History repeats itself: BP had
key role in Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska
AP. May 25, 2010. Since a busted oil well began spewing crude into the
Gulf of Mexico a month ago, the catastrophe has constantly been measured
against the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The Alaska spill leaked nearly
11 million gallons of crude, killed countless wildlife and tarnished the
owner of the damaged tanker, Exxon.
Yet the leader of botched containment efforts in the critical hours
after the tanker ran aground wasn't Exxon Mobil Corp. It was BP PLC, the
same firm now fighting to plug the Gulf leak.
BP owned a controlling interest in the Alaska oil industry consortium
that was required to write a cleanup plan and respond to the spill two
decades ago. It also supplied the top executive of the consortium,
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. Lawsuits and investigations that followed
the Valdez disaster blamed both Exxon and Alyeska for a response that
was bungled on many levels.
People who had a front row seat to the Alaska spill tell The Associated
Press that BP's actions in the Gulf suggest it hasn't changed much at
The Gulf leak has grown to at least 6 million barrels since an oil rig
exploded April 20, killing 11, and is almost certain to overtake Valdez
as the nation's worst oil spill.
Watching the current crisis is like reliving the Valdez disaster for an
attorney who headed the legal team for the state-appointed Alaska Oil
Spill Commission that investigated the 1989 spill.
"I feel this horrible, sickening feeling," said Zygmunt Plater, who now
teaches law at Boston College.
The Alaska spill occurred just after midnight on March 24, 1989, when
the Exxon Valdez tanker carrying more than 50 million gallons of crude
hit a reef after deviating from shipping lanes at the Valdez oil
terminal. Years of cost cutting and poor planning led to staggering
delays in response over the next five hours, according to the state
What could have been an oil spill covering a few acres became one that
stretched 1,100 miles, said Walter Parker, the commission's chairman.
"They were not prepared to respond at all," Parker said, referring to
Alyeska. "They did not have a trained team ... The equipment was buried
under several feet of snow."
The commission's report dedicated an entire chapter to failures by
Alyeska, which was formed by the oil companies to run a pipeline
stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the Valdez terminal. BP had the
biggest stake in the consortium and essentially ran the first days of
containment efforts in Prince William Sound an inlet on the south coast
"What happened in Alaska was determined by decisions coming from (BP in)
Houston," Plater said.
Alyeska officials were notified within minutes of the Valdez spill, but
it took seven hours for the consortium to get its first helicopter in
the air with a Coast Guard investigator. A barge that was supposed to be
carrying containment equipment had to be reloaded and did not arrive on
the scene until 12 hours after the spill.
During the spill, Alyeska only had enough booms to surround a single
tanker. The few skimmers it had to scoop up oil were out of commission
once they filled up because no tank barge was available to handle
"Exxon quickly realized Alyeska was not responding, so 24 hours into the
spill Exxon without consultation said, 'We're taking it over,'" said
Dennis Kelso, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of
Environmental Conservation. "That was not necessarily a bad thing."
BP's role in the Valdez spill has been far less publicized than Exxon's,
in part because the state commission wanted to stay focused and avoid
fingerpointing by saying who ran Alyeska in its report. Plater said he
now regrets that approach.
"In retrospect, it could've focused attention on BP and created
transparency which would've changed the internal culture," he said. "As
we see the internal culture appears not to have changed with tragic
According to Alyeska, BP owned a controlling 50.01 percent share in the
consortium in 1989, while a half-dozen other oil companies had smaller
stakes. Since then, BP's share in Alyeska has dropped to 46.9 percent,
with the next highest owner Conoco-Phillips Inc. at 28.3 percent. The
consortium works like a corporation with owners voting based on their
Alyeska's chief executive officer was in 1989, and is currently, a BP
employee who's on the company payroll, said Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle
BP spokesman Robert Wine declined by e-mail to comment on the company's
role in the Valdez spill, saying the incident was already examined
"We can't add to something that has been so thoroughly and publicly
investigated in the past, and the results of which have been so robustly
and effectively implemented," he said.
Many who observed both disasters say there are striking parallels.
For example, during BP's permit process for the Deepwater Horizon, the
company apparently predicted a catastrophic spill was unlikely and if it
were to happen, the company had the best technology available. Prior to
the 1989 spill, Alyeska made a similar case, arguing that such a spill
was unlikely and would be "further reduced because the majority of the
tankers ... are of American registry and all of these are piloted by
licensed masters or pilots."
Critics say the tools in both spills have been largely the same, as has
BP's lack of preparedness. Then as now, the cleanup tools used across
the industry are booms, skimmers and dispersants.
David Pettit, who helped represent Exxon after the Alaska spill, said he
knew BP was the "main player in Alyeska" even though everyone at the
time was more focused on Exxon's role.
"This is the same company that was drilling in 5,000 feet of water in
2010 knowing that what they had promised ... was no more likely to do
any good now than it did in 1989," said Pettit, now a senior attorney at
the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's the same cleanup
For the Gulf spill, a 100-ton containment box had to be built from
scratch and wasn't deployed until two weeks after the spill, leading
some to question why such emergency measures weren't ready to begin
"If you've told the government there's not a serious risk of a major
spill, why should you spend shareholder money building a 100-ton steel
box you've publicly claimed you don't think you'll ever use?" said
Since the Gulf explosion, BP's companywide preparedness and safety
record have come under sharp focus.
Onshore, BP has been criticized for the pace of improvements at some
refineries. Government officials gave BP a massive $87 million fine for
failing to make improvements in the five years since a blast killed 15
at its massive Texas City refinery. BP is appealing the fine.
For those who endured the Valdez spill and are now watching another
catastrophe unfold, industry improvements aren't coming fast enough.
"We've gone 20 years since Exxon Valdez and have advanced ourselves as a
nation and world tremendously, yet the ability to control and deal with
something of this magnitude still has not been addressed," said former
Homer Mayor John Calhoun, who choked up at the memories. "This is as
serious and difficult a situation as you can possibly imagine."
Source: Associated Press Writer
Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.