The spring of 1989 lives in infamy in Alaska.
On March 24 of that year, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, which, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history — killing an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 300 harbor seals, 22 killer whales, and other wildlife. It was also an expensive payout for Exxon, which settled in court in 1991 for more than $1 billion.
In the decades since, agencies in Alaska have tried to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.
Betsi Oliver, an outreach coordinator at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (PWSRCAC), along with members of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, on Thursday led a community seminar about oil spill prevention and response protocol in Seward.
Aboard the Spirit of Matushka ship, community members journeyed into Ressurection Bay and observed fishing vessels perform oil spill response training.
The observation hasn’t been held in Seward since 2016, Oliver said, as the PWSRCAC funds the event in different communities on a rotating schedule. Other locations that host the seminar include Whittier, Homer and Cordova. Valdez and Kodiak also hold their own trainings. Additionally, the PWSRCAC annual board meeting, which is open to the public, will be held in Seward this September.
Oliver said the primary goal of Thursday’s event was to engage with people in the area about the work PWSRCAC and Alyeska do to prevent and respond to spills.
“So many people have lived (here) their whole lives, and maybe they’ve sort of seen (fleets) once or twice out there, but you don’t really know what’s going on,” she said. “We don’t know how much effort goes into this whole system until you start to actually get up close and personal with it.”
During the event, passengers were taken into Resurrection Bay to observe a fishing vessel fleet deploy floating barriers, called containment boom, that help corral oil in the event of a spill.
Captains formed V-shaped arrangements on the water and dragged their boom behind them. There are about 1,200 mariners who are contracted and paid to be oil spill first responders each year.
Oliver said fleets “have to” be prepared to respond within 72 hours of a spill, in order to most efficiently minimize damage.
But what PWSRCAC also focuses on is prevention, she said, which encompasses many practices.
One, she said, is to make sure all oil rigs have a double-hull system. In this model, the ship has two complete layers of watertight hull surface on the bottom of the boat that act as double protection against damage.
The Exxon Valdez tanker, for example, hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, which tore open the bottom hull of the ship and caused the 11-million gallon spill. The rig only operated with a single-hull system.
“Now all tankers are required to have a double hull,” Oliver said. “There’s a space so even if it hits a rock, it might not break all the way through to this inner hull, which is actually holding the oil.”
She said other preventative measures include closures during adverse weather, speed limits, ice detection technology, and tugboat escort services.
Preventing oil spills in Prince William Sound is complex, Oliver said, and requires partnerships with many different entities including the fishing captains, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Bureau of Land Management, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and PWSRCAC and Alyeska Pipeline.
Jeremy Robida is the spill prevention and response program manager at PWSRCAC’s Valdez office. At the event in Seward, he said the oil industry has come a long way since the Exxon Valdez disaster.
“Hopefully we never do this for real,” he said Thursday. “But we’ve got all the prevention pieces in place. … It’s such a different world on the prevention side now.”
Robida said the agency operates with contingency plans.
“It’s just a hypothetical scenario written on paper,” he said. “Should the tanker run aground, should something happen, we’ve got at least some basic roadmap on how we would respond and who’s doing what and when and where.”
Hands-on practice in oil spill response, he said, is important so fleets can be familiar with both the protocol and the equipment.
Doug Holloway was one of the observers on the ship Thursday. The California transplant said he wanted to participate in the seminar to learn more about what he can do as an angler and boat owner in the case of a spill.
“I’m a private boater, and I just wanted to hear how they do it,” he said. “(It’s) always good to know.”
Holloway lives in Seward and said he has seen the fleets training with boom containment equipment.
“I see all the same boats out here in the harbor all the time,” he said. “The locals here, I mean, everybody takes it personal.”
It’s important to coastal communities that Prince William Sound be kept clean and healthy, Holloway said.
“This is a beautiful bay, so I sure wouldn’t want some long-lasting problem to happen to it,” he said.
Wendy Sailors, a business development specialist with the Alaska State Parks based in Anchorage, also observed Thursday’s event.
She aided the cleanup effort of the Exxon Valdez oil spill when she was 20, while working for the oil and energy company Veco Alaska, she said.
“It was very interesting and informative,” Sailors said. “I was on the oil spill working and doing those things, but still didn’t remember a lot of what I heard today.”
She said she maintains interest now in her job for the state parks system, since many of the parks border Prince William Sound.
“Public information is important for any aspect of public lands, public waters, our resources, and allowing them to be a voice,” Sailors said. “And be(ing) part of the voice as it pertains to any type of response or prevention is really important.”
Oliver, with the PWSRCAC, said one of the agency’s main concerns at this point is the financial future of oil spill training and response. According to the agency, the “council works closely with and is funded chiefly by Alyeska (Pipeline).” She said limited funding could threaten the future of oil spill prevention and response efforts.
“We keep seeing budgets for Coast Guard, budgets for BLM, budgets for DEC, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking,” Oliver said. “They’re trying to do more with less.”
She said since the agencies work in tandem to prevent spills, one budget cut can cause a ripple effect.
“We’re concerned that this is putting us in a situation more like what we saw in 1989,” Oliver said. “People tend to think it’s been this long without a problem therefore we don’t need all the prevention. And it’s like no, no, no, the prevention proves that it’s working.”
For more information, visit https://www.pwsrcac.org.
This story has been updated with factual corrections about the event. A previous version of this story included an inaccurate job title for Jeremy Robida and website link for more information. The acronym of the agency, name of the Bay and information on the Valdez and Kodiak trainings were also corrected.