Friday, March 21, 2014

Oil And Water Don’t Mix— Never Have

Prince William Sound birds (WikiCommons)
I learned about the Exxon Valdez going aground 25 years ago while working in corporate communications for the investor-owned utility, Hawaiian Electric Company. We sadly watched the national news for days as 11 million gallons of oil spread and coated the pristine shorelines.

I told my colleagues there about being with the nascent Puget Sound Water Quality Authority on the Olympic Peninsula in late December 1985 right after the Arco Anchorage went aground west of Port Angeles spilling 239,000 gallons of oil.  What stayed with me was the pervasive smell of the oil and the frantic and futile efforts to clean seabirds with detergent before they ingested the oil and died.

Right before I returned to Puget Sound to begin work and launch the new People For Puget Sound, the fishing vessel Tenyo Maru spilled 354,00 gallons of fuel oil and 97,000 gallons of diesel in a collision off the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait in July 1991.

I was on vacation in Hawaii and taking calls from the news media in late December 2003 when 4,700 gallons of oil overflowed late at night while a barge was being loaded at Point Wells near Edmonds, then floated over to ruin the shellfish beds on the Suquamish reservation.

At People For Puget Sound we scrambled in the early morning and throughout the days that followed a spill or discharge of 1,500 gallons of oil near Vashon Island’s Dalco Passage.

And we watched and watched and watched in April 2010 and for months afterwards as 210 million gallons of oil gushed and gushed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill site in the Gulf of Mexico.

These spills have brought to some extent or another hand wringing, calls to action, studies, enhanced planning and communications, more regulatory oversight, training, response equipment— and even a permanently stationed rescue tug at Neah Bay paid for by the shipping industry after over 12 years of wrangling for enhanced protection near the outer Strait.

Are we better prepared to keep the genie in the bottle with better spill prevention measures? Are we better prepared to try to get the genie back in the bottle with better spill recovery measures?

The amount of large vessel traffic and oil transport is expected to increase with an additional oil pipeline to Vancouver BC, an coal export facility at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, and railroad tank cars bringing Bakken crude oil to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

I think, as long as human beings are still operating transport systems, increased frequency and volumes will increase likelihood of human error and mechanical failures.

For some, that’s the risk and cost of living and working and doing business in a port and shipping based regional economy. The risk, of course, is to our “commons”— the waters and shores and natural resources of the Sound and Straits— while the benefits are to those who work for, invest in and are associated with those industries. Of course, taxes are paid and wage dollars are spent in the community but does that offset the cost and the risk in using the “commons”?

Damage to our “commons” are paid for by companies after a spill. The first court judgment post-Exxon spill awarded plaintiffs $287 million and assessed $5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon lawyers have fought that judgment for years and years.

Industries using the “commons” should be required to put aside in advance money in a fund sufficient to pay for all natural resource, restoration and personal injury damages, indemnifying their use of the people’s “commons”— our waters and our shores. Until they do it, the public will continue to bear the risks.

They won’t like it and won’t do it willingly but I’m sure industries will be even more careful than they say they are when the public holds them not only accountable but holds their profits as well.

--Mike Sato

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you Mike Sato for your Salish Sea blog posts and for your thoughts on the dilemma in which we find ourselves. The "public" is each of us. Each of us must work to improve the safety standards for all shipping, but especially for the shipment of fossil fuels. The regulations and standards are useless unless they are monitored and enforced. I just finished reading Red Light to Starboard -Recalling the Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Disaster by Angela Day. A powerful book.

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