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Spill Response Has Troubled History

March 28, 1989

ANCHORAGE (AP) _ In July 1977, when the first barrels of North Slope crude made the 800-mile journey down the trans-Alaska pipeline to waiting oil tankers in Valdez, questions arose whether oil companies could clean up a major spill.

Four months later concern was heightened when about 500 gallons of oil seeped from the tanker Glacier Bay into Port Valdez, and state officials found the company’s contingency and cleanup plans in a ″deplorable state.″

Lack of adequately trained crews and equipment were major problems.

″If they couldn’t effectively clean up something that small, what are they going to do when there is a major spill?″ said Randy Bayliss, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Valdez supervisor at the time.

Now, state officials have the answer.

The 987-foot Exxon Valdez ran aground Friday just after filling its tanks at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal. The tanker’s torn hull spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil about 25 miles south of Valdez.

Alyeska’s plan for oil spills calls for cleanup equipment to get to a spill within five hours, but it took the company several hours longer, said Dennis Kelso, Alaska’s environmental commissioner.

A barge to haul cleanup equipment was down for repairs, making the response too late to make much headway on the quickly spreading oil.

The state agency dashed off a strongly worded letter to those overseeing the cleanup, calling the response ″inadequate and slow″ and a failure of the contingency plan.

Since pipeline operations began, there have been more than 400 oil spills in Port Valdez, the vast majority under a barrel in volume.

Two spills on the order of 1 million gallons occurred far offshore in the Gulf of Alaska a few years ago. And in the summer of 1987, the Glacier Bay again sprang a leak when it ran aground in Cook Inlet, dumping about 125,000 gallons of oil just as salmon were set to move through the area.

In Valdez, the state, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard jointly inspect Alyeska’s cleanup equipment and capabilities. And they routinely conduct oil spill drills, dumping hundreds of oranges into the water to simulate oil.

As recently as five years ago, the DEC and EPA reported major concerns over Alyeska’s ability to respond to even a moderately sized spill.

A 1984 memo from Valdez DEC supervisor Dan Lawn to his superiors blasted Alyeska for substantial cutbacks in personnel at the terminal, including people to maintain and operate cleanup equipment.

″The reliability of certain equipment is questioned, especially in a major spill situation,″ he said.

Lawn also chastised the state for a lack of environmental officials to supervise the terminal.

″Unfortunately, this has been a signal to Alyeska that the state is no longer interested″ in the pipeline.

After a 1984 spill drill in Port Valdez, the EPA said equipment used by Alyeska might not be suitable for oil spills in that area.

A spill drill in 1985 showed Alyeska’s inability to muster trained personnel and some equipment didn’t work properly, according to a DEC report of the mock spill.

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