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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: A Report to the President (Executive Summary)

[National Response Team - May 1989]

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the 987-foot tank vessel Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. What followed was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The oil slick has spread over 3,000 square miles and onto over 350 miles of beaches in Prince William Sound, one of the most pristine and magnificent natural areas in the country. Experts still are assessing the environmental and economic implications of the incident. The job of cleaning up the spill is under way, and although the initial response proceeded slowly, major steps have been taken.

The very large spill size, the remote location, and the character of the oil all tested spill preparedness and response capabilities. Government and industry plans, individually and collectively, proved to be wholly insufficient to control an oil spill of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez incident. Initial industry efforts to get equipment on scene were unreasonably slow, and once deployed the equipment could not cope with the spill. Moreover, the various contingency plans did not refer to each other or establish a workable response command hierarchy. This resulted in confusion and delayed the cleanup.

Prepared by the National Response Team, this report was requested by the President and undertaken by Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly. The report addresses the preparedness for, the response to, and early lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez incident. The President has also asked Secretary Skinner to coordinate the efforts of all federal agencies involved in the cleanup and Administrator Reilly to coordinate the long-term recovery of the affected areas of the Alaskan environment. These efforts are ongoing.

While it remains too early to draw final conclusions about many spill effects, the report addresses a number of important environmental, energy, economic, and health implications of the incident.

The lack of necessary preparedness for oil spills in Prince William Sound and the inadequate response actions that resulted mandate improvements in the way the nation plans for and reacts to oil spills of national significance.

This report starts the critical process of documenting these lessons and recommending needed changes to restore public confidence and improve our ability to plan for and respond to oil spills. The following points deserve special emphasis:

  • Prevention is the first line of defense. Avoidance of accidents remains the best way to assure the quality and health of our environment. We must continue to take steps to minimize the probability of oil spills.

  • Preparedness must be strengthened. Exxon was not prepared for a spill of this magnitude--nor were Alyeska, the State of Alaska, or the federal government. It is clear that the planning for and response to the Exxon Valdez incident was unequal to the task. Contingency planning in the future needs to incorporate realistic worst-case scenarios and to include adequate equipment and personnel to handle major spills. Adequate training in the techniques and limitations of oil spill removal is critical to the success of contingency planning. Organizational responsibilities must be clear, and personnel must be knowledgeable about their roles. Realistic exercises that fully test the response system must be undertaken regularly. The National Response Team is conducting a study of the adequacy of oil spill contingency plans throughout the country under the leadership of the Coast Guard.

  • Response capabilities must be enhanced to reduce environmental risk. Oil spills--even small ones--are difficult to clean up. Oil recovery rates are low. Both public and private research are needed to improve cleanup technology. Research should focus on mechanical, chemical, and biological means of combating oil spills. Decision-making processes for determining what technology to use should be streamlined, and strategies for the protection of natural resources need to be rethought.

  • Some oil spills may be inevitable. Oil is a vital resource that is inherently dangerous to use and transport. We therefore must balance environmental risks with the nation's energy requirements. The nation must recognize that there is no fail-safe prevention, preparedness, or response system. Technology and human organization can reduce the chance of accidents and mitigate their effects, but may not stop them from happening. This awareness makes it imperative that we work harder to establish environmental safeguards that reduce the risks associated with oil production and transportation. The infrequency of major oil spills in recent years contributed to the complacency that exacerbated the effect of the Exxon Valdez spill.

  • Legislation on liability and compensation is needed. The Exxon Valdez incident has highlighted many problems associated with liability and compensation when an oil spill occurs. Comprehensive U.S. oil spill liability and compensation legislation is necessary as soon as possible to address these concerns.

  • The United States should ratify the International Maritime Organization (IMO) 1984 Protocols. Domestic legislation on compensation and liability is needed to implement two IMO protocols related to compensation and liability. The United States should ratify the 1984 Protocols to the 1969 Civil Liability and the 1971 Fund Conventions. Expeditious ratification is essential to ensure international agreement on responsibilities associated with oil spills around the world.

  • Federal planning for oil spills must be improved. The National Contingency Plan (NCP) has helped to minimize environmental harm and health impacts from accidents. The NCP should, however, continue to be reviewed and improved in order to ensure that it activates the most effective response structure for releases or spills, particularly of great magnitude. Moreover, to the assure expeditious and well-coordinated response actions, it is critical that top officials--local, state, and federal--fully understand and be prepared to implement the contingency plans that are in place.

  • Studies of the long-term environmental and health effects must be undertaken expeditiously and carefully. Broad gauge and carefully structured environmental recovery efforts, including damage assessments, are critical to assure the eventual full restoration of Prince William Sound and other affected areas.


Executive Summary of The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: A Report to the President, from Samuel K. Skinner, Secretary, Department of Transportation, and William K. Reilly, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, Prepared by the National Response Team, May 1989