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Tue, 19 Feb 2019 08:05
It’s been 30 years since the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Port William Sound, but the disaster still reverberates. A conversation with marine conservation professor and Alaska fisherman Rick Steiner about the state of things today. Plus, journalist and author Antonia Juhasz on how Exxon Valdez compares to the 2010 BP oil spill.
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From Wondering, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. This is the last episode on our series on the Exxon Valdez disaster. Just past midnight on March 24th 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William's sound. At first hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil poured into the clear blue water. Then it was millions. The Supertanker bound for Long Beach, California ran a ground about 22 miles south of Valdez early Friday morning after loading a cargo of 1.25 million barrels from the Alaska Pipeline. Oil poured into the sound at the rate of 20,000 gallons an hour for 12 hours. At the time, the spill was the worst man-made ecological disaster in the country's history. Emergency workers and response teams were dispatched to the ship to contain the flow and clean up what oil they could. A five-mile long oil slick is moving out to sea. Exxon is flying in three plane loads of clean up crews from around the world to help contain the spill. But you can't unspill what's been spilled. Even if you've got at your disposal the resources of the biggest energy company in the country. Exxon. You have had some good luck and you don't realize you have Exxon and we do business straight. We will consider whatever it takes to keep you old. The Exxon Valdez spill, now 30 years old, changed the lives of everyone in the communities of Valdez, Cordova, and surrounding areas. As a result of the spill industry regulations changed, shipping got safer, and yet oil spills continue. You have information now that this rig has gone under? It has gone under the surface at about 10.21 this morning, and Coast Guard got worried that the vessel has gone under. And just recently we got worried that the fire visibly has gone out. In 2010, thousands of miles away from Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Mexico, a deep-water drilling rig operated by BP exploded. 210 million gallons of oil spilled, to warping the 11 million of the Exxon Valdez. On today's show, I'll be talking to two guests to discuss the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the environment and our laws, then and now 30 years later. First up is Rick Steiner, Cordova Fisherman and a Marine Conservation Professor with the University of Alaska. In our series, we featured his work in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, helping to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the local fisherman. Rick spoke to me from an Alaska Public Media Studio in Anchorage, Alaska. Here's our conversation. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. Rick Steiner, welcome to the show. Thanks very much, glad to be here. Now, even before the spill in 1989, you were worried about the possibility of a spill in Prince William's sound. What caused your concern? Well, just the fact that the pipeline had been built across Alaska to a marine terminal in Prince William's sound and all of this oil being hauled by single-hold tankers through Prince William's sound was an obvious risk. The fisherman of Prince William's sound actually knew about this risk back in the early 70s and objected to the whole construction project. They wanted it built across to Canada and kept in pipelines rather than in super tankers going through Prince William's sound. And even several years prior to Exxon Valdez, we knew that there was a risk of a large oil spill. And we tried to establish a Citizens and Advisory Council that would provide stakeholders, fishermen, Alaska Native peoples, communities, NGOs, and oversight role to help government and industry be safer. And the oil industry didn't want it and the state government and federal government didn't want it at the time. So we were unsuccessful. And I still believe to this day that had we been successful establishing that Citizens' oversight capability prior to the Exxon Valdez, it likely never would have happened because we would have seen the risks and fixed them. What was your suspicion of tankers as opposed to a pipeline? One could argue a pipeline has many, many more points of failure than a tanker does. It's actually, in our view, in the risk analysis, it's the opposite. Tankers are a large volume, a million plus barrels of oil, tens of thousands of tons of a very toxic, persistent chemical fluid. And a single-hulled vessel operated by individuals on the bridge that are fallible with a vessel traffic system theoretically monitoring the tanker's transit. And there's so many different points of potential failure in that that it's easy to have a tanker disaster. Pipelines are generally and historically a lot safer way to transport hazardous fluids. Regardless, they decided it was better to build the pipeline across Alaska, have a marine terminal in Valdez, and ship all this north slope oil out of Alaska on super tankers out of through Prince William Sound. We knew that was a risk. The fishermen locally knew it was a risk. They thought it was inevitable that at some point people would mess up, equipment