NOAA Looks Into Navy Sonar

  • Critics of sonar say it’s so loud that it confuses whales and other marine animals, and can cause them to be injured or even die. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

A new federal ruling could
protect marine animals by
changing how and where
the Navy uses sonar. Samara Freemark reports:

Transcript

A new federal ruling could
protect marine animals by
changing how and where
the Navy uses sonar. Samara Freemark reports:

Critics of sonar say it’s so loud that it confuses whales and other marine animals, and can cause them to be injured or even die. That’s why environmental groups have been pushing for tighter regulations on the technology.

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, took a step in that direction. The agency acknowledged that current policies are not doing enough to protect marine mammals. And NOAA says it will identify critical marine habitats impacted by sonar.

Michael Jasny is a policy analyst with the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council. He hopes the policy will be a first step to banning sonar in those habitats.

“It’s not a prescription, it’s a plan. And it sets in motion potentially a very significant change. I mean, the proof will be in the pudding, of course.”

Jasny says his organization will work with NOAA and the Navy to negotiate sonar policy so that marine mammals are not hurt.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Interview: Asian Carp

  • Asian Carp can weigh up to 100 pounds and are notorious for jumping out of the water and injuring boaters. (Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The US Supreme Court has turned
down a request from Michigan and
other Great Lakes states. They
wanted the locks in a canal to
be closed immediately. That man-made
canal artificially connects the
Mississippi River system and the
Great Lakes. For now at least,
those locks will stay open to cargo
traffic. This fight is all about
a fish, a type of Asian Carp, that
many people don’t want to get into
the Great Lakes. Lester Graham
spoke with David Jude about the
threat of the fish. Jude is a
research scientist and fish biologist
at the University of Michigan:

Transcript

The US Supreme Court has turned
down a request from Michigan and
other Great Lakes states. They
wanted the locks in a canal to
be closed immediately. That man-made
canal artificially connects the
Mississippi River system and the
Great Lakes. For now at least,
those locks will stay open to cargo
traffic. This fight is all about
a fish, a type of Asian Carp, that
many people don’t want to get into
the Great Lakes. Lester Graham
spoke with David Jude about the
threat of the fish. Jude is a
research scientist and fish biologist
at the University of Michigan:

Lester: We keep hearing if this fish gets into the Great Lakes system, it will be devastating for the ecology of the lakes, ruin the commercial and recreational fishing. What is it that all these people think this Asian Carp fish will do to the Great Lakes?

David Jude: Well, I am sure they all watch the video where the fish are jumping out of the river, in the Illinois River, and harming some biologists and some people that are there.

Lester: Smacks them in the head!

David: Yes, so they are very concerned about that. And then biologists are concerned about the fact that they have taken over the river there, they are very voracious feeders, and so they have really crowded out a lot of other fish in the river. So there are a lot of things that are going on with regards to impacts on humans as well as impacts on fish communities that we certainly don’t like.

Lester: And these are big fish, they are up to 100 pounds.

David: Exactly.

Lester: There’s this electric barrier in place in the canal that is supposed to prevent these Asian Carp from swimming from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes. Environmentalists say that there’s still too much of a risk, too many scenarios where the fish could get through because of flooding or some other scenario, and that canal should be closed. The Obama Administration is fighting that, the state of Illinois if fighting that, they say we need that open. There’s barge traffic carrying steel and rock and gravel and grain, all of this seems to be coming down to money. Is money the right measure when we’re looking at this situation?

David: No, it’s not. I mean traditionally, we’ve gone into the, a lot of these decisions are made and the environmental costs are not taken into consideration. The costs of having that canal open are going to be very very high and, uh, and you have to balance it against what the sport fishery and the commercial fishery is the Great Lakes is going to be because once they get in there it’s going to be a very detrimental impact on them.

Lester: This fish is knocking at the door, we’re not even sure it’s not already in, so, is there a certain inevitability that this fish is going to be in the Great Lakes and we should just start making plans to deal with it?

David: Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable and I think if we did stop them and somehow were able to shut down the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal and prevent that avenue, we’d go a long way toward preventing them from coming in. The other avenue for them getting in, of course, is people that like to eat them and they might bring them in and stock them. So, I think we should be doing everything we can right now to stop them, I mean this is our opportunity to do that. But, the other part of it is, because they’re so close, and because as you know there probably could be some in the Lakes already, you know, we should be prepared to have some plans on what we might want to do to try to, you know, focus on some of these optimal spawning sites and see what we can do to keep their populations down there.

Lester: David Jude is a research scientist and fish biologist at the University of Michigan. Thanks for coming in!

David: Oh, my pleasure.

