As memories of the Exxon Valdez fade, a plea to Congress to retain the lessons learned

Mako Haggerty of Homer sits on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. Photo by Liz Ruskin.

One of the lessons of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is that the response has to begin immediately. Time is short if there’s any hope of limiting the damage.

Congress seemed to have learned that lesson by 1990, when it imposed a per-barrel tax to pay for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The fund allows the government to launch a spill response and pay compensation, even before the company at fault is held to account.

But at the end of last year, Congress allowed that law to expire.

Mako Haggerty of Homer was among a group of Alaskans in Washington, D.C. recently to ask lawmakers to renew it.

“Thirty years was a long time ago,” Haggerty said in an interview outside the U.S. Capitol, between meetings. “A lot of people are moving on, and we need to remember what happened.”

Haggerty is a member of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. He was a commercial fisherman when the Valdez ran aground, and he worked on the spill clean-up, in the sound and the outer Kenai Peninsula.

“I think we’re still suffering some of the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill,” he said. “What we want to do is prevent spills. That’s the main thing.”

Haggerty likes a bill Sen. Dan Sullivan sponsored, the Spill Response and Prevention Surety Act. It would permanently restore the oil spill fund, and keep the 9-cents-per-barrel tax. But Sullivan’s bill would cap the fund at $7 billion. Once the fund reaches that level, the tax would be suspended until the value drops below $5 billion.

Haggerty says the ceiling is important.

“The fund is there just to get the cleanup started as soon as possible. So we don’t need a huge amount of money,” he said. “And anytime you have a huge amount of money sitting around, people want to use it for other purposes.”

The bill would also provide $25 million in annual grants to states for spill prevention.

Haggerty says prevention is critical. That’s one of the hard lessons of the 1989 spill.  

“You have herring and bidarkis and clams and a lot of the subsistence foods from Prince William Sound, around the villages, that are still not there,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a co-sponsor of Sullivan’s bill, which has not yet advanced to a committee hearing.