Christopher Reddy

Let's not forget Exxon Valdez

Crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez swirled on the surface of Prince William Sound near Naked Island in Alaska on April 9, 1989. Crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez swirled on the surface of Prince William Sound near Naked Island in Alaska on April 9, 1989. (John Gaps III/Associated Press/File)
By Christopher Reddy
March 24, 2009
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TWENTY YEARS ago today, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Much will be written about the impacts of this devastating spill and Exxon's responsibilities. Yet, it's important to reflect on how this country has successfully avoided and managed oil spills since this disaster - and how this success may diminish in the future.

The United States has reduced the amount of oil spilled since the Exxon Valdez. The number of oil spills documented by the Coast Guard that were greater than 5,000 gallons decreased from 55 to 14 from 1991 to 2004, with none over 1 million gallons. In addition, there is a growing trend that freighters, not high-volume tankers like the Exxon Valdez, are the spillers.

There are numerous reasons why spills are less frequent, including digital charts, GPS, improved weather prediction, and even cellphones. Communications cannot be overlooked. Years back, once a vessel left the dock, the captain was king. Now, position and speed can be monitored half way around the globe. Training has increased for the fleet, too, under requirements of the Oil Pollution Act, which passed in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez and other spills. It is also very expensive for spillers, who are required by law to pay for the clean-up, restore damaged areas, and settle claims.

If an accident occurs, the United States is arguably the most experienced and prepared in responding to spills. This response is based on a unified command structure comprising federal, state, and spiller representatives, who work as a team. This integrated approach focuses on the singular goal to reduce damages. In some countries, efforts are often characterized by groups working against each other.

As an oil spill scientist, I have observed how the unified command performs and how spills are managed. The speed and efficiency of the unified command, for example, can stop a small spill from becoming a large one. During the 2007 spill of the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay, the cleanup teams moved faster than I could collect samples. On one occasion, I begged the supervisor of a cleanup team to let me collect some oil-covered rocks before they were removed by his Tyvek-suited crew. He let me take them.

To me, the Exxon Valdez is a source of significant scientific advancement. Classic manuscripts on the behavior and effects of the spill sit on my desk with the bindings worn from reading and rereading them. One thing that I have learned from this spill and others is that no two are ever the same. There are many variables that determine the outcome of a spill, including location, weather, and type and viscosity of oil. So when a spill does occur, try not to assume that it will be another Exxon Valdez.

Over the last two decades, government agents and representatives of spillers have led an impressive effort to reduce oil spills and diminish their impacts. They have exported American know-how to help other nations manage their own catastrophes. But here's the rub: Most of these people have retired or will be retiring soon and there are few experienced heirs apparent.

Increased priorities for homeland security, attention to impacts of global warming and other important issues, and an overall downturn in funding for response, preparedness, and research have contributed to draining talent away from work on spills. Ironically, oil company money set aside by the Oil Pollution Act specifically for training and preparedness by this act has never been appropriated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - an agency that provides essential scientific support for oil spills.

On the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez, the United States can take pride in its improved efforts to reduce spills and learning from them. However, oil spills are inevitable and training of a new generation of oil spill specialists is paramount for our continued success and the sharing of knowledge with others.

Christopher Reddy is a marine chemist and the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole. His oil spill research has been funded by competitive awards from federal agencies and philanthropic foundations.

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