Related Links

Flushing Out Unwanted Stowaways

  • A ship shown emptying its ballast tanks. (Photo courtesy of the United States Geological Survey)

Invasive species like the zebra mussel
have spread into lakes and rivers across
the country. But scientists are cautiously
optimistic they’re on the right track
to closing the front door to new invaders.
David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

Invasive species like the zebra mussel
have spread into lakes and rivers across
the country. But scientists are cautiously
optimistic they’re on the right track
to closing the front door to new invaders.
David Sommerstein reports:

Most invasive species have snuck into American waters by hitchhiking in the ballast water of foreign ships. They cause billions of dollars of damage to economies and ecosystems.

Researcher David Reid keeps the official list of invasive species in the Great Lakes. He’s with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says a new invader hasn’t been found there since 2006, a period of three years.

“The last time that occurred in our records was in the 1950s.”

Reid has his fingers crossed.

A new rule requires ships to flush their ballast out in the ocean before entering American waters. Reid says it seems to be working.

“We’ve found that saltwater is really quite effective against most of types of organisms that are likely to survive fresh water.”

The invasive species problem is far from over. Researchers are testing out technology to kill critters that can live in saltwater, too.

For The Environment Report, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Interview: From the Pacific Garbage Patch

  • Researchers with Project Kaisei are studying a swirling vortex of trash that has accumulated out in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Annie Crawley, courtesy of Project Kaisei)

A huge current rotates in the Pacific Ocean, causing floating plastic trash to gather in a giant vortex of garbage in the middle of the ocean – it’s become the world’s biggest dump. Project Kaisei has sent two ships to the area to study the problem. Doug Woodring is on the New Horizon. He talked with Lester Graham by satellite phone:

Transcript

A huge current rotates in the Pacific Ocean, causing floating plastic trash to gather in a giant vortex of garbage in the middle of the ocean – it’s become the world’s biggest dump. Project Kaisei has sent two ships to the area to study the problem. Doug Woodring is on the New Horizon. He talked with Lester Graham by satellite phone:

Lester Graham: You’re in the middle of the Pacific right now, looking for the Great Pacific Garbage patch. How much luck have you had in locating some of this plastic debris?

Doug Woodring: Unfortunately, too much luck. (laughs) It hasn’t been very difficult. In fact, I’m running into, ah, I can look out the window and see a big floating piece, right now, as we’re going by. But we’ve been, the last 5-6 days, we’ve been in it consistently. It’s not as many big pieces as the world might think, but it’s way many more small pieces than people know. And the reason is, with the UV dedrigation in the plastics, it get very brittle when it’s broken down by the sun, so after some time in the water, when the wave action, it’s very easy for everything to break down and sort of crack. So what we’re getting is what they call ‘confetti’, and it’s just literally in some places many, many pieces per square meter of this stuff. And we are really looking mostly at the surface, so it’s not known yet how deep this is either. So, there’s a lot of stuff out here.

Graham: Why’s this bad for the environment?

Woodring: When you get small pieces, you’ve got mistaken potential food source for animals. So, the marine life can be eating this. It is possible that it gets in the food chain. There are toxins, heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants that attach themselves to plastics when they float. So, it’s not just a piece of plastic that a marine life eats, it’s a polluted piece of plastic. It’s also a little island, or a little flotation for species that can float around the ocean – and invasive species can go to different parts of the waters or land that wouldn’t have traveled that way otherwise. So, there’s a lot of implications that this science is only just now starting to help us figure out what’s going on.

Graham: Does anybody have any idea what we can do to reduce the impact of this huge garbage patch or to clean it up?

Woodring: Well, this is what we’re out here for. That’s the main part of our mission is to find solutions. And we can’t find solutions until we have some of the answers, and some of the data. So what we’re out here is with two vessels now, over a 30 day period, really looking for that data – water depth, leadings and temperatures and flows and salinity – to see how the plastics and the material, the debris might move around in the ocean. We will, later, be doing some analysis on the material, science of the plastics, to see if it’s recognizable by satellite. Because, obviously, without satellite imagery, it’s impossible to know exactly where the bigger masses are. You know, ‘how to clean it up,’ is going to be a very tricky thing, because the oceans are so big and these particles are not big. It’s all going to come back to what we’re doing on land, really, and the land policies for different ways to bring in better recycling and rebate programs to get a lot of the plastic that is out there today to be reused instead of simply thrown away, and so it doesn’t get into the rivers or the oceans in the first place.

Doug Woodring is a co-founder of Project Kaisei. He spoke with The Environment Report’s Lester Graham.

