25 years after Exxon Valdez, and we have learned NOTHING


There have been so many 50-year anniversaries (the 1960s?...regular readers of this blog may be familiar with them) that this 25-year anniversary sneaked up on us: A quarter century since the Exxon Valdez tanker mishap and massive spill along the once pristine Alaska coastline. I remember this vividly -- in part because I was still working on Long Island where the drunk-sailing captain hailed from ("Huntington's Joseph Hazelwood," is how I'll always think of him) and partly because people were viscerally jarred by the images of oiled birds and marine life.

I remember that some folks vowed they'd never buy gas again at an Exxon station, which held up for at least six weeks or so. Today, the now-ExxonMobil is, most years, the world's most profitable company, oil production is booming, and yet the waters off Alaska have never recovered. Congress passed a 1990 oil-spill law that was inadequate at the time and is even more useless today, and then Dick Cheney's Halliburton engineered a fracking boom that is making America the world leader once again in oil and natural gas production -- and also the world leader in oil spills, train explosions and other disasters.

Simply put, America has essentially learned nothing and done nothing since March 24, 1989.

That's tragic, because the impact of oil spills persists for decades. Every week, I see something about tar balls or even giant tar mats from the Mother of All Oil Spills -- BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf, which made Exxon Valdez look like the proverbial drop in the bucket -- washing ashore in Mississippi or Florida. That spill is coming up on four years -- but then the pollution is still hanging around Alaska from 25 years ago:

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the restoration of the Prince William Sound Ecosystem, says the oil that persists in the environment is "nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill," and is weathering or degrading very slowly. "At this rate," the council says, "the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."

Ugh. That's why we should be working so hard to make sure these things stop happening. But you've seen the news just over the last year or so -- the oil train that blew up in Quebec and killed 47 people, or the pipeline rupture that trashed a whole subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, or even the growing evidence that fracking is causing earthquakes. Anything to get a fix from our addiction to oil. And then, with exquisite timing, this arrived to kick off the Exxon Valdez anniversary hoedown:

A barge that spilled 168,000 gallons (635,000 liters) of oil Saturday into Galveston Bay is threatening a refuge that's crucial habitat for thousands of birds, experts say.

The spill occurred when the barge collided with a ship in the Houston Ship Channel near Texas City, on the western coast of Galveston Bay...

At least 50 oiled birds have been discovered so far, though the number will likely be much higher as rescuers expand their search, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of Houston Audubon.

The animals are taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility established by Unified Command, a network of agencies overseeing the cleanup.

So what is to be done? In the long run, even George W. Bush came to realize that mankind needs to ween itself off our addiction to fossil fuels, that renewable forms of energy need to be the centerpiece of our policy going forward, and not an afterthought. No rational person expects to drive home tomorrow in his solar powered car so he can catch "The Good Wife" on his windmill-driven TV. But the reality is that America is lagging behind other nations on wind and solar, and we should be embarrassed by that. A nation that set an audacious goal of putting a man on the moon in 10 years, and did it, should be able to figure out how to get a big chunk of its electricity from the sun, no?.

Meanwhile, there is so much that can be done so easily today. What if companies like ExxonMobil or Chevron that can make as much in profit as $10 billion in a single quarter took just a fraction of those profits -- could they live on only $9 billion? -- to take some simple safety measures. It's not rocket science to...

...upgrade the tanker cars that carry crude oil so they're much less likely to blow up.

...contribute dollars to boost the ridiculously low number of inspectors checking our pipelines for fatigue and for leaks.

...pass a bill in Congress that would lift the outdated $75 million cap on fines for an oil spill (just raised administratively by the Obama administration), so that big corporations will know the cost of doing bad is more than the cost of doing good.

Oil spills of the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez disaster should be a one-off. When they seem to start happening every month, it's really time to do something.