A few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, a glaring navigation hazard in Prince William Sound. The rest is history.
Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS). And as we look back on the devastation and heartbreak wrought by the EVOS, it’s important to recognize what led to Alaska’s greatest environmental and socioeconomic disaster – and what’s happening today to increase the risks it will happen again.
According to the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, while there were numerous factors that contributed to the Exxon spill, it all boiled down to this: industry and government officials had become wrapped in a veil of “complacency and neglect.”
In response to the EVOS, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90) – perhaps the last major piece of environmental legislation before our national politics devolved into a partisan blood sport. OPA 90 marshalled in a series of important reforms, including requirements for double hull tankers, spill contingency plans for tankers and detailed prevention measures to try to stop future spills.
It also created two novel citizen oversight groups – the Prince William Sound and the Cook Inlet Regional Citizen Advisory Councils – to give local residents, Tribes and businesses a seat at the table to ensure safe oil transport through Alaskan waters.
In Alaska – after experiencing the first-hand trauma of the EVOS – we opted to go even further than the feds, and we adopted rules requiring additional safeguards.
Despite these improvements, however, the drive for corporate profits, coupled with the unending push to strangle government spending, has led to a series of rollbacks over the years which now make an EVOS-type disaster all the more likely.
For example, in late 2019, the Dunleavy Administration decided to revise the Alaska rules to prevent and respond to oil spills. This process entails a large and burdensome rulemaking effort, but there was one problem: no one could point to a reason why the rules needed to be changed. The rules were working, and no one – at least no one publicly – had any serious concerns.
Yet the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation – Jason Brune – has repeatedly refused to say who requested the rule changes or why they are needed. Instead, Brune has pushed ahead with an expensive and time-consuming rulemaking with no clear objective.
But of course, there are unspoken reasons for Brune’s push to change the rules. As Arctic waters warm and the sea ice melts, the Alaska Arctic will increasingly become a major shipping route worth untold billions to shipping, oil and other corporate interests. Yet it’s virtually impossible to respond to oil spills in these dark, remote and turbulent waters, so instead of requiring compliance with existing rules that have worked to prevent spills, ADEC is now simply working to change the rules.
Brune came to ADEC through the revolving door shared by industry and government, and he previously worked to promote the Pebble mine and he led a development-at-all-costs corporate trade group called the Resource Development Council of Alaska. So, it’s no surprise his crowning regulatory achievement will be to gut the spill prevention and response rules adopted after the Exxon disaster.
But Brune is taking additional steps to ensure industry reaps higher profits and Alaskans bear the risks and costs of more oil spills. In the past month, the well-regarded Director of the ADEC Spill Prevention and Response (SPAR) Division abruptly resigned, ostensibly because Brune would not fill the SPAR job positions needed to oversee effective spill prevention and response.
For example, Brune is refusing to fill 5 current job openings in the SPAR Division, despite the fact SPAR has lost 17 positions since 2015. Couple this with high personnel turnover and low staff morale, and you have an agency that’s not doing more with less, but instead, doing less with less to protect Alaskan waters and the countless families they support.
So, on the 32nd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the need for Alaskans to remain vigilant is perhaps stronger than ever. When you mix together regulatory rollbacks with diminished agency oversight – then sprinkle in the singular drive for more corporate profits – you get a perfect recipe for complacency and neglect.
And as climate change continues to buffet our great state, the last thing Alaskans need is another Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.