would fail, human error would come into the system, which is exactly what happened. Giving us a catastrophic oil spill that we're still seeing the results of 30 years later. Let's go back to the moment of the spill. What do you remember about that day? When were you first notified? I got a call. I was the University of Alaska's marine advisor for the region, stationed in Cordova, a small fishing town, not connected by road, but a small fishing town on southeastern Prince William Sound, stationed there for many years prior to the spill. I got a call early that morning that there was a tanker ground fly reef. I immediately chartered to plane, got up over the tanker, went to Valdez, landed there. The fumes, even from the oil spilling from the Valdez that morning were even at a thousand feet altitude, were pretty, they made your eyes water. There was absolutely no response out there, no containment attempted, which was a promise by the oil companies that they would have an immediate response to such a thing. Valdez immediately found the Exxon Command Center that they were just setting up at a coastal hotel there, walked through the door. There was no security at the time, introduced myself to the president of Exxon shipping. They didn't know a thing about what to do locally. We knew some things locally. They immediately, with the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Exxon, and ourselves, the few local fishing representatives formed a emergency command team that then directed the response for the first month. It was obvious very soon on, within two or three days, there was a large, northerly wind storm that blew up, 70, 80, not winds, that just blew the oil all over every place in Prince William Sound. There was no containment possible after that. We knew fairly quickly that this was a catastrophe that could not be responded to effectively. Years later, knowing that this catastrophe just happened, and there was no containment, there also was no real recompense either. You staged a blockade of the sound. How did that come about? That was a multifaceted effort. It was basically, I think, in 92 and 93, two or three years after the initial oil spill. Not only had the wild salmon runs, the wild salmon runs failed, but also the hatchery salmon runs failed that summer. The fishermen could see a very, very dark, uncertain future. Some of it, if not most of it, due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The oil company had been very recalcitrant. They didn't want to talk to local people. They didn't want to settle claims. The government had been somewhat ineffective and unresponsive. The local sailors, the salmon sailors, decided to blockade Valdez narrows and not let any more tankers come in or out. It was a pretty dramatic move. It was one of the more, and it turned out to be one of the more effective demonstrations in the history of Alaska, probably anywhere in the history of oil development. So a bunch of sane boats, these 58-foot vessels, about probably 30 or 40 of them. We got them together and they formed a blockade. Several tankers were not admitted and several that were loading at the port could not exit. So the tanks at the terminal were filling up. It lasted for a day or two. And it made the point. A secretary of interior Bruce Babitt at the time came to Valdez. I was an intermediary between the oil industry, the government and the fishing industry on this. It was resolved in a peaceful way. No one was arrested. No one got hurt. The oil industry got put on notice that people were mad. Mad as hell and they were. And the outcome of that was that the government agreed to sponsor a long-term ecosystem research program in Prince Williamson to try to tease out why these fishery runs were failing and the relationship to the oil spill. As well, there was a promise of habitat protection using the exon settlement monies. So it was a remarkably effective demonstration that ended well for all concerned. This year is the like you said, the 30th anniversary of the spill and the impact still lingers. So could you just tell us what's the state of the sound today? Yeah, here we are 30 years on and we know now that not only was there severe short term acute ecological harm caused which everybody could see with their own eyes with the television and photographic images at the time. But there's long term and even permanent ecological harm caused by the oil spill 30 years ago. Many of the monitored populations that the governments have monitored scientifically have yet to fully recover some and this is very critical. So four of them are not recovering at all 30 years later and that includes pitching gillamots and marble mural. It's two small seabirds Pacific Herring which is a very critical pray resource in the system for seabirds marine mammals, other fish and it was also a commercial fishery prior to this bill. And the AT1 killer well pod one genetically unique group of orcas that we saw surfacing in the oil in 1989 they lost most of their members of the pod. In the next year or two and now they're down to six or seven members no reproductive female so that pod of killer wells is expected to go extinct. Period so not only is there large severe short term acute injury from these things but there can be long term and even permanent harm the bigger issue as well is that the ecological shift in transition that was caused by the oil spill is like a huge bomb that went off with toxic hydrocarbons in the system. The