Citizen council remains vigilant three decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Donna Schantz has worked with Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council since 1999 and served as its executive director since 2016. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, PWSRCAC was created to give a voice to those who have the most to lose in the event of another spill. The council includes representatives from communities in the spill region and industries like aquaculture, commercial fishing, and tourism. It is mandated by Congress and funded by the oil industry but has complete independence. The Prince William Sound council is one of two such organizations in the United States. The other represents Alaska’s Cook Inlet.    

Donna Schantz outside the harbor in Valdez

Can you share something that the council has accomplished recently that you are proud of?

This is always an interesting question because it’s really hard to hold up the oil spill that didn’t happen as an accomplishment. We’re 33 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the fact that we haven’t had a major oil spill in our region, from an oil tanker or at the terminal, I think is a huge accomplishment. It’s a testament that the whole system is working.

The reason we exist is to combat complacency. Even though we haven’t had a spill in 33 years, the further we move away from the spill the more likely that some of the safeguards that have been put in place could start being diminished. Even though I feel like we have the safest oil transportation facility in the nation, if not the world, there are concerns.

What is it that makes it such a safe place to store and transport oil?

As far as PWSRCAC’s work, our primary focus is on preventing future accidents and oil spills. When I was interim executive director in 2009-2010, we got legislation passed to require that two escort tugs accompany double-hull tankers. The original law was that only single-hull tankers have two escort tugs. That’s probably one of the biggest oil spill prevention measures for the tankers. If something should go wrong with the ship—if it should lose propulsion or something else—you’ve got those two escort tugs ready to respond to prevent an accident.

The response side is also important. The State of Alaska has some of the strongest requirements in the nation in terms of preparedness for an oil spill. For oil tankers that come in and out of Prince William Sound, the requirement is that they have enough equipment and resources to contain, control, and clean up 300,000 barrels of oil in 72 hours. That’s a really high planning standard.

One other thing that is fairly unique in terms of size is that Alyeska [Pipeline Service Company] has over 350 fishing vessels on contract that are trained annually in oil spill prevention and response.

Are there any issues you work on that keep you up at night? 

One of my biggest concerns right now is that there have been a number of budget cuts both on the federal side and the state side in terms of regulatory oversight. It’s just a big concern, this constant pressure to do more with less. After the oil spill there was all this activity. Laws were put into place and all these positions [were created] within the regulatory agencies to oversee the terminal. As we get farther away from the spill, we’re seeing that it’s slowly diminishing.

It’s also budget reductions within the industry itself. I’ve been with the council for so long that I’ve seen many reorganizations within Alyeska and elimination of positions. It gets to the point where there’s no more fat to cut. The industry should be allowed to reorganize and manage their staffing however they see fit, but you want to make sure we’re not compromising safety and increasing risk as a result.

You’ve mentioned a few times now that distance and the complacency it causes. Can you talk a little about how the oil spill from 1989 is still affecting the region three decades later?

The oil spill changed people’s lives. It really did. Especially in some of these smaller communities that rely on commercial fishing and the Native villages that rely on subsistence food. I think that’s still very present in a lot of the communities. I’ve even heard from people who were children during the spill who talk about how their lives were impacted and forever changed because of that spill. So, the personal impacts of the spill are very much present. 

From an environmental standpoint, I’d say the sound is recovered. You still can go to some beaches today and, at low tide, dig and find oil in the sediment. There are still some species that have not recovered. There’s a pod of orca whales that lost a significant number of females after the oil spill and there have not been any new births from that specific pod. But I think for the most part the sound has recovered.

Well, thanks Donna. I think those are all my questions. Is there anything else you want to mention?

As we got farther away from the oil spill, we realized we were losing some of those stories, experiences, and lessons learned. So, we commissioned this book called The Spill. It’s personal stories from the disaster and short clips of different people’s experiences. The full transcripts from when we did this book are available on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Project Jukebox.


Alexander Deedy formerly worked as the assistant editor and digital content manager for Alaska magazine.

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