by Danielle Knight
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
new oil development projects in the
Arctic, along with leaky oil wells and aging pipelines and tanker vessels,
could lead to repeat of one of the nation's worst oil disasters of 10 years
ago, say environmental groups.
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went aground and spewed 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, devastating scores of sea birds, fish and sea otters, and many whales.
Only two of the 26 species -- bald eagles and river otters -- have fully recovered, according to a federal-state council that monitors the impact of the accident.
Despite the destruction caused by the spill, little has been done to prevent the reoccurrence of such disasters, said a report prepared by the Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
New oil projects and aging equipment and tankers in the region increase the likelihood of another major oil spill in the arctic, an icy region difficult -- if not impossible -- to clean up once contaminated, the report warns.
"Ten years after Exxon Valdez disaster, there is a great risk of another major oil catastrophe in Alaska unless pro-active measures are taken," charges Adam Kolton, Arctic Campaign director at the Washington-based Alaska Wilderness League.
oversight has created a climate where environmental crimes go
unreported and risky, untested oil projects go ahead with little or no
safeguards, said the report.
"Corrupt and careless" industry practices "plague" the region, said Kolton who blames this on the huge influence oil companies wage over elected officials and regulatory agencies.
"The oil industry has too much influence," he said. "And these companies are only getting bigger with the recent Amoco-British Petroleum and Exxon-Mobil mergers."
Recent environmental crimes have surfaced only because whistle- blowers came forward to report problems, said the report. For example, the Justice Department fined contractors hired by British Petroleum $3 million in 1998 for illegally injected hazardous drilling wastes and solvents into unsealed outer well shafts for a period of five years.
The event only came to light when an employee reported the practice to BP officials.
An average of 427 spills a year have occurred since 1996 -- a total of 1.2 million gallons -- in Alaska's North Slope area, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation records.
Despite a federal law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, which makes double hulls mandatory for oil tankers, the majority of oil shipped from Alaska is still carried in outdated, single-hull tankers, according to the report "Preventing the Next Valdez."
"There are no more double-hull tankers in the fleet today than there were in 1989," said Ann Rothe, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, a public interest law firm.
Arco Oil Company, one of the few companies that ordered double- hulled ships, has delayed construction of the expensive tanker vessels -- because of a drop in revenues because of low oil prices.
"Instead of replacing single-hull tankers, the oil companies are trying to exploit a legal loophole for further delay," said the report.
The 25-year-old Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which stretches 800 miles from the North Slope oil fields to the southern port of Valdez, is poorly operated and badly in need of repair, said the report.
Congressional hearings in the early 1990s revealed that the consortium of companies operating the pipeline harassed and fired employees who reported problems, said the report.
A study released in February by the federal-state agency that oversees the pipeline claims that the project is sound and employees are adequately trained, but environmental organizations say the situation has not improved.
"Recent repair work on the pipeline was halted when workers reported being pressured to rush and do shoddy work," said "Preventing the Next Valdez."
Pipeline leak detection systems cannot be trusted, the report said. It points out that in 1996, some 20,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a buried pipeline before it was noticed.
With the strong support of Republican lawmakers from the state, oil companies are forging ahead with many new oil drilling and production projects that threaten the areas wildlife, said the report.
One such project is British Petroleum's Northstar offshore pipeline that would be the first crude oil pipeline in the Alaska arctic built under the sea bed. The Army Corps of Engineers said there is a one in four chance of a major spill from the pipeline.
"Buried beneath the sea ice, leaks would be difficult to detect and impossible to clean up," say environmental groups.
Habitat vital to polar bears, bowhead whales, ringed seals and migratory birds would all be threatened by such a spill, said the report.
have also denouncing plans by the Department of Interior to
lease more than 4 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve to oil
Drilling in this area, according to the report, "sacrifices essential nesting habitat" for threatened birds including rare yellow-billed loons and tundra swans, according to the report.
Environmental groups have been in constant battles with Republicans over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While the Clinton administration has promised to veto any proposals for oil exploration in the reserve, multinational oil companies are pushing to allow seismic oil exploration.
Exxon, Arco, and British Petroleum said such type of exploration is "non-intrusive." Environmentalists point out, however, that the "thumper" trucks which use explosive charges to search for oil cause polar bears and grizzlies to permanently abandon their dens and young after such disturbances.
The arctic is "endangered of becoming Exxon's arctic unless we take steps to protect the National Wildlife Refuge," said Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League.
March 22, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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