relationship of the component to the ecosystem changed dramatically and I think it's pretty conclusive that Prince William sound will never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez period we and we even still have pockets of Exxon Valdez oil still in the beach sediments of the sound but the long term environmental harm has been dramatic. So the recovery effort failed 30 years later there's still oil on the beaches you were able to take some of the funding and move it to some place where you thought you could protect can you tell me what you did in the force around the sound sure it became very evident about a month into the spill in 1989 that there was very little that could be done to actually clean up or contain the oil. Or to help rehabilitate oil wildlife for try to restore the injured ecosystem but what we could do is protect it from further additional ecological injury and ironically just the year before the Exxon Valdez happen clear cut logging had just begun in the very thin strip of coastal temperate rainforest along the coast of Prince William sound in the north Gulf coast of Alaska. And we knew that that would cause long term environmental injury and so we reason that certainly we ought to be able to get hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from Exxon for the environmental harm they caused and use those monies to purchase permanent protections on these coastal forest that's precisely what was accomplished the Exxon Valdez oil spill trustee council was established with this billion dollar settlement from Exxon that we had recommended in 1990. The settlement was achieved in 1991 and much of that settlement probably 400 to 500 million dollars was used in purchasing these long term coastal habitat protections to protect these for us and that there's a couple of logic logical arguments there one is this is habitat for a number of the sea birds and salmon species in the streams and coastal. So we're going to be able to get a hearing spawning areas and things like that to protect that but beyond that it's a way of compensating for environmental harm that cannot be directly restored and that's one of the sad things we've learned about oil spills around the world is not only can you not clean them up or contain them. We restore an oil spill injured marine ecosystem what you can do is prevent it from happening again and protect it protect the ecosystem from further immediate harm and that's what we've done in Prince William Sound. If you're into true crime the generation why podcast is essential listening we started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. Generation why is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it unraveling a new case every week we break down infamous cases like the evil genius bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game we cover every angle breaking down theories diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case and with over 450 episodes there's a little something for every true crime listener follow the generation. Follow the generation why podcast on Amazon music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining one D. Plus in the one D. App. In addition to the vast ecological damage there are the people of Cordova and other towns around the sound you say that even just one month after the spill it was obvious that very little could be done. I have to imagine in the moment after the shock perhaps even the rush of crisis that this dawning realization struck these towns hard can you just tell us what it might have been like to to be in Cordova and realizing that livelihood might be over that's at affected everybody in a devastating way particularly the small communities within the oil spill region Alaska native villages and fishing towns. Who's entire self identity is harvesting fishery resources from the region and and also other marine resources and the whole sense of place was was turned upside down the whole the focus on the future uncertainties involved and you know what the future might be and what whether things would restore to normal and the future was really up in the air and so there was a court over became what social psychologist call a toxic commute a corrosive community. There was substance abuse and spousal abuse and that we had suicides and a lot of anxiety disorders and such and those persisted for several years and then you had the litigation on top of that in which the fishing industry Alaska native communities pursued a private litigation and US district court got a $5 billion punitive verdict a few years later but the next on did what ex on does and they appealed it for a decade widdled it down ultimately to maybe a tenth of that and so people felt very portrayed by the judicial process they felt betrayed by government. And so there was a long long term sense of betrayal and anxiety and I will tell you that the people I know that is in Prince William's town now will never again trust the oil industry and their promises so they we have we were successful citizens advisory council after the oil spill and so there's a mechanism of communication now between the local stakeholders and the oil industry and the state and federal government that was not. There before hand so we got things pretty well worked out in Prince William's town we have now double hole tankers a battle vessel traffic system. Tag escorts escorting every loaded tanker out through the sound to the ocean entrance