Related Links

New Heights for Water Recycling

  • Koichi Wakata (left), space station commander Gennady Padalka (center), and Michael Barratt (right) take ceremonial sips of recycled urine in a key milestone for the lab complex. (Photo courtesy of NASA TV)

NASA has technology light years ahead of what’s available to the rest of us. Advanced water recycling is
one of them. For years, astronauts have collected and recycled sweat and even water vapor. Shawn Allee
looks at NASA’s latest water recycling technology and whether anything like it is already on Planet Earth:

Transcript

NASA has technology light years ahead of what’s available to the rest of us. Advanced water recycling is
one of them. For years, astronauts have collected and recycled sweat and even water vapor. Shawn Allee
looks at NASA’s latest water recycling technology and whether anything like it is already on Planet Earth:

A press conference between NASA headquarters and the International Space Station got some attention
recently.

It was about making drinkable water from astronauts’ urine.

Headquarters: “The Expedition 19 crew inaugurating the use of the water recovery system to
produce recycled, purified water.”

NASA figures sending water into space wastes rocket fuel.

Why pay good money, if you can just reuse water that comes out of astronauts’ bodies?

Astronauts have recycled other fluid, but urine was kinda the final frontier.

Astronaut: “Everybody’s talked about recycling water in a closed-loop system, but nobody’s ever
done it before. So, we’re going to be drinking yesterday’s coffee frequently up here, and happy to do
it.”

Three astronauts hold up their drink pouches.

Astronaut: “And, here we go. Here’s to everybody who made this happen.”

Group: “Cheers.” (laughter)

Headquarters: “That’s looks really, really good from down here. Um…”

For all the jokes cracked in space, water’s a serious problem down here on Earth.

Is anyone recycling urine like they are on the space station? Depends on how you cut it.

NASA’s system is a closed loop: water out, urine in, water out.

Similar technology’s used during some natural disasters, and the country of Singapore gets close.
Singapore recycles sewage water but it’s sent to reservoirs where it’s diluted.

How far does America get with recycled water? Public service announcements hint at who’s furthest
along.

“Southern California is getting drier. Go to bewaterwise.com. Find out how your community is
dealing with mandatory conservation.”

For decades, California utilities have used recycled waste water to spruce up landscaping and golf courses –
but you’re not allowed to drink it.

Orange County goes a tad further. It replenishes an underground aquifer with recycled water. The utility
draws water out of that aquifer.

So, it’s a kind of water recycling – more like Singapore’s diluted variety than NASA’s fully-closed loop.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency – no city in America has astronaut-style water
recycling.

But, some water utility managers predict some city will.

“It’s a non-issue. From purely a perception standpoint, Oh my god you’re making
me drink toilet water. You know, get over it, because you’ve been doing it anyhow.”

That’s Frank Jaeger. He runs the water system in Parker, a Denver suburb.

He says most water systems are more like Singapore’s and Orange County’s than you might think.

“I was in New Orleans, and I had the chance to go through their treatment process. And, they
pointed out that ten years in a row they had won the drinking water award for turbidity, taste, odor –
and that water going down the Mississippi had been through 12 stomachs by the time it had gotten to
New Orleans. They mix it with a little more scotch than we do, but they drink it.”

Jaeger says, think of the advantages a full water recycling system would have.

Some cities would save energy since they’d pump water shorter distances. And you’d get a consistent
supply of water, since you can count on people bathing and flushing on a regular basis.

“It is silly, in this day and age, to be worried about these sorts of things – especially
here in the United States, where we have such good wonderful treatment
processes.”

There’s no federal regulation that specifically prohibits full toilet-to-tap water recycling.
So, Jaeger says, someday, some politically brave local government will move forward.

Just not his.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Cleaning Up U.S. Ports

  • The Matson Line Container ship is unloaded at the Port of Oakland. It takes up to 48 hours and hundreds of trucks to unload the world's large container ships. Everything except the white cranes runs on diesel (Photo by Lisa Ann Pinkerton)

U.S. ports are among the biggest sources of air pollution in the cities they are in. Some
ports are making progress in cleaning up their emissions. But Lisa Ann Pinkerton
reports, critics say the pace is slow:

Transcript

U.S. ports are among the biggest sources of air pollution in the cities they are in. Some
ports are making progress in cleaning up their emissions. But Lisa Ann Pinkerton
reports, critics say the pace is slow:

The Matson Line cargo ship is laden with hundreds of shipping
containers and looks like a floating building, rather than a ship. It’s in
from a recent trek across the Pacific Ocean and it’s docked here at
the Port of Oakland.

It’s being unloaded one container at a time by a row of cranes
towering over the ship.

