On this date 33 years ago, Alaskans experienced the oiling of Prince William Sound and beyond. You know the story – Bligh Reef, drunk captain, North Slope crude oil. A disastrous trifecta that fouled our waters and shoreline resulting in the most significant environmental and coastal community catastrophe in Alaska’s history.
Alaskans learned important lessons from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill including the harm that stems from complacency, inadequate response, and industry spin.
The Exxon Valdez resulted in some real regulatory change as Alaskans stood up and said never again. Congress passed the Oil Spill Act of 1990 to strengthen EPA’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills. The Regional Citizen Advisory Councils were created and funded to ensure Alaskans had a role in watching industry.
Fast forward three decades and the lessons are fading away.
Take a look at Cook Inlet. We currently have a steady stream of state-permitted toxic waste pouring into our waters, while Hilcorp’s repeated spills and leaks are given trivial fines by regulators, and the industry bankrolls a PR campaign convincing our politicians that, despite the social and economic costs of climate change, Alaska must remain an oil & gas state.
Instead of using their vast profits to finally meet the standards expected everywhere else in the country, the oil & gas corporations lobby to get – and do get – permission to dump over 740,000 lbs/year of oil and grease, 307,000 lbs/year of aqueous hydrocarbons, and more than 15 lbs/year of mercury into Cook Inlet. And it’s not just the ecosystem and endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales being poisoned – 2/3rds of Alaskans live and fish in this watershed.
Meanwhile, oil laden tankers are still allowed to travel through Cook Inlet without tug escorts – the industry standard – despite the region’s notorious tides, ice and navigational conditions.
On top of this, the federal government is considering oil & gas lease sales for over a million acres of federal waters in Lower Cook Inlet, unless the Biden Administration stays committed to its climate goals. And regulators have acknowledged that with Lease Sale 258 there’s a 1 in 5 (20%) risk of at least one oil spill of more than 42,000 gallons.
While Alaska has not yet experienced another catastrophic spill like the Exxon Valdez, more recent spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico or the Orange County California spill last fall have unfortunately not led to systemic improvements to protect our nation’s waters. If we don’t remember past lessons or pay attention to new ones, we are playing Russian roulette with the health of our coastal ecosystems.
March 24, 1989 – and the days and months that followed – marks a devastating period in Alaska’s history. We must tell the real story about what happened and why. And then we must stop those same things: complacency, inadequate response and industry spin, from putting Cook Inlet in the cross hairs for troubled waters ahead.
On this anniversary, we thank the Alaskans who fought to keep the oil from destroying their livelihoods and coastal ecosystems by putting themselves in harm’s way to protect what they loved.
And we thank those still fighting for Alaska today!
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