Exxon Valdez: Could it happen here? GUEST OPINION


It has been nearly 25 years since workers at the Alyeska Marine Terminal in Alaska loaded 53 million gallons of North Slope crude oil onto the supertanker Exxon Valdez. At the same time, a group of citizens met in the Valdez City Council chambers, expressing their concerns that a spill in Prince William Sound was inevitable. A fisherman, Bobby Day, readied his boat for a herring season that would never open. Their lives collectively changed course just after midnight on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

On that fateful night, the lookout aboard the Exxon Valdez burst through the door of the bridge, noting once again that the red light marking the reef was on the starboard side of the ship, when it should have been to port. Her cautionary words were, in retrospect, the last of a litany of warnings sounded by fishermen, tour boat operators, regulators, and industry insiders that circumstances were ripe for disaster.

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez caused a sea change in the environmental consciousness of an entire generation and created a new awareness about the risks of resource extraction and transport. Twenty-five years later, these issues are both timely and timeless as the waters surrounding San Juan Islands are slated to become one of North America’s busiest fossil fuel trans-shipment corridors.

With proposals for new and expanded terminals and refineries in Canada and Washington, an additional 2,620 deep-draft vessel transits could ply our waters each year. Some of these proposals would result in the transport of a type of crude oil known as “dilbit” short for “diluted bitumen.”

This thick, biologically degraded and sticky petroleum product must be infused with lighter fuels, or condensates from natural gas, naphtha, or a mix of other light hydrocarbons, in order to transport it through the pipeline. Current oil spill technology is based on crude oil. The fate and effects of a dilbit spill is an emerging science.

If a major spill were to happen, would there be sufficient resources to adequately respond, contain, and clean up a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez? How would the private and publicly owned shorelines get completely cleaned up? Would dispersants be used? Who would pay for the clean-up and what assurances does the public have that funds are available to cover the full cost of the clean-up and the economic, environmental, and health impacts that would be the result of a major spill?

These questions have not yet been answered by public agencies charged with reviewing proposals in our area. In Prince William Sound, promises outlined in legislation and contingency plans weren’t enough to keep a fully loaded tanker from grounding on a charted reef, nor to effectively clean up the spill. As we look to the future of the Salish Sea, it should be with a wary eye to the past. We would do well to consider how one wrong turn by a supertanker could forever change our lives, livelihoods, and the quality of our environment.

Stephanie Buffum is the executive director of Friends of the San Juans.

Angela Day is the author of “Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” and will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3 at Eagle Harbor Books.

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