Responding to spills more effectively

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Most Americans, especially those in the Gulf region, believe that the ongoing oil spill is not being handled well by the federal government or BP. This is partially due to the command system that was established nationally after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Following that accident, a team of international oil-spill response experts met in Anchorage to analyze the response and to develop new concepts for responding to oil spills in Alaskan waters. Included in the major reforms were emergency response vessels that escort the loaded tankers through coastal waters, as well as the creation of a Regional Citizens Advisory Council and the Incident Command System (ICS).

The ICS had been used by “hot-shot” forest firefighters for many years. It is a structured command system that allows trainees to step into the response organization immediately. The system also makes it clear that the Incident Commander is in charge. The concept of the ICS was included in the comprehensive Alaskan Oil Spill statutes written shortly after the accident, as well as in the federal Oil Spill Prevention Act of 1990.

Prior to those laws, each oil company and ship owner had been responsible for developing their own contingency plans. At the Exxon Valdez spill, this resulted in confusion during the first weeks as to who was in charge. Was it the Coast Guard, the state, the Alyeska Pipeline Company or Exxon, the ship owner? The U.S. Coast Guard had a very professional team on site, but Exxon believed it was the entity responsible for stopping the flow of oil and the cleanup. To add to the confusion, some politicians used the spill as an opportunity to push individual agendas rather than focusing on the task at hand.

Following the adoption of the ICS, the concept of a Unified Command was introduced during comprehensive exercises held in Valdez. A Unified Command allows senior federal and state officials to work alongside the responsible company to craft the most appropriate and timely response plan.

A Unified Command is now operating in the Gulf of Mexico, but it is apparent changes need to be made to the system.

A lesson we should have learned in 1989 is that with a major incident there should be two parallel command organizations. The prime Unified Command would oversee the control of the spill and would be headed by a federal representative. A secondary Inshore Unified Command—responsible for addressing beach defenses, fighting Washington bureaucracies and putting the people, wildlife and communities first—would be headed by officials at the direction of governors from impacted states.

A single organization cannot deal with the highly technical response needed to stop the outflow from a well or prevent a ship from breaking up, while at the same effectively managing the real concerns of nearby communities and the coordination of the interstate and community responses.

It is critical for the flow of oil be stopped, and nothing should be done to stand in the way of that effort. However that is of little consequence to the people who see their lives being ruined through perceived inaction by the responsible company or the government.

It is not too late to take this action in the Gulf. This concept must be included in any modifications to the Oil Spill Prevention Act.

Drue Pearce was chairman of the Alaska State Senate Oil and Gas Committee, which wrote the nation’s toughest oil spill response legislation. Michael F.G. Williams was the Leader of the Team in Alaska that was responsible for rewriting oil spill plans after the Exxon Valdez accident.