Exxon Corp. wanted to burn freshly spilled oil from the 1989 tanker spill in Prince William Sound, but a slow response by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation blew the opportunity to destroy a significant amount of the oil that killed thousands of birds and animals and oiled 1,300 miles of pristine shoreline.
“We wanted to burn it, and use dispersant around the edges,” said a long-time, reliable Petroleum News source who was working for Exxon in Alaska at the time and has only recently agreed to go on the record.
But in order to burn the oil Exxon needed an open burn permit from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC.
Exxon officially took control of the cleanup operation from Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. on Saturday, March 25, a day after its tanker Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in the early morning of Friday, March 24. Alyeska operates and maintains the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, commonly called TAPS, which transports North Slope crude oil 800 miles to the marine terminal in the Port of Valdez, which it also operates and maintains. Alyeska is, and was in 1989, largely owned by BP, Exxon and ConocoPhillips (which purchased ARCO Alaska assets in 2000), the primary producers of North Slope oil.
Eleven million gallons of oil (257,000 barrels) gurgled out of the stricken tanker within hours of its grounding on the reef. Due to unseasonably calm weather, the oil was floating in a thick sheet close to the Exxon Valdez.
The longer the oil was exposed to the water, however, the harder it would be to burn. Time was of the essence.
Prince William Sound weather was known for being finicky and brutal. Weather reports showed a storm moving in. Exxon was in a race against the clock and the clouds. It asked ADEC for a permit to burn all the spilled oil.
Rather than issuing an open burn permit, ADEC Commissioner Dennis Kelso, part of Democrat Gov. Steve Cowper’s administration, demanded Exxon conduct a test burn to demonstrate the effectiveness of in-situ burning.
“Kelso required test burning; Exxon did it and it worked,” the source told Petroleum News in a June 2010 interview.
Coast Guard, NOAA: test burned 98% of the oilThe test burn was very successful, eliminating about 98 percent of the oil on the water, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard and others reported.
The residue from the test burn was easy to pick up, NOAA said in a report on the spill.
Based on the success of the test, Exxon asked permission to proceed immediately with large-scale burning, but ADEC held back.
Saturday turned to Sunday.
Sunday evening a violent storm blew in, dispersing and scattering the oil for miles.
“The chance to burn it was gone,” said PN’s source. “We went into mitigation mode.”
His statements were corroborated in the pages of “The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: A Report to the President, from the Dept. of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.”
“Burning the oil was possible and was done.” the DOT and EPA report says. “Apparently, it was not continued because of a misunderstanding between Exxon and the State of Alaska over the conditions under which burning could proceed. By the time the misunderstanding was worked out, the opportunity had passed.”
But PN’s source said there was no misunderstanding that he was aware of. There was, and this is corroborated in press reports, concern from environmentalists and people living a few miles from the burn area about air pollution, resulting in indecision from the Cowper administration.
Oil spread far and wideThe violent weather closed out other mitigation opportunities as well, such as dispersants. Following the storm, the oil was a thin, widely spread slick, accompanied by globs of oil and water that had been churned into a mousse consistency.
“The oil degraded,” PN’s source said, rendering dispersant and burning ineffective.
The mousse sank into the water, exacerbating kelp-entanglement problems that plagued what few skimmers were on the scene.
A catastrophe was launched.
The oil spread 460 miles from Bligh Reef to the tiny village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula, oiling 1,300 miles of shoreline, 200 miles of which were heavily or moderately oiled (meaning the impact was obvious), per the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
No one knows how many animals died as the result of the spill, but according to the Trustees “carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill,” considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The “best estimates: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”
Back to Day 1: chain-of-command issuesAlyeska’s state-approved spill contingency response plan was very clear as far as boom containment was concerned, but for oil recovery it relied on skimmer ships to scoop the crude out of the water. The Valdez, however, had spilled vastly more oil than anticipated by the authors of the plan.
Compounding the inadequacy of the plan, Alyeska’s main response vessel was out of service for repairs. It had to be quickly readied to sail, and reloaded with booms and skimmers. It would not arrive at Bligh Reef in anywhere near the prescribed five-hour response time.
In general, Alyeska was poorly prepared for the task at hand.
“Alyeska’s performance fell far short of the promises made to the nation ...,” the Anchorage Daily News, or ADN, said in a 20th anniversary review of the spill, adding that the company had promised state of the art equipment and personnel, which it didn’t deliver.
“For much of the 12 years of its existence, Alyeska chose not to replace aging and outdated spill equipment with more sophisticated skimming and booming systems,” said ADN. “It discarded an oil storage barge to save money and disbanded a special oil spill team.”
Because Alyeska’s spill response capability was woefully inadequate Exxon officially took over control of the response at noon on day two of the spill.
