A Dubious Birthday For The Exxon Valdez

The Exxon Valdez spill prompted lawmakers and regulators to change how they oversee the oil industry. And while experts say the industry's safer now, riskier work continues to test the rules.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's a bit of what we learned when we woke up that morning, 25 years ago today.

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JEAN COCHRAN: A Coast Guard spokesman in Juneau, Alaska says an oil tanker has run aground in an ice field 20 miles off Valdez. That's the terminus of...

CORNISH: The Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef, spilling millions of gallons of oil and decimating marine life. NPR's marking the anniversary in a series of reports. Today, NPR's Jeff Brady tells us that the accident exposed big gaps in regulation and prompted significant changes.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Before the Exxon Valdez, interest in oil spill research had waned, so much so, the federal government had shut down this unique testing facility on the New Jersey shore. Climbing metal stairs, the cold wind whips the microphone. At the top, we see the centerpiece of this outdoor research laboratory. It's a big pool with clear, blue saltwater.

PAUL MEYER: It's roughly two football fields long. It's 667 feet long...

BRADY: Paul Meyer manages this facility for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. He says researchers can make waves in the pool and dump ice in the water to mimic the Arctic. After the Valdez spill, this facility was re-opened so oil spill research could continue here. Recently, the crew tested a machine that separates oil from water. Meyer says the below-freezing temperature is perfect for testing.

MEYER: One of the things they want to do is quantify how well it actually works in cold water conditions.

BRADY: This kind of research is in big demand now, says program manager Bill Schmidt.

BILL SCHMIDT: We're at about 85 to 90 percent capacity at this moment. We're running, almost every week, a different test and different scenario.

BRADY: What's learned here helps oil companies better respond to accidents like the Exxon Valdez.

RICHARD KEIL: This was a low point and a turning point in our company's history.

BRADY: Richard Keil is a spokesman for the company known today as ExxonMobil. The captain of the Valdez had been drinking the day of the accident. Now, there's drug and alcohol testing. Another change, two tug boats are required to navigate Prince William Sound. Keil says after the Valdez accident, the oil company took a long, hard look at itself.

KEIL: Simply put, safety is the first priority for our company. It has been ever since then and it continues to be that to this day.

BRADY: The historic spill prompted regulatory changes and new laws, like the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But the biggest changes came after BP's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That prompted a wholesale change in federal regulation. Old agencies were replaced by new ones with stronger mandates and more funding.

Brian Salerno is director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. His agency sets rules for offshore drillers but he's also focused on changing the culture of oil companies.

BRIAN SALERNO: Regulations will only get you so far. We have to do more. We have to be better at this.

BRADY: Salerno says his goal for every company is to create a safety culture.

SALERNO: I would define a safety culture as the behavior that people exhibit when nobody is looking over their shoulder.

BRADY: That's a big change from the oil industry's culture back in 1989, when drilling and production were the focus. Today, tanker and barge spills have declined dramatically. Lois Epstein with the Wilderness Society credits legislation Congress passed after the Exxon Valdez.

LOIS EPSTEIN: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 is generally considered a fairly successful statute.

BRADY: The law banned single-hull tankers from U.S. waters. The ships today have stronger, double hulls that can better withstand an accident. The law said when there's a spill, responsible companies will pay a lot. Right now, the government is considering raising the liability cap for offshore facilities from 75 to $134 million. Epstein thinks there should be no cap.

EPSTEIN: One of the things we'd like to see is an unlimited liability. If you cause a problem, you should have to pay to address it.

BRADY: Epstein says when there's a spill, usually only a small percent of the oil is recovered, which means damage can last for decades. That's important when you consider this - oil companies are working in more challenging environments, deeper water, the Arctic. That comes with more risks. Experts say the industry is safer now. But as riskier work is done more frequently, improvements made since the Exxon Valdez are being put to the test. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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