Five hours after the damaged tanker Exxon Valdez unleashed the nation's largest oil spill, members of Exxon's Casualty Response Team were headed to the growing slick off the Alaskan coast.
The 100 members of the team--who handle different aspects of such emergencies, from cleanup to salvage operations--had soon established a command center and were placing orders for emergency equipment as spelled out in company disaster plans.
"It's just in our best interests to have a comprehensive response to something like this," said an Exxon spokesman.
In the 20 years since the disastrous Santa Barbara Channel oil spill, energy companies have drawn up detailed battle plans to respond to such emergencies under growing government and public pressure. Industry officials also have plans to handle many other emergencies, such as refinery fires, broken pipelines, oil derrick explosions and overturned gasoline tanker trucks. But the plans do not always live up to real-life situations.
Exxon, for example, and other companies have been chastised for taking too much time to respond to the spill near Valdez, Alaska. "It always pays to plan ahead," said Amy Stolls, editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report. "It's unfortunate that it didn't work out in this situation.
The federal government requires oil companies to comply with what is called a National Contingency Plan, which is tailored to handle problems that occur on coastlines and at oil facilities. The plan spells out which agency or company will be in charge of the many groups involved in the containment and clean-up of oil spills. The Environmental Protection Agency and many state agencies--such as the California Coastal Commission--require oil companies to submit disaster response plans for refinery explosions as well as tanker spills.
Cities also have paid more attention to such plans and possible disasters in the past 20 years. In El Segundo, home to the Chevron refinery--Southern California's largest--city safety officials have become more concerned as office buildings have sprung up along the south side of the plant. Many of those office buildings will be notified of a major emergency by a special electronic system. Chevron and city fire units train together at least three to four times year.
"We have intensified our relationship out of necessity and of increased awareness in our community," said El Segundo fire chief Robert Marsh.
Like Exxon, many of the large energy companies have also established teams of executives and specialists--Shell calls its unit RATs, for Response Action Teams--trained to deal with emergencies.
Besides technical and engineering specialists, Mobil's response team includes experts from the purchasing and legal departments. "They can write a contract on the spot," said Jim Carbonetti, a company spokesman.
Oil companies and government agencies also have employed the latest in computer technology. Computer simulations, for example, will show in what direction oil spills will flow given certain wind and wave conditions.
At its refinery in Torrance, Mobil has two large trailers that act as traveling command centers. They are equipped with everything from maps to satellite hook-ups that allow officials at the scene of an emergency to talk to experts across the nation.
The oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast 20 years ago forced companies to look at disaster planning more closely, say industry experts. "They were not that sophisticated," said Jack Gould, senior environmental scientist at the American Petroleum Institute. "We had never had an oil spill that big."
The spill also spawned the creation of oil industry cooperatives designed to handle such calamities. Clean Seas, one of the first such cooperative established after the Santa Barbara spill, covers the California Coast from Cape San Martin on the Central Coast to Point Dume off Malibu. Its three ships, staffed around the clock, can respond to most spills within one to two hours. Mr. Clean 3, one of the three ships, is usually anchored off Point Dume.
High Winds Stall Cleanup
Speed is essential in responding to such emergencies, say experts. "Your best chances for reducing and mitigating damage are during the first two or three days," said Michael Garnett, executive vice president for Hudson Maritime Services, a marine consultant.
But even the best laid plans and preparation fall apart.
In 1987, two cargo ships collided off the Southern California coast, causing 3,000 barrels of fuel oil to spill into the ocean. Although Clean Seas was on the scene within two hours, high winds stalled cleanup efforts for nearly a day.
As a result, most of the spill was cleaned up by the sea itself. "If the mechanical equipment is (sidelined)," said Skip Onstead, manager of Clean Seas, "then the natural forces of the sea tend to break up the spill."
In the recent Alaska spill, the remote location and the Easter holiday led to confusion and the unraveling of the disaster plan that was in place, say industry experts. The question federal and state officials will now be asking, said Stolls, is "If we have such a great plan, why didn't it work?"