"If they had done what they said they would do, this wouldn't have happened. Why do we let them go on with broken promises"

-- Dan Lawn, labeled DEC Expert with the Alyeska Terminal, during a DateLine interview


Everyone knows that at 12:04, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon-Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, 25 miles from the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal at Valdez. Everyone knows that it spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, killing and injuring thousands of animals. But why?

A drunken tanker captain? Failure of a Third Mate to maneuver? Mechanical Problems? Those are questions that millions of families asked while watching the evening news on Easter Day, 1989.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined the probable cause of the spill to be the Third Mate failure to maneuver a right turn, that would have cleared the Exxon-Valdez away from Bligh Reef. (National Transportation Safety Board Marine Accident Report)

What about the response, you ask? Why was so much damage done, with little cleanup? This answer is a bit harder to evaluate, you must go back to that week in March....


The state's response began with Dan Lawn, Valdez District Office manager from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who was on board within 3 hours. Lawn was the first DEC official onboard the grounded Exxon Valdez. He began documenting the occurence with his video camera. As the Coast Guard and Lawn, reached the vessel, the oil could be seen bubbling from below the ship.

Lawn would stay on board for 15 hours following his notification. Using the ship's satellite telephone to call Anchorage and Valdez with regular updates on the amount of oil lost and the stability of the vessel. He also made regular calls to the Alyeska terminal, asking when the equipment and responders required by the Alyeska contingency plan would arrive. Alyeska officials repeatedly assured Lawn that the gear was on the way, when in most cases it was not even loaded on barges or vessels.

The spill's impact began hitting state officials, beginning at 4:00am with Amy Kyle, the Commissioner's deputy, who then began gathering the department's environmental quality staff to set up preliminary plans and arrange a full briefing for Governor Steve Cowper and the commissioner at 8:30am. About 4:00pm, the Governor and Commissioner flew by plane to the Exxon Valdez. On board Lawn and DEC investigator Joe LeBeau, who pointed out that the "already on it's way" equipment was overdue and what did arrive was doing practically nothing in the massive slick.

Back in Valdez, after visiting the tanker, Cowper appeared at a community meeting and press conference at the Valdez civic center. Exxon's chief executive officer Frank Iarossi had spoken to the group earlier, noting that Exxon would be moving quickly to use dispersants on the growing slick. This made the public, especially the fishing community, somewhat uncomfortable. This was against the plans that were in place and already reviewed by the fishing organization in Valdez. Fishermen wanted some assurance that Exxon was not in charge of the situation.
"There has been a lot of speculation on the use of dispersants. Everybody realized the risk that poses to marine life.... I want to assure everybody that disperant is not going to be used in anything other than a carefully targeted way. We want to make sure that we check back with the fishing community, that we check the Fish and Game, and do as little damage as possible. You can't use disperants without doing damage to marine life. That's clear. But what, if possible, to keep the oil off the beaches" -- Governor Cowder, changing everything that Iasrossi had mentioned in earlier press conferences about disperants.

Aside from the priorities of public and environmental health and safety raised by the tanker disaster, the first three or four days of the spill were dominated by four principal issues:
    a) the inadequacy of the Alyeska response;
    b) the confusing and unauthorized "hand-off" of the spill by Alyeska to Exxon;
    c) the dispersant disagreement;
    d) the gross lack of cleanup resources.
In the first 3 days of the spill, less than 1% of the oil was cleared. Alyeska's response was slow and weak; it did not meet the requirements of the contingency plan. It is important to keep in mind that the contingency plan was not so much a set of requirements established by the government, but rather a set of response standards that Alyeska had agreed were reasonable and attainable. It should also be documented that Alyeska's CEO, Bob Malone, has said to national media sources that the "reasonable" assumption of a "major" spill was between 3000 and 4000 gallons of oil. The Exxon-Valdez spilled tens of millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Alyeska was prepared for 175 times LESS then the Exxon-Valdez spill.

18 hours after the spill, Alyeska passed the spill cleanup to the privately owned Exxon.

In 1971, while discussing the approval of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, Alyeska promises the safest pipeline in the world "..promptly and effectively with any oil spill, so that its effect on the environment will be minimal." 18 years later, "promptly and effectively" was 14 hours later, when failed equipment arrived on the scene.

Dan Lawn stated in a memo to DEC officials, years before the Exxon-Valdez oil spill:

"We can no longer ignore the routing monitoring of Alyeska unless we do not care if a major catastrophic event occurs."

In 1984, Lawn evaluated Alyeska's response to a simulated spill. Oranges were scattered over Prince William Sound, and the Alyeska response crew failed this test. This simulation was given again in 1986. Alyeska barely passed DEC evaluations this time. Lawn believes that Alyeska should have failed this test also.

Problems between Lawn and Alyeska go back 7 years when Lawn documented the failures of Alyeska's Contigency plan in normal procedures.

"They don't like what I say because I say the truth. They don't like that."

-- Dan Lawn, during a DateLine interview



10 years later, Alyeska's SERVS are larger then 2 skimmers. Response is something that can be decided on the fly, but GOOD response needs to be prepared and anticipated. Problems at Alyeska are not resolved fully, but things have gotten better over the past 10 years. Look into the archived news section to see the latest Alyeska battles, the latest oil spill occurences, and the latest whistleblower news.

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