and the citizens oversight council but what we haven't done is taking that lesson and applied it elsewhere like the illusion islands and the barren straight and during the Arctic shipping season and such so we've learned our lesson and I'm going to do that. We learned our lesson and applied those those hard learned lessons in the sound but not taking it elsewhere very very effectively. Do you know of any who were in cordova in 1989 who stayed and are there now how have they rebuilt well you know the psyche and of the town tends to revolve around the salmon the fishery economy and if the fishing has been good people feel good they have a restored sense of identity in place and. Confidence in the future if fishing has been bad that confidence and self identity tends to erode and become a little more fractured and this last year was a pretty bad year for the copper river fishery and that's been a hard hit for the local people there. Plus they have this residual lingering memory of the exon Valdez and how government and industry had made all these promises that they then betrayed immediately upon construction the pipeline in the 1970s leading to the exon Valdez which they knew was inevitable if they didn't get it right. So there's this lingering sense of distrust with government and the oil industry and I think very in a very justified way so people rebuilt in cordova and they they you know they feel good when there's a good fishing year. But they also know that it's possible to have another one of these as safe as we've got the oil transport system in the sound right now it could happen today again even with all the safeguards in the system so that's at the back of everyone's mind as well and if it happens again it's just going to be. Another chaotic few decades for the region so and in hindsight I think a lot of us feel that the pipeline should never have been built across Alaska it should have to marine terminal and Valdez it should have connected across to Canada which was the other proposal and the early 1970s and run through pipelines down to the Midwest but that's hindsight but we can use some of the lessons of hindsight and how we go forward I think well let's let's talk about that let's use the lessons of hindsight how do we go forward well I think the you know when I look back at this in the hindsight of 30 years I think our glasses about a quarter full and three quarters empty we've fixed some of the proximate causes of the oil spill in Prince William sand well now we have you know legislative double hole tankers in all the US oil fleets and phase in globally based on our experience here we have a better vessel traffic system tug escorts citizens oversight better liability regime better watch standing protocols on the bridge of these tankers all sorts of things in the sound itself but not we haven't applied those lessons elsewhere in other waterways in the United States we need to. And then the bigger picture is in the last 30 years you know we've continue nineteen eighty nine when the oil spill happened the world was using about sixty million barrels of oil a day we knew at the time climate change was a growing risk oil was finite we had to start. Developing a national energy strategy that would reduce our alliance on this finite hazardous substance we call for a national energy strategy at the time and the government promptly ignored us and today. Sixty million barrels a day in nineteen eighty nine today we're using about a hundred million barrels a day globally. Energy use has increased about thirty percent atmospheric CO2 is increased from three fifty parts per million in nineteen eighty nine now to over four hundred ten parts per million we've lost about thirty percent of the Arctic sea ice in that time period we've lost thousands of species to extinction hundreds of millions of forest have been lost as far as habitat so the global environmental picture has gone from bad to catastrophic and we've always hope that. Events out these in the deep water horizon Chernobyl Bhopal Fukushima and such would sort of galvanize public consciousness around the short term injuries that were causing through our industrial paradigm to the environment but also in larger picture to the big chronic cumulative day after day degradation of it and develop a new economic paradigm that's environmentally sustainable we have failed. We have failed on that and that you know we can no longer afford to ignore so we've got some heavy work heavy lifting to do on our energy climate biodiversity and contaminants population resource production consumption levels to make sure we have a sustainable future and we have not done that work. Rick Steiner thank you so much for talking to me today absolutely thank you very much folks. That was my conversation with the University of Alaska Marine Conservation Professor Rick Steiner he helped coordinate the response efforts to the Exxon Valdez spill in nineteen eighty nine my next guest is Antonio Ujas she's an oil analyst journalist and author her most recent book is black tide the devastating impact of the Gulf oil spill Antonio spoke to me from a studio at KQED in San Francisco. Antonio Ujas welcome to our show thank you so much for having me was thirty years ago this year that the Exxon Valdez spilled eleven million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound the most recent in public memory spill of that magnitude was deep water horizon they are similar obviously in some ways