people and environment harmed are repaired.  This legislation explicitly sets out the liability of oil spill polluters.  Liability for spills is critical as it acts as a strong safety incentive for oil companies, and it also ensures that taxpayers and victims of a spill are not left holding the tab from damages.  However, the cap on liability from damages was set at $75 million -- a low figure even in 1990, but shamefully low for today’s companies which routinely rake in billions in profits.  Congress needs to recognize that the existing liability provision is no longer adequate to either deter bad behavior nor to ensure adequate compensation from a spill.  The existing liability cap -- and the related proof of financial responsibility -- should be significantly raised.   

Need to ensure adequate restoration of impacted areas:  After the disaster in Alaska, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council was set up to oversee distribution of the $900 million settlement agreement with Exxon.  The Council, through advisement from the public and a science panel, has used this money to oversee the restoration of the areas impacted by the oil disaster.  This has been an effective oversight committee, and the National Oil Spill Commission recommended that Congress establish a joint state-federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, informed by the structure and function of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.  The Commission also recommends that at least 80% of the fines collected under the Clean Water Act be directed towards Gulf restoration, details of which I’ve blogged about here.

So, there is much to learn from the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez spill -- and the Gulf oil disaster underscores the importance of not turning a blind eye towards these lessons again.