Lessons from Exxon Valdez spill have gone unheeded

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The story of the last cataclysmic American oil spill has evolved over time into a straightforward tale of cause and effect: In 1989, a hard-drinking skipper ran his tanker aground in Alaska, and Exxon was unable to prevent crude from spreading along hundreds of miles of pristine shoreline.

But the full story of the Exxon Valdez wreck is far more complex, and it offers striking parallels to today's events in the Gulf of Mexico -- including a central role played by a consortium led by British Petroleum, now known as BP.

A commission that investigated the Alaska spill found that oil companies cut corners to maximize profits. Systems intended to prevent disaster failed, and no backups were in place. Regulators were too close to the oil industry and approved woefully inadequate accident response and cleanup plans.

History is repeating, say officials who investigated the Valdez, because the lessons of two decades ago remain unheeded.

"It's disappointing," said 84-year-old Walt Parker, chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, which made dozens of recommendations for preventing a recurrence. "It's almost as though we had never written the report."

Marine experts predict that the many panels investigating the Deepwater Horizon blowout -- including a presidential commission that began work this week in New Orleans -- will produce reports with numerous findings that could have been cut and pasted from the 20-year-old report written by Parker's commission or another body that examined the Valdez accident. They also fear those findings may have no more impact than the Valdez conclusions have.

In the immediate aftermath of the Alaska spill, as in the gulf, there was confusion over who was in charge -- oil companies or government officials. Federal authorities eventually asserted themselves but lacked the equipment and personnel to stem the damage. Storms slowed the response and spread contamination. Cleanup technology was old and ineffective. Environmentalists questioned the toxicity of dispersants and asked whether oil companies were using chemicals to hide damage.

The vast Alaska containment effort recovered only a fraction of the millions of gallons of oil dumped into Prince William Sound.

The players in the Alaskan drama also look familiar. Although Exxon owned the Valdez tanker, it was not responsible for the flawed emergency response plan and did not lead initial containment efforts. Those jobs fell to the Alyeska Pipeline Service, a consortium operating the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.

The consortium's controlling partner was British Petroleum. British Petroleum also supplied the consortium's top executive, who later resigned under pressure. "BP called the shots," said Tom Lakosh, an oil spill researcher.

The Alaskan commission concluded that cost-cutting by Alyeska contributed to the disaster, just as critics allege that BP's focus on profits contributed to the gulf spill.

"British Petroleum's leadership essentially was 'asleep at the switch,' " the commission's report concluded.

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