Coast Guard Public Affairs
Just after midnight March 24, 1989, the super tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaskaâ€™s Prince William Sound releasing 11 million gallons of heavy crude oil. Twenty years later the effects of the largest oil spill in U.S. history are still being felt. The toxic muck still clings to the Alaskan coast. Wildlife populations are still recovering. Law suits still drag on. Yet not all of the effects have been negative.
Earlier this month a tanker off the coast of Galveston, Texas, struck underwater debris in an eerily similar situation, but this time not a drop of oil was spilled. The sturdy double-hulled design of the SKS Satilla was one of the mandates born from the Valdez disaster. Due to the design, only the ballast tanks were breached according to Rear Adm. Sally Brice-Oâ€™Hara, Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations, who was stationed in Alaska during the Valdez ordeal.
“With a single skin, the results would have eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill,” she said.
The double-hull requirement was part of the Oil Protection Act of 1990, legislation that drastically altered how the government responds to oil spills but also how agencies work together during any emergency.
At the time, organizational differences between different federal, state and local agencies prevented a fully coordinated response. Each group had its own structure, methods and terminology. The OPA helped diminish these barriers in several ways. The law provided for the creation of the Incident Command System to provide a uniform command structure with roles that could be filled by anyone from any agency. This unified command concept was a milestone in disaster response.
â€œThe Incident Command System is an invaluable tool when you bring together a diverse group of people from different agencies with different organizational cultures and experiences,â€ said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Lally from the Office of Incident Management & Preparedness, Oil & Hazardous Substance Division. â€œIt removes just about any question about who should be doing what during a disaster.â€
The law also implemented and funded joint training exercises to familiarize participants with the system.
â€œThe Coast Guard is constantly running preparedness exercises with our partners,â€ said Lally. â€œNot only does it offer a chance to practice ICS concepts, it also offers the chance for the community to jointly assess strategies, validate response priorities and examine efficacy of critical response equipment.â€
The scenarios are carefully selected to simulate a plausible threat to the location of each exercise. OPA required the formation of local area committees to tailor plans for these local contingencies, further building the relationships that are crucial for cohesive response in any situation, not just oils spills. When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River in January, each of these principles was tested.
“All of the agencies who responded to the U.S. Airways crash here in New York are on our area committee and or our area maritime security committee,â€ said Capt. Robert Oâ€™Brien who was in charge of the rescue effort. â€œWe sit down together formally several times a year planning for situations like this, but more importantly we plan our routine operations on a daily basis every week. We all know our roles and capabilities so when something extraordinary happens we can act as a unit.”
This kind of cooperation was a direct result of lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez. The subsequent legislation was aimed squarely at oil spill response ensuring cleanups were funded and responsible parties were held accountable. But the lessons of the spill and the requirements of OPA have had much broader consequences that improved how all disasters are handled. From Hurricane Katrina, to Flight 1549, and to whatever disaster may come next, the effects of Exxon Valdez will be felt for generations and not just in Alaska.