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Preventing Future Oil Spills

EVER since the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh reef a year ago, Americans have had renewed concerns about the environmental dangers of oil production. Translating these concerns into tangible protection against future disasters, however, is difficult. On the positive side, the consortium that runs Alaska's pipeline has formed a strong oil-spill strike force. Tugboats now escort all ships through Prince William Sound. Congress is considering, among other measures, stricter liability for companies that spill. And the Coast Guard advocates the use of regional pilots and double-hulled tankers.

But Congress has tried in vain for more than a decade to pass spill-liability legislation alone. Since Alaska's spill, the House has approved a bill that would require all tankers to be rebuilt with double hulls. The Senate, beset by industry pressures, is holding out until further federal studies are completed. By most accounts, the Valdez would have spilled far less crude if it had had a double hull.

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A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council confirms that clean-up technology is still inadequate and prevention is essential.

It's a lesson industry must learn. Nine months after the Alaska spill Exxon let more than 550,000 gallons of heating oil leak into Arthur Kill in New York. It took the company seven hours to respond to the pipeline's warning system.

Tucked back in countless coves, oil still fouls the shores of Prince William Sound. Scientists have descended on the area with 60 different assessment programs. As more is learned about the spill's impact on marine and wild life, damage to the regional economy will be better understood.

With the US depending heavily on foreign oil, pressures for exploration off Alaska, California, and Florida will build. And so will the potential for spills. It's critical, therefore, that industry hire competent, attentive employees. And that Congress pass measures - like mandatory double-hulling - that will help prevent future disasters.

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