As operator of the stricken tanker and the responsible party, federal and state shipping laws supported its decision to lead the cleanup. A well-heeled partner in Alyeska and TAPS, Exxon could call on its worldwide resources which far exceeded those of Alyeska or other North Slope producers.
The next step in the chain of command: The Coast Guard is the lead federal response agency for oil spills occurring in coastal waters and deepwater ports. It is tasked with monitoring for safety and compliance with federal regulations — and assisting in oil spill cleanup, when necessary.
The State of Alaska was the next link. ADEC had approved Alyeska’s oil spill response plan; in fact Kelso had signed off on the latest version just months before the March 24, 1989, spill.
ADEC officials were distressed that Exxon had taken over spill response command from Alyeska.
“The owner companies’ unilateral decision to make the hand-off from Alyeska to Exxon the second day threw several years of planning and expectation to the wind,” ADEC said in its final report in the spill.
Once oil was on the water the state had little power to intercede. It did, however, have two major power levers over the situation: controlled burning, which required an open burn permit from ADEC, and the use of chemical dispersant agents, which were conditionally allowed, but in some areas only with approval of ADEC.
Plan called for burningAccording to PN’s inside source, the Exxon Shipping Co. spill response plan in place on the day of the Exxon Valdez spill directed the spill commander to burn any spill over 1,000 gallons, and use dispersant for the balance.
Chemical dispersants were highly controversial. The state had conditionally “pre-approved” the use of dispersants, but required that the benefit from using them must exceed any environmental risk. Thus the Coast Guard and ADEC wanted to test their effectiveness before allowing use on a wide scale.
The flap about dispersants grabbed much of the attention, but PN’s source insists that burning was Exxon’s primary and most desired response once it had assessed the situation and Alyeska’s response capabilities.
When asked at the time about concerns that burning and dispersants would create long-term damage, Exxon Shipping President Frank Iarossi told CBS News, “There is no way we will handle this spill with all the skimmers in the world, and we need to say that right out openly. We must have at our disposal all the tools possible.”
The oil around the Exxon Valdez was ripe for burning. It had been processed for market, meaning it was stripped of water, gas and other impurities. North Slope crude is relatively heavy and not as unstable as lighter crude, so it dissipated slowly and stayed in place on the surface of the water around the grounded tanker, avoiding mixing with salt water.
ADEC not to blame, it saysIn a departure from most accounts of the March 25 test burn, Kelso told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Power and Offshore Energy Resources in a May 1989 oversight hearing that the state did not hinder Exxon whatsoever in its ability to burn the oil or use dispersants.
In the hearings Rep. Peter Defazio asked Kelso to explain reports that the state had dawdled while the chance to burn went by.
“We also heard (the oil) could have been burned but because of objections by a small village and by environmental groups objections on air quality, that the state, after a successful burn, because of smoke problems prevented further burning,” Defazio said.
“The state approved a burning permit; there was an initial burn that was done,” Kelso said, likely referring to the test burn and the open burn permit that was issued too late — and possibly to later small burns that were attempted after the storm had spread the oil far and wide.
Kelso went on to say that ADEC actions had not affected the success or failure of Exxon’s burn plans.
“The permit was still good,” he said. “They then tried to initiate a sustained burn which was unsuccessful. The burn failed not because of the lack of permission to go forward. It failed because of the physical limitations on maintaining that burn in the spill.”
“So ADEC never prohibited or delayed further burning?” Defazio asked.
“Eventually that permit expired and I don’t know if they requested ...,” Kelso said.
“Is that after we experienced the high winds or the consistency of the slick change?” Defazio asked.
At that point, Larry Dietrick, ADEC director of the Environmental Quality Division interjected.
“There were burn tests,” Dietrick said. “It was getting at this time frame when getting the material to burn was getting no longer successful.”
Defazio changed the subject, asking Kelso, Dietrick and other ADEC staff to discuss the accuracy of conflicting dead bird and otter counts. With many subjects to cover, each congressman had a limited time for questions. Dispersants had claimed a large share of previous discussion.
In other testimony, Coast Guard Commander Steve McCall of the Port of Valdez didn’t recall impediments in the way of Exxon’s oil burning.
“What about the open burning: Were there earlier requests that were denied?” Defazio asked McCall. “Were there requests at the test burning to do more extensive burning that was denied?”
“As far as I know, there has not ever been an application to burn oil that has been denied. The initial burn they did Saturday, the 25th worked apparently very well, however, it was done in the dark so it was very difficult to monitor,” McCall said. “Any additional tests, there was no delays from the government side in allowing them to do it. The wind kicking up and moved things around, which made getting equipment out there a problem because of the sea state and the weather they were involved in.
“Once the wind churned it up and created a mousse, if not a full mousse, or enough water in the oil made igniting it impossible, so events overran the ability of the equipment to handle it.”
