Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Report: Executive Summary
By Patrick Mondout
What follows is the executive summary of the Environmental Protection
Agency's report on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. You can also read
our article on the disaster.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill:
[National Response Team - May 1989]
A Report to the President
Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the 987-foot tank vessel Exxon
Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. What
followed was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The oil slick has
spread over 3,000 square miles and onto over 350 miles of beaches in
Prince William Sound, one of the most pristine and magnificent natural
areas in the country. Experts still are assessing the environmental and
economic implications of the incident. The job of cleaning up the spill is
under way, and although the initial response proceeded slowly, major steps
have been taken.
The very large spill size, the remote location, and the character of
the oil all tested spill preparedness and response capabilities.
Government and industry plans, individually and collectively, proved to be
wholly insufficient to control an oil spill of the magnitude of the Exxon
Valdez incident. Initial industry efforts to get equipment on scene
were unreasonably slow, and once deployed the equipment could not cope
with the spill. Moreover, the various contingency plans did not refer to
each other or establish a workable response command hierarchy. This
resulted in confusion and delayed the cleanup.
Prepared by the National Response Team, this report was requested by
the President and undertaken by Secretary of Transportation Samuel K.
Skinner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K.
Reilly. The report addresses the preparedness for, the response to, and
early lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez incident. The
President has also asked Secretary Skinner to coordinate the efforts of
all federal agencies involved in the cleanup and Administrator Reilly to
coordinate the long-term recovery of the affected areas of the Alaskan
environment. These efforts are ongoing.
While it remains too early to draw final conclusions about many spill
effects, the report addresses a number of important environmental, energy,
economic, and health implications of the incident.
The lack of necessary preparedness for oil spills in Prince William
Sound and the inadequate response actions that resulted mandate
improvements in the way the nation plans for and reacts to oil spills of
This report starts the critical process of documenting these lessons
and recommending needed changes to restore public confidence and improve
our ability to plan for and respond to oil spills. The following points
deserve special emphasis:
- Prevention is the first line of defense. Avoidance
of accidents remains the best way to assure the quality and health of
our environment. We must continue to take steps to minimize the
probability of oil spills.
- Preparedness must be strengthened. Exxon was not
prepared for a spill of this magnitude--nor were Alyeska, the State of
Alaska, or the federal government. It is clear that the planning for
and response to the Exxon Valdez incident was unequal to the
task. Contingency planning in the future needs to incorporate
realistic worst-case scenarios and to include adequate equipment and
personnel to handle major spills. Adequate training in the techniques
and limitations of oil spill removal is critical to the success of
contingency planning. Organizational responsibilities must be clear,
and personnel must be knowledgeable about their roles. Realistic
exercises that fully test the response system must be undertaken
regularly. The National Response Team is conducting a study of the
adequacy of oil spill contingency plans throughout the country under
the leadership of the Coast Guard.
- Response capabilities must be enhanced to reduce
environmental risk. Oil spills--even small ones--are
difficult to clean up. Oil recovery rates are low. Both public and
private research are needed to improve cleanup technology. Research
should focus on mechanical, chemical, and biological means of
combating oil spills. Decision-making processes for determining what
technology to use should be streamlined, and strategies for the
protection of natural resources need to be rethought.
- Some oil spills may be inevitable. Oil is a vital
resource that is inherently dangerous to use and transport. We
therefore must balance environmental risks with the nation's energy
requirements. The nation must recognize that there is no fail-safe
prevention, preparedness, or response system. Technology and human
organization can reduce the chance of accidents and mitigate their
effects, but may not stop them from happening. This awareness makes it
imperative that we work harder to establish environmental safeguards
that reduce the risks associated with oil production and
transportation. The infrequency of major oil spills in recent years
contributed to the complacency that exacerbated the effect of the Exxon
- Legislation on liability and compensation is needed.
The Exxon Valdez incident has highlighted many problems
associated with liability and compensation when an oil spill occurs.
Comprehensive U.S. oil spill liability and compensation legislation is
necessary as soon as possible to address these concerns.
- The United States should ratify the International Maritime
Organization (IMO) 1984 Protocols. Domestic legislation on
compensation and liability is needed to implement two IMO protocols
related to compensation and liability. The United States should ratify
the 1984 Protocols to the 1969 Civil Liability and the 1971 Fund
Conventions. Expeditious ratification is essential to ensure
international agreement on responsibilities associated with oil spills
around the world.
- Federal planning for oil spills must be improved.
The National Contingency Plan (NCP) has helped to minimize
environmental harm and health impacts from accidents. The NCP should,
however, continue to be reviewed and improved in order to ensure that
it activates the most effective response structure for releases or
spills, particularly of great magnitude. Moreover, to the assure
expeditious and well-coordinated response actions, it is critical that
top officials--local, state, and federal--fully understand and be
prepared to implement the contingency plans that are in place.
- Studies of the long-term environmental and health effects
must be undertaken expeditiously and carefully. Broad gauge
and carefully structured environmental recovery efforts, including
damage assessments, are critical to assure the eventual full
restoration of Prince William Sound and other affected areas.
[Executive Summary of The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: A Report to the
President, from Samuel K. Skinner, Secretary, Department of
Transportation, and William K. Reilly, Administrator, Environmental
Protection Agency, Prepared by the National Response Team, May 1989]