that the petroleum hit water but they are different one was a tanker spill and one was an oil rig explosion. But I was wondering as you've covered both do you think of them as related yeah there. Deeply related in in many ways I think what is similar about these oil spills. And you know I actually wrote a sentence in my book tyranny of oil about the Exxon Valdez disaster and I said that one of the reasons was Exxon's failure to adequately prepare for a spill that was not only likely but probable I could have written the identical sentence about BP in two thousand and ten what makes these disasters so similar is that they were not only predictable they were predicted the company. The companies were warned for years preceding them that the risks that were involved the dangers what could lead to the disasters and then what was necessary to adequately address the failures and the cleanup and the spills after they happened and in both cases neither company. I'm heated those warnings nor did any of their fellow companies and predicted disaster happened and that is a tragic outcome particularly because so many lessons were learned in the wake of Valdez that should have warned regulators that they needed to keep a much tighter. Titer wrap on oil companies operating in our waters be it tankers or drilling for oil and exploration or production then was the case and that is one of the reasons why the BP disaster happened in both cases the companies were cutting corners cutting costs basically playing a very very risky game with our environment. With the safety of workers and the safety of people who live around those areas and fish from those waters and all those people and those environments lost out. Because of a risky game that the companies played I'm trying to put on my ex on or BP hat for a moment it is obviously a risky game these spills are not only economic and environmental disasters but the PR nightmares of course and they're going to get revisited. Every 5 10 25 30 years what is it that makes a company as large and capable as these penny wise and pound foolish why cut corners. Yeah I mean that was almost literally the judgment of of judge barbie who ruled in the case against BP where he found the company grossly negligent and said that they were putting profits saving time and saving money over people and the environment. And that is exactly the same words also could have been could have been said in the case against ex on the reason why they do it is because the costs don't outweigh the benefits so they in the case of ex on. Ex on was incredibly successful at shielding itself from economic harm as a result of the values disaster their total cost from their federal government settlement as well as their cleanup costs was just 3.4 billion dollars and a class action lawsuit that was brought against the company by the people of Alaska Fisher and the folks who are impacted and originally they were awarded a 5 billion dollars impunitive damages which was the equivalent of one years profit for ex on at that at that time. And the case for 19 years and they brought that court judgment against the down to just 500 million from 5 billion and 20 years later so they ended up paying very little for what were the cost that continue to this day so fishing is still impacted and values to this day oil still seeps up on beaches to this day. And many people are still sick or have died from the impacts of pollution so for them there wasn't a significant cost but there was a number of lessons that were learned as a result of the values disaster that affected policy so this was a very public. Disaster as you say there were you know these incredibly stirring photographs and it may have been the first really well photographed oil spill in in world history and I think that was very moving for the public and it did lead to significant policy change the most important policy change that then. And the impact of the BP deep water horizon disaster was passage in 1990 under the first president bush of the oil pollution act and that was an attempt to to learn a lot of the lessons of the failures that happened with the Valdez and that put the federal government in a in a much more oversight role and driving role than it had been in the after the oil spill with the Valdez where everything was really just left up to ex on and there was very little oversight by the federal government. And act really changed the law to make it so that BP was forced to almost essentially put everything back the way it was before the disaster or if it couldn't pay for what was lost they had to pay a significant finds under the clean water act they had to alert the public they had to pay communities that were impacted at the time for losses they were suffering at the time and there was just a whole host of requirements. And the whole host of requirements placed on them that were not there at the time of Valdez and that were there because of legislation that passed as a result and as a consequence though I would certainly argue that BP did not end up paying anywhere near what their obligation should have been they did end up paying in total something around 60 something something around 50 billion dollars. And that would not have been the case had we not put in place legislation following Valdez. All right. I have to do a little math here because I'm interested in knowing what 50 billion is just for inflation of 1989. Boy, billion has a lot of zeros. Okay, that's