Permits not issued on timeIndustry testimony in the same hearings, however, indicated that Exxon was prepared to burn, but a lack of timely issued permits stymied the plan.
According to Iarossi’s testimony to the subcommittee, McCall had said in a taped press briefing that Exxon had been cleared only for tests of burning and dispersants.
In testimony, Theo L. Polasek, Alyeska vice president of operations, confirmed that burning was a key response approach in a 1987 report added to the Alyeska oil spill plan which considered a large spill of 200,000 barrels, or 8.4 million gallons, a figure approaching that of the actual 1989 spill of 260,000 barrels.
Rep. George Miller of California asked Polasek if Exxon was prepared to burn on a large scale, and Polasek said yes.
“I think the first day we had about 500 feet (of boom) and then we had 2,600 feet that was flown in from Seattle,” Polasek said, confirming what PN’s inside source said.
Bill Stevens, the president of Exxon at the time, told that subcommittee that the approved oil spill contingency plan emphasized the importance of the early use of dispersants and of open burning.
In EPA and DOT’s report to the president the tone is hardly congratulatory to any of the parties — taking Alyeska, the State of Alaska, Exxon and the federal government to task for not being prepared for a spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez — but in the end the presidential report largely corroborates the testimony of Alyeska and Exxon executives.
It said ADEC took a day just to issue a permit for the test burn.
“On the first day of the spill, Exxon requested an open burn permit from the State of Alaska. The state responded the following day by authorizing an effectiveness test for burning the spilled oil, and the test was conducted toward evening of that same day. Approximately 12,000 to 15,000 gallons were burned. Disagreements arose between Exxon and the State of Alaska about the success of this operation.
“Although the oil burned satisfactorily, there were questions about residual smoke. Some residents several miles from the burn site reported irritated eyes and throats. No further tests were conducted. The ADEC took the position that it was not opposed to burning as long as communities were not harmed and their residents were notified of an upcoming burn. The weather changed by the evening of the third day, making conditions unfavorable for another burn.”
Exxon “did not receive authorization to use dispersants, other than for two tests, until the end of the three-day period, Sunday evening, March 26,” Stevens said in testimony to the subcommittee.
Exxon also “did not receive permission to use open burning until mid afternoon of the same day,” he said, adding, “We are confident that had we obtained prompt permission to use dispersants and open burning the environmental damage from the spill would have been significantly mitigated.”
A moot point?Exxon hasn’t tried to correct the record with respect to the lost opportunity to burn off spilled oil, because legally and practically, the matter was a moot point, said PN’s source for this story.
“Exxon had taken responsibility,” he said. “There was nothing to be gained by prolonging the conflict.”
After the storm, the oil remaining on the surface had spread to roughly the same coverage as latex paint — 200 square feet per gallon, the source said.
ADEC, in its final report on the spill, said it actively encouraged burning.
Other sources don’t agree.
Phyllis A. Leber, Department of Chemistry, Franklin and Marshall College, said in her report, “A Case Study of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989,” that Exxon got equipment to the site in time to mount an effective burning program, but was limited to a test burn only.
“The delay was critical because as time passed the more flammable components of the oil were evaporating and the remaining oil was more inclined to develop into the water-oil emulsion or ‘mousse’ that would resist burning,” she said. “ADEC opted not to provide the permit for additional controlled burns.”
Spill historian Art Davidson, in his book “The Wake of the Exxon Valdez,” said that Exxon tried to mount a three-pronged attack to retrieve the oil from Prince William Sound: burning, skimming and using dispersants.
Davidson said Exxon scrambled to get burning equipment on site.
“At the time of the grounding, there was only 500 feet of fire boom in Alaska, hardly enough to make an appreciable difference.” he said. “However, by noon Saturday, Exxon had transported another 2,500 feet of fire boom to Valdez, and a test burn was scheduled for that evening.”
On Saturday night, Exxon had booms enough to run four simultaneous burns, he said.
“If its permit came through in time, Exxon could work through the night, burning off approximately 50,000 gallons (nearly 1,200 barrels) per hour,” Davidson said, adding that it wasn’t until Sunday evening that Exxon got word the state had finally granted a permit for controlled burning.
Exxon official frustratedIarossi expressed his frustration with the response pace at the Sunday evening press briefing in Valdez.
“We have been so frustrated today — just as frustrated as everyone else — at the pace of recovery, and the reason for that frustration is that we have been limited to mechanical pickup (skimmers). It’s not gonna do the job. ... It is the slowest, least effective, tool. That’s why it was so important to get the state’s permission to burn, and so important to get the permission of all the authorities to begin to use dispersants,” which PN’s inside source at Exxon explained multiple times were going to be used for the “1 to 2 percent of the oil that couldn’t be burned because it had already mixed with salt water — the oil on the edges.”
To contact Steve Sutherlin please send an email to [email protected].