WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard laid off nearly half its personnel in Valdez, Alaska, last year, Coast Guard officials confirmed Friday. It was one of a series of cutbacks that congressional investigators believe may have left the agency spread too thin to handle accidents such as the current disastrous oil spill at Valdez.
The reductions appear to fit a pattern in which federal agencies responsible for safety programs substantially reduced their oversight activities amid the budget stringency of the last decade. In areas as diverse as airline operations and occupational safety, critics have charged that those reductions have compromised the government's ability to prevent problems before they happen and respond rapidly when they do.
In the current case, Coast Guard officials insist that they maintain sufficient resources in Alaska to protect U.S. waterways. But key members of Congress question that assertion and have announced plans to hold hearings on the adequacy of federal efforts to prevent maritime disasters.
Law Enforcement Efforts
Although the overall Coast Guard budget has grown substantially over the last decade, most of the increases have gone into anti-drug patrols and similar law enforcement efforts. The budget for the agency's marine safety program has actually declined. Currently, the Coast Guard maintains two stations to handle oil spills and other major emergencies across the country; one is in Mobile, Ala., responsible for the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, the other in San Francisco, covering the Pacific and Arctic coasts from San Diego to Prudhoe Bay.
"The Coast Guard is spread too thin," said Rep. Helen Delitch Bentley (R-Md.), a former chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission and now a member of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. "They do a good job with what they have, but they are one of the agencies that always takes a shellacking."
The Coast Guard's ability to handle disasters such as the one at Valdez is one of several topics that members of Congress expect to raise as the Merchant Marine panel begins hearings into the Alaska disaster on Thursday. The committee also plans to investigate whether the current Vessel Traffic System, designed to guide ships safely in and out of major U.S. harbors, is adequate and whether the federal government is properly regulating the multibillion-dollar tanker industry.
Similar sorts of questions have been raised about many other areas in which federal safety programs have been cut back in conjunction with the Ronald Reagan Administration's effort to reduce federal spending and eliminate excessive federal interference with business.
A rash of airplane accidents over the last three years has led to questions about the adequacy of federal air safety inspection programs. Controversy about workplace injuries triggered widespread criticism that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Mine Safety Administration were too lax. Budgets for both agencies have been increased somewhat in the last two years.
Both Reagan and Bush Administration officials have defended the government's record, arguing that industry can police itself more efficiently than the government so long as the government stands ready to levy stiff penalties if self-regulation slackens. But critics argue that approach puts the government in a dangerously reactive posture, punishing offenders and cleaning up after accidents rather than keeping them from happening in the first place.
In the current case, for example, when the $125-million supertanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef south of Valdez harbor last Friday and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, most of the equipment needed to clean up the spill had to be airlifted from San Francisco, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost told reporters Thursday.
By the time the equipment reached Valdez, the oil spill had largely spread out of control. "Most of the damage was done in the first few hours," Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner said Thursday after briefing President Bush on the causes of the spill.
Congress is almost certain now to require that additional equipment be stockpiled in key areas like Valdez, Bentley said. Environmentalists have been calling for such steps for years.
Another factor which may have delayed the cleanup is a reduction in the size of the Coast Guard's emergency response teams, which are designed to handle major oil spills and other sudden disasters. Those cuts are in addition to the reductions at the agency's harbor facilities, which have hit both remote harbors such as Valdez and more heavily trafficked ports such as New Orleans and New York.