fascinating. So in comparison that 50 billion that BP paid X on pay 3.4 billion in 1989, which is just under 7 billion in 2018 dollars. So that's that's a 12 fold difference. But by scale in terms of the just gallons of oil released that doesn't seem to be you know equitable. It certainly isn't and I think you know in both cases like I said neither company paid what what the law should have required of them so in both cases they negotiated down their finds if you put in a straight application of the law. The laws they broke under the clean water act the clean air act marine mammal protection acts they should have faced much higher finds so BP had itself at the beginning of the disaster actually estimated that it would likely cost 60 billion dollars. And then it came in under that so BP at the end of the day maybe suffered a few bad years but they have more than bounced back and that's because the amount that they were required to pay was at the end of the day entirely manageable for them. Let's turn to some of the better impacts that these two disasters have yielded certainly there's a greater public scrutiny but also there's some laws and regulations. Can you go through some of the things that that have been enacted that actually help and might prevent any of these from happening in the future. So the most significant legal changes that happened as a result of the values was the passage of the oil pollution act in 1990 and then within that act there were many significant changes to law probably the most significant in the case of tankers was putting in place or requirement that companies shift from single whole tankers to double whole tankers a double layer of steel. So that it's much much much more difficult for those if it does run aground if it is impacted for the oil to be released and that was in the 1999 oil pollution act however it had a very delayed implementation the companies had all the way until 2015 to fully implement that rule and the result was with other more thorough safety requirements but into place that oil tanker disasters declined dramatically. Now there are still tanker disasters and oil is still spilled from tankers that they were definitely reduced by regulation. The other changes that happened were as a result of the deep water horizon disaster it was obvious that there was dramatically inadequate oversight for offshore oil companies and there were some new safety requirements and regulations that were beginning to be implemented. They were written they were on the books they were starting to be implemented under the Obama administration and those were removed by the Trump administration and the Trump administration has put forward a plan at the same time is reducing regulations and oversight. It's put forward a proposal to open up 96% of all US federal waters to offshore drilling. So what do you worry about most what should we be afraid of next. There's two things that I worry about. Exxon and BP are not only two of the largest oil companies in the world they're two of the largest companies period in the world and in the history of the world and if these companies can cause this scale of disaster what is in store in the future as they move into even deeper offshore operations as they continue to expand much more difficult drilling techniques like fracking like going into Tarsans as oil becomes more difficult to get at and produce how much worse could these disasters be particularly had a time when we have a administration in the United States and now in other countries that are really seeking to aggressively roll back regulations of industry. So in that context I'm very nervous about what the next disaster might be but even beyond that this isn't 1989 this isn't even 2010 we now know that we can't continue our climate cannot withstand this continued pursuit of oil without you know freewheeling was the language that was used at the time of the Valdez for the behavior of the industry this type of freewheeling operations not only can we not withstand it when it's done safely but we really can't withstand it when it's done unsafely and we really need to be looking at in many more context are the costs really worth it are we really willing to take in all of this risk and all of these known devastating costs for getting at the last bits of oil. Antonio Ujas thank you so much for talking to us today on American scandal thank you so much for having me that was oil analyst and journalist and Tony Ujas you can read more of her work on the oil industry and the BP spill in black tide the devastating impact of the Gulf oil spill. From Wandry this is episode five of five of Exxon Valdez for American scandal on our next series the Harry Krishna's were a movement started with good intentions and a founder who wanted to help a generation of young Americans get closer to divinity but when that founder died without naming a successor ambitious followers turned on each other leading the movement down a path towards crime violence and murder. If you'd like to learn more about the oil industry and the BP oil spill we recommend black tide the devastating impact of the Gulf oil spill by Antonio Ujas. American scandal is hosted edited and executive produced by me Lindsey Graham for airship sound design by Derek Barrett's this episode was produced by Katie Long the Exxon Valdez series is written by Benjamin Gray edited by Andrew Stelser. Exxon producers are Stephanie Jen's Marshall Louie and her non-lopes for Wunder.