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Exxon lesson: Prevention, RCACs the key to avoiding future disaster

March 21st, 2014 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

There are a few sayings that serve us well. One of them is, "The best predictor of the future is the past." Over the past two weeks, dozens of people have shared their stories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill some 25 years ago. Those who arrived in Alaska after the spill will hopefully never feel the depth of the pain and helplessness people felt watching hundreds of birds die coated in black crude oil or the anger Alaskans felt toward those who caused the destruction.

Alaskans in general are more intimately connected with their natural surroundings, making the impact of the spill all the more devastating. It was as if a member of their family had been maimed, some said.

Studies have shown that there is a huge difference between the impact of a natural disaster, like an earthquake, and a man-made disaster, like an oil spill. When people have someone to blame, the anger tears people, families and communities apart. The impact of the oil spill went far beyond the oiled coastline and infiltrated our economy, our community structure and our personal health. There was, it would seem, no part of Alaska that was untouched by this disaster.

Over the last quarter-century, much energy has been put toward making sure that such a disaster doesn't happen again, but the majority of that energy has been focused in the one place that has the clearest memory of the disaster. Even a few hundred miles away, the people of Cook Inlet are far less protected from a spill, though they have arguably more risk than Prince William Sound.

And areas like the Aleutian Chain with its steady vessel traffic, and the Arctic, with its severe conditions and expanding use, are woefully unprepared. No one who has even performed a cursory glance at the situation would argue the fact that there is much more we could do in Alaska to protect our waters from another devastating spill.

But memories are short. Look into the eyes of a fisherman who lost his livelihood or a biologist who watched a pod of whales swim through the oil slick and you'll see what it really means to witness the destruction of a spill. Unfortunately, it is difficult for any of us to keep a steady focus for the rest of our lives on the goal of prevention.

That is why organizations like the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council are so valuable. This group of staff and volunteers is not a watchdog organization, they say, but rather provides a way to help industry operate safely.

They pay attention to the minutia that we can't follow, lobby for what needs to be in place for spill prevention and response to be effective, and perform the science needed to make solid decisions about the environment. For 24 years they have been keeping Prince William Sound safe, and the rest of Alaska should be jealous.

So why aren't there similar organizations throughout the state's coastal regions? Because the oversight costs money, money that industry doesn't want to spend if they don't have to. The Prince William Sound council was set up only after the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandated it.

Without that mandate, it might never have happened, and the mistakes of the past might have repeated themselves. Even setting up a citizens' advisory council is not enough - one must ensure that the composition of the council is such that the voices of every-day citizens carry enough weight to compete with that of corporations operating in the area. Otherwise, the council becomes ineffective.

The simple fact is that few of us are good at self-regulating, and budget-strapped government agencies are not always effective at providing the necessary oversight of industry. But a group of citizen stakeholders who are knowledgeable about the issues at hand can provide that oversight effectively. These people are aware of the balance between economic and environmental health — they live, work and play in the regions they are watching over. There are few models of a more balanced approach to industry oversight than the one right in our back yard.

The biggest lesson learned in the Exxon Valdez oil spill was that prevention is the answer. All the contingency planning and clean-up technology in the world does not hold a candle to the impacts of safety measures that prevent that spill. Citizens' advisory councils are unquestionably the best means to develop an effective prevention program, no matter where or what form the risks take. Advocates for such programs need look no further for proof of their need than the disaster that occurred 25 years ago, one that continues to impact the environment of the state today. Hopefully, it won't take another spill or similar disaster to learn this lesson.


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