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Exxon Valdez: What Lessons?

IN the five years since the Exxon Valdez ran aground dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, the lessons of the largest oil spill in United States history have been slow in coming and even slower in implementation.

* Congress passed landmark legislation to prevent oil pollution by regulating tanker design and operation, but some important regulations still are not in force. European Union countries have yet to complete tanker-safety legislation.

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* A new generation of safer, sturdier tankers has begun to come out of shipyards, but it will be years before the current aging fleet is fully replaced.

* Some wildlife species have begun to recover from the mess that killed many Alaskan animals, but other species of birds, mammals, and fish still are not showing signs of recovery.

* The 791-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which carries 1.7 million barrels of oil a day from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez, has been the subject of several critical government reports citing serious maintenance and management problems.

* The United Nations Framework Convention on Climage Change, a 167-nation treaty aimed at limiting carbon-producing energy sources including oil, went into force Monday, and the Clinton administration is more aggressively pursuing energy efficiency and renewable energy sources than its predecessors. But industrialized societies still have a great oil thirst.

Following the Exxon spill, the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was passed in 1990. It requires that all new tankers ordered after June 1990 and calling on US ports have double hulls. By 2015, all single-hulled tankers visiting US ports - 95 percent of the current total - must be phased out.

Law passed after Exxon spill

OPA also requires tugboat escorts for tankers in particularly challenging areas like Prince William Sound and Puget Sound. The law calls for improved vessel-monitoring services - radios and radars - in port areas, and it requires firms that own oil tankers and other facilities to develop plans for how they will respond to spills.

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Under OPA, the US Coast Guard is to recommend which environmentally sensitive areas should be designated ``tanker-free.'' And the law also requires that tanker owners and operators demonstrate the financial ability - either through company assets or insurance - to pay for any oil spill they might be responsible for.

While many regulations have been issued, many more are still working their way through the bureaucratic process of government hearings and public input. Most of the emphasis has been on the oil-spill-response plans - including such things as pre-positioning equipment.

But critics say federal agencies - particularly the Coast Guard - have been slower to work toward stopping spills in the first place. ``On the prevention side, we see the government really dragging its feet,'' says Sarah Chasis, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney and director of its coastal program. ``In our book, the key is prevention.''

For example, regulations mandating tug escorts in navigationally tricky areas have yet to be issued. In December, the Washington State congressional delegation complained to US Transportation Secretary Federico Pena about the lack of such escorts in Puget Sound.

``We believe the Coast Guard should set forth immediately a timetable for enforcement of the escort provision,'' they wrote. ``Tug escorts provide an invaluable insurance policy against the type of devastating accidents like the Exxon Valdez.''

In response, Coast Guard Commandant J. William Kime said such issues are ``more complex than [they] would first appear.'' This is undoubtedly true, particularly since some safety issues involve overlapping state-federal jurisdictions.

``To be fair, the Coast Guard has had to take on a huge set of regulations that they have not been funded for,'' says Pam Miller of the Wilderness Society. ``They have put out dozens of regulations, and they're understaffed.''

Issuing regulations and enforcing them are two different things, however, and this is particularly difficult given that much of the oil-shipping activity is international.

In response to a British government inquiry following the January 1993 Braer tanker spill off the Shetland Islands, the British Petroleum Company wrote: ``Many recent international incidents have been because of a failure both to police standards and to carry out laid-down procedures. The failure to enforce existing regulations, a shortage of well-trained officers and crews, and poor maintenance are all fundamental to this problem.''

The 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound impacted about 1,500 miles of shoreline. A restoration plan, issued last November by the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council, was set up to allocate the $1 billion settlement between Exxon, the US government, and the state of Alaska. It noted a number of natural resources not recovering: common murres, pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, marbled murrelets, harbor seals, sea otters, Pacific herring, pink salmon, Kenai River sockeye salmon, the intertidal ecosystem, and the subtidal ecosystem.

Some positive results seen

While environmentalists are frustrated by what they see as the lack of action on regulating oil tankers and also reducing oil consumption, they do see some positive results of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Pressure to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration has subsided, and proposals in both the House and Senate would designate the area as wilderness. The trustee council has used some of the money to purchase 66,000 acres of coastal rain-forest habitat.

Still, the threat of other tanker accidents persists. In January, the Overseas Ohio struck an iceberg approaching Valdez. It was empty, so there was no spill.

As for the ship that collided with Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, Exxon gave it a new name - ``SeaRiver Mediterranean'' - and sent it out of the media glare to sail the Mediterranean Sea. Recently, it made its first trip back to the Bahamas. There, Greenpeace activists painted on its hull the warning: ``Stop Me Before I Spill Again.''

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