"Economic Development and the Environment"
on the Sakhalin Offshore Oil and Gas Fields II

Copyright (C) 1999 by Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.
All rights reserved

Oil Spills: Lessons from Alaska for Sakhalin

Rick Steiner

Overview of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska
'what could be in store for Sakhalin and Hokkaido'
The 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska provides an important lesson in what can be lost in one simple wrong turn of a loaded oil tanker. The spill became for the oil industry worldwide what Chernobyl had become for the nuclear industry and Bhopal for the chemical industry - the symbolic, defining standard against which all other such disasters are measured.
Policy decisions and assertions before the spill provide an important context in which to understand this spill, and the situation in Sakhalin. When oil was discovered on Alaska's north slope in 1968, the immediate question became how best to get the oil to market. Of the various options discussed - which included building a railway, a road to truck it, submarine tankers, ice-breaking tankers, and even huge cargo airplanes - the only two given serious consideration were to build a pipeline east from Alaska across to connect with a pre-existing pipeline system in western Canada, or a pipeline south across Alaska to the ice-free port of Valdez, for subsequent shipment by tanker through Prince William Sound.
At the time, the national environmental community and the Prince William Sound fishing industry favored the Canadian option, specifically fearing that a major oil spill into the Sound would catastrophically disrupt the productive marine ecosystem and the fishing industry. The oil industry, however, wanted to build across Alaska, saying this route would be cheaper, quicker, and they also had their eye on the potentially lucrative Asian market for exporting Alaska oil in the future. Although the Sound's fishermen won a law suit to stop the construction of the Alaska pipeline, the Nixon administration bowed to powerful domestic oil interests, went to Congress and narrowly passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) Act in 1971, clearing the way for building the line across Alaska.
To help win approval in Congress, the administration and the oil industry made three important safety promises to the people of the United States and Alaska - the tankers would be double-hulled, there would be a state-of-the-art vessel traffic system (VTS) observing each tanker navigating the Sound, and Alyeska (the pipeline owner) would have an oil spill response capability second to none. As a result of such promises, some naive politicians boldly stated that "not one drop of oil will ever enter Prince William Sound."
But in subsequent years, after pipeline construction began, all three of these promises essentially evaporated. The federal government was convinced by the oil industry that double-hulled tankers were unnecessary, and in 1974 the U.S. Coast Guard announced that Alaska tankers would have no special requirements, such as double hulls. The State of Alaska tried unsuccessfully for several years to convince the federal government to change this policy and to require TAPS tankers to be double-hulled. In 1976, the Alaska Legislature passed the Alaska Coastal Management Act requiring oil shippers with lower standards to pay more into the coastal management program. This provided a significant financial incentive for shippers to build double-bottom and double hulled tankers, and several were built for Alaska in the next few years. But the shippers filed a law suit against this act just after the oil started flowing through the pipeline in 1977. And in a profound blow to oil transportation safety, the shippers won this suit in 1979, with the court ruling that the state could not preempt federal inter-state shipping authority. This victory for the industry put the issue of additional double-hulled vessels and that of additional spill response preparedness to rest at the time.
But these short-term cost saving victories for the oil industry in the 1979 set the stage for the environmental, social, and economic tragedy of the Exxon Valdez spill ten years later.
The Spill:
On the evening of March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez loaded 1.3 million barrels of Alaska north slope crude oil, and headed out from Valdez. The mates and captain, having been involved either in cargo loading operations or drinking across the bay in town, were fatigued and of questionable performance capability. After disembarking the harbor pilot just outside Valdez Narrows, the master radioed Valdez Coast Guard requesting permission to cross over from the outbound traffic lane into the inbound (north-bound) lane to avoid glacial icebergs. The Coast Guard VTS had been downgraded in the early 1980s and now could not track tankers as far out as Bligh Reef.
Noticing heavy ice in the lanes, the master steered the vessel on across the inbound lane to avoid ice, put the vessel on autopilot, and increased to full sea speed of 14 knots. He then left orders with the third mate to turn the vessel back into the lanes when it was abeam the Busby navigational light, and went below to his quarters. At this point, there was a fully loaded, single-hulled supertanker at full sea speed, outside the designated traffic lanes, on autopilot, heading directly toward Bligh Reef, unmonitored by the Coast Guard VTS, piloted by an exhausted mate without pilotage credentials for this seaway - a recipe for disaster. Although the third mate later testified that a command was given to take the vessel off autopilot and that he gave a 10 degree right rudder command at Busby light, the voyage data recorder indicated later that the vessel didn't turn until 5 minutes (a full mile) later. It is strongly suspected that the vessel was not taken off autopilot until it was too late, and just after the bridge crew realized the error, switched off the autopilot and the right turn commenced, they slammed full ahead into Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m., March 24.
The impact ruptured 8 of the 11 cargo tanks, and most of the oil flowed out in the next 12 hours of falling tide. The oil remaining onboard was successfully lightered onto other tankers over the next few days, and the tanker was eventually salvaged and rebuilt in California. The response and cleanup was a notorious failure, as little equipment or dispersants were on hand, much of it didn't work, and a strong northerly storm quickly scattered the oil beyond control. While a little oil was recovered from beaches, the amounts recovered were of little consequence to the coastal ecosystem - the damage was extraordinary.
Biological Impacts:
