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Oil spill prevention, response improve since Exxon Valdez

The Exxon Valdez is towed away from Bligh Reef on April 5, 1989.
The Exxon Valdez is towed away from Bligh Reef on April 5, 1989. Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News

WASHINGTON — Advances since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill have helped to prevent additional mishaps as well as put in place the tools for a quick response to such spills, environmental regulators said Friday during a program to mark the 20th anniversary of the environmental disaster.

There's no better example than the SKS Satilla, a three-year-old Norwegian tanker that was carrying more than 40 million gallons of crude oil when it hit a submerged oil rig last week off the coast of Texas, said Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara of the U.S. Coast Guard, who was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground nearby. The double-hulled Norwegian tanker didn't spill a drop in the collision, but had it not been built to post-Exxon Valdez standards, the resulting catastrophe would have been four times worse, Brice-O'Hara said.

"A potential environmental catastrophe was averted, primarily because the SKS Satilla was a double-hulled tanker and the damage along the bottom ruptured only the ballast water tank, not the cargo tank," she said. "With a single skin, the results would have eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put on Friday's event in Washington, part commemoration and part memorial of the Exxon Valdez spill, which ran aground on Bligh Reef in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine fishing waters of Prince William Sound.

The spill exposed a level of corporate and regulatory complacency that the state of Alaska, oil producers and U.S. regulators can never return to, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

"Alaskans will never forget that morning, waking up to hear about the worst oil spill in U.S. history," Murkowski said. "We became acutely aware of how woefully unprepared we were."

The past two decades may have seen significant progress in scientific knowledge as well as oil spill response and cleanup, Murkowski said, but "we simply cannot allow ourselves to become complacent again."

"It is unfortunate that it takes an environmental disaster of this magnitude to enact the kind of preventative measure and responses necessary to keep it from happening again," she said.

Prince William Sound is now home to more oil spill-cleanup equipment than any port in the world, said Donna Schantz, the acting director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council. It has radar systems with iceberg detection, high-performing escort tugboats and 900,000 barrels of storage capacity for recovered oil.

NOAA and the Coast Guard continue to have concerns about ships with large fuel tanks that don't have the double-hull protection of oil tankers. They're also concerned about the effects of renewable energy installations and expanded offshore oil and gas exploration along coastlines in portions of the U.S. where it currently isn't taking place, said Dave Westerholm, the director of NOAA's office of Response and Restoration.

As they look to the future, the Arctic region also is of tremendous concern, said Mary Glackin, NOAA's deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. As shipping lanes open in areas previously choked by ice and as the agency grapples with the potential of offshore drilling in icy waters, it will have to figure out how to handle oil spills in those areas.

It's aware of "how little we understand about the mixing of oil in that Arctic environment," Glackin said. "It's certainly one of the challenges that we see as we move forward."

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