03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Singing Praises of Unsung Heroes: The Big One That Didn't Happen

Cordova, Alaska. Early Sunday morning the Kodiak, an Exxon tanker carrying 25 million gallons of crude oil, lost power in the notorious Hinchinbrook Entrance just as it was leaving Prince William Sound.

Despite 10-foot seas and 15-knot winds - a relatively calm night in Hinchinbrook Entrance - one escort tug was tethered to the Kodiak's stern within twelve minutes and another to the bow within thirty minutes. Three more tugs with firefighting capability arrived on the scene in response to what turned out to be a false report that the tanker's generators were on fire. The tanker was towed to safety and given approval to sail after repairs were made.

End of the story? Hardly. This story could easily have ended like the Exxon Valdez disaster did 20 years ago with millions of gallons of oil in the Sound and beyond, along some 3,000 miles of Alaska's coastline. There is one key reason it didn't. That reason is strong citizens' oversight.

Congress created the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (and a similar council in Cook Inlet) when it passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The bulk of the act requires the oil companies that ship oil through the Sound to fulfill promises made in the early 1970s - and subsequently broken - to make their operation the safest in the world.

It was the citizens' council backed by federal law, who made sure this time the oil shippers kept their promises. The vigilance paid off. In the Kodiak incident, any one of a number of things that contributed to rescuing the tanker and no spillage of oil could have been missing without the citizens' oversight.

For example, shippers and the oil companies had argued vehemently against using state-of-the-art tractor tug as escorts. According to the oil companies, the cheaper conventional tugs were fine. The citizens' council insisted on performance tests and sure enough, the tractor tugs out-performed the conventional tugs when dealing with supertankers like the Kodiak that call regularly on Port Valdez.

Shippers and the oil companies had argued vehemently against a disabled tanker towing study. Nonsense, the industry had insisted, the new escort tugs can handle disabled tankers. The citizens' council insisted on performance tests and sure enough, the industry package required major alterations - and crew training - to be effective and used safely.

Shippers and the oil companies had argued vehemently against stationing extra large ocean-going tugs at Hinchinbrook to handle the extreme weather conditions at the entrance and in the Gulf of Alaska. The oil companies claimed it was too expensive to have extra tugs just standing by. The companies also argued against the extra cost of fire-fighting equipment. The citizens' council insisted on both counts. The large tugs responded to the Kodiak incident - and would have been needed had there been a fire or had the weather conditions been more "normal" for this time of year.

But the biggest, longest, and most bitter battle by far among oil companies, oil shippers, and the citizens' oversight council was over the federal mandate for double-hull tankers to replace the riskier single-hull tankers by 2015. The oil industry had insisted that it needed twenty-five years to phase out single-hull tankers. In reality, the oil industry used fifteen of those years to try to end run the federal mandate by lobbying different congresses, presidents, and federal agencies to weaken the standard. At each new twist of the oil lobby, the citizens' oversight council was there to insist the old promise of double-hull tankers be fulfilled - even after four decades and the nation's largest oil spill.

Exxon was the last oil company to phase out its single-hull tankers in Prince William Sound. The last one, a sister ship to the old Exxon Valdez, still operates as a single-hull tanker, but not in the Sound as of January 1, 2010. It could just as easily have been this tanker, Exxon's SeaRiver Long Beach, out of power in Hinchinbrook Entrance. It could just as easily have been deja vu and back to 1989. Prior to December 2005, the Kodiak still operated as a single-hull tanker.

But things turned out differently, thanks to the citizens' council and all the work of dedicated staff and volunteers over the past twenty years. This week the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council celebrates its twenty anniversary. It is a well-deserved celebration. We all should be proud of these dedicated citizens who work tirelessly behind-the-scenes to protect Prince William Sound and Alaska communities by insisting the oil companies prove up on their promises of safe oil shipping.

We can also help keep America's waters safe from oil spills.

In 2004 one of the shippers affiliated with BP, proposed to reduce the number of tugs escorting double-hull tankers through the Sound as a cost-cutting measure, because the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline has declined. Tug escorts are not mandated under federal law.

But Alaska's U.S. Senators want to change that. Last year they introduced a bill requiring all tankers in Prince William Sound to be escorted by at least two towing tugs. The U.S. House passed the bill. This week Alaska's delegates called for the U.S. Senate to pass the bill.

Let's give the citizens' council a birthday present by calling your senator to urge passage of this important bill!

Spill survivor Riki Ott hopes never again to be awakened by a loud knocking and call to respond to The Big One. She shares her story and Cordova's story in Not One Drop (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008) and is currently working to amend the U.S. Constitution to ensure people's values count more than corporate profits (