Results of several hundred million dollars of government and private scientific studies indicate that the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, though not the largest in terms of volume spilled, was the most biologically, socially, and economically damaging spill in history. Over 40,000 tons of a relatively heavy crude oil spilled into an extremely productive, pristine, cold-water, protected nearshore environment - Prince William Sound, Alaska. The spill occurred at the time of critical biological productivity - herring were moving nearshore to spawn, migratory seabirds and whales were returning to the area, juvenile salmon were just emerging from streams into the nearshore zone, harbor seals and sea otters were pupping, and the spring plankton bloom had just begun. The spilled oil traveled with currents and wind southwest through Prince William Sound, and thus was exposed directly to hundreds of miles of relatively protected shoreline in its path. In a very real sense, a major spill couldn't have happened at a worse time and place.
The Exxon Valdez became the defining example of ecological disaster from marine oil spills. The oil eventually spread over 10,000 square miles of Alaska's coastal ocean, as far as 600 miles from the sight of grounding. Over 1,500 miles of some of the world's most extraordinary shoreline were oiled, including three national wildlife refuges, three national parks, wilderness areas, a national forest, and extensive areas that had been inhabited for millennia by Alaska Natives. Less than 7% of the spilled oil was recovered, despite a $2 billion attempt - the most massive ever - by Exxon and the federal and state governments.
The initial biological effects are well documented and understood by many throughout the world, due largely to the extensive media coverage of the disaster. The effects were devastating - virtually everything associated with the sea surface was significantly impacted. More marine mammals and seabirds were killed directly by the oil than in any man-made disaster ever. The marine mammal death toll included at least 25 killer whales out of an area population of about 180; 3,500 - 5,500 sea otters, most of the population in western Prince William Sound; and 200 or so harbor seals. Direct mortality of seabirds has been estimated at 300,000 - 645,000, with an additional loss in chick production of over 300,000 following the spill. Some colonies of murres lost 60% - 70% of breeding birds. The 1989 year class of herring, that was spawned in the nearshore zone just as the oil arrived, was essentially lost to the population. Terrestrial mammals including river otters, brown bear, deer, and mink were all affected. And, much of the intertidal zone was essentially sterilized by the toxic oil, and invertebrate communities severely altered.
Such body counts, however, leave only a relatively sterile, abstract understanding of the acute and devastating impact of the oil. Many of us watched in vain as countless sea otters shivered in oiled fur that once kept them warm, whales surfaced in oil which they then inspired, birds struggled unable to fly, river otters crawled off to die under rocks, and thousands of juvenile salmon showed up dead through oil skimming operations. The immediate, overwhelming sense of tragedy was eloquently conveyed by Walter Meganak, a regional native elder who said in June, 1989:
"...what we see now is death. Death, not of each other but of the source of life - the water...It is too shocking to understand. Never in the millennium of our tradition have we thought it possible for the water to die. But it is true."
Beyond the immediate biological damage, there were profound sub-lethal, chronic impacts. There were brain lesions in seals, reproductive failure in birds and mammals, blood chemistry problems, morphological deformities such as curved spines, reduced growth rates, altered feeding habits, liver damage in otters and seals, eye tumors and viral diseases in fish, and general overall physiological impairment.
Some of the ecological damage didn't begin to manifest until several years into the event. Herring populations collapsed for the first time on record in 1993. Of the 120,000 tons of herring expected to return to the Sound that spring, only about 20,000 tons showed up, more than 30% of which were infected by a serious viral disease (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) and a fungal disease. In the succeeding 7 years, only small harvests have been possible in just two years. And although pink salmon runs were strong in the first couple of years, they too collapsed in 1992 and 1993 seasons. Millions of outmigrant salmon were exposed to oil as juveniles in 1989, and many of the eggs of these fish that were laid in streams in 1990 were further exposed to oil. Thus, both even and odd year pink salmon were heavily exposed to oil, and the progeny of both of these year classes failed in 1992/1993. The ecosystem impact of these fish stock collapses has been profound. Herring is considered a cornerstone species in the ecosystem, being a principal prey item for over 40 other species including seabirds, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish. The extensive mortality in sea otters in western Prince William Sound precipitated an explosion of some of their prey species, notable green sea urchin, causing urchin barrens where they have denuded large areas of macroalgae which are critical habitats for certain other fish and crustaceans.
And this year - ten years after the spill - only two injured species are listed by government agencies as recovered - bald eagles and just recently, river otters. Listed as still recovering are black oystercatchers, clams, murres, intertidal communities, marbled murrelets, blue mussels, herring, pink salmon, red salmon, sea otters, sediments, and subtidal communities. And those still listed as not recovering include pelagic cormorants, red-faced cormorants, double-crested cormorants, harbor seals, harlequin ducks, killer whales, and pigeon guillemots. Those listed as recovery unknown include cutthroat dolly varden trout, Kittlitz's murrelet, and rockfish. And today there is still a substantial amount of residual oil in beach sediments of the oil spill region, mostly in Prince William Sound. This oil resides under rocks and in intertidal sediments, and because it has solidified into an asphalt on the surface, the lower layers exist in a relatively unweathered, toxic condition. This residual oil has been found to exhibit toxic effects down to concentrations as low as 1 part per billion.
And beyond ecosystem impacts, humans working on the cleanup experienced an average oil-mist exposure some 12 times in excess of permissible exposure limits. A maximum overexposure of 400 times the permissible limit was reported from one beach being treated with high-pressure, hot water washing. Over 1,800 worker compensation claims were received by the government in 1989, most with respiratory complaints. In summary, the biological damage of the Exxon Valdez spill was severe, unprecedented, and in most cases ongoing ten years into the event. Many scientists expect long-term damage to continue for decades to come.