“And they’re either loading them on to a truck chassis to go directly out of the port, or
they’re going to store it in the yard, sort it out, put it on a rail car or send it out on the
regional freeways.”

That’s Richard Sincoff. He directs the environmental projects at the
Port of Oakland.

He says it can take crews 24 to 48 hours to fully unload just one ship,
and all that the activity creates a lot of the air pollution surrounding
West Oakland.

The trucks moving containers around the port run on diesel, and
recently, the port banned all pre 1994 trucks from shuttling shipping
containers.

Delphine Prevost, who manages truck programs at the port says goal
is to ensure the thousands trucks serving the port emit low levels of
diesel pollution.

“These are engine models we are talking about, and generally the older, the more
pollution it is. Just like anything else, trucks get cleaner as technology for truck engines
get cleaner.”

Since most of the truck drivers are independent contractors and can’t
always afford a brand new truck, the port has set up a grant program
to help them cover the costs.

Los Angeles has done this, too, and it is the biggest port in the
country. Since last fall, it’s removed forty-five hundred dirty trucks
from its operations.

David Abby says the region’s seen a nearly 35% improvement to the
local air quality and a reduction of 500 tones of nitrous oxide or NOX.

“And to put that into prospective, that 500 tons of NOX is like taking 1300 cars off the
road for a year.”

But truck exhaust represents only about 4% of all diesel emissions in
America’s ports. It’s ships that emit the most. They burn dirty bunker
fuel on their way in to the port. Then they’re docked, they keep
burning it for electricity.

James Cannon is with Energy Futures – an environmental advocacy
group. He says these big ships are just like a power plant on land.
But, because they are in the water, the US Clean Air Act doesn’t
apply.

“Because the power plant is just a few feet off the berth on the ship, it’s totally
unregulated and this has led to emissions that are literally thousands of times higher
than if it were just a few feet away.”

Cannon says ports are exploring ways to cut these emissions, but the
pace is slow. He says the most ideal solution is to allow the ships to
plug into the electrical grid while at berth. A few ships docking in the
Port of Long Beach can do this now.

These California ports are greening their operations, because state
law is pushing them. Cannon says America’s seven other ports have
much farther to go.

He says they should take advantage of the lower shipping activity
during this recession – and spend money to green up their
operations.

“Rather than endlessly expanding their container ports or endlessly expanding volume
they now have a chance to restructure their ports and put them on a cleaner basis.”

US EPA has pledged to regulate air within 230 miles of US Coasts by
2012.

If the agency stays true to its word, all of the nation’s ports will have
to green their operations eventually. Whether it will be as much as
California’s ports have done remains to be seen.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lisa Ann Pinkerton.

Related Links

Bike Shop in a Box

  • A mechanic works on the bikes to make them as compact as possible - removing pedals, kickstands, and turning the handlebars (Photo by Karen Kelly)

So many of us have an old bike collecting
dust in the garage. More often than not,
they end up in the garbage. But, as Karen
Kelly reports, one group has found a unique
way to recycle them:

Transcript

So many of us have an old bike collecting
dust in the garage. More often than not,
they end up in the garbage. But, as Karen
Kelly reports, one group has found a unique
way to recycle them:

(sound of banging)

“That’s a sweet ride!”

A volunteer drops a bike into a pile at the back of a huge shipping container in Ottawa, Canada.
The bikes are stacked one on top of the other.

(sound of tools)

Just outside, a mechanic is stripping the bikes down to make them as compact as possible.

“If it has a kickstand, we have to remove it. We take the pedals off and turn the handlebars.”

In a few hours, this cargo container will be jammed with hundreds of donated bicycles, bike parts, and backpacks.

The gear is collected by a group called Bicycles for Humanity.
They have 20 chapters, most of them in North America.

Each chapter raises a couple of thousand dollars to buy a shipping container.
They pack it full of donated gear, and send it off to a community in Namibia, Africa. The shipping cost – another several thousand dollars – is also raised by the group.

A volunteer group there turns the container itself into a locally-run bike shop that provides jobs and transportation.

Some of the bikes are donated to health care workers who use them to pull patients on a stretcher.

Others are piled high with stacks of food and household items that defy gravity.

Martin Sullivan points to some of the pictures on display.

“These are the bakers who are able to sell their bread. And also wood, you can stack wood. It’s just amazing what they do, how they make use of these bikes that we take for granted. We throw them out, and they can do so much with them.”

(sound of traffic)

In Namibia, cars – and even bicycles – are scarce. Sullivan says these bikes make life easier for people who are used to walking miles to get to school, work, or to find the basic necessities.

Seb Oran is the co-founder of Bicycles for Humanity in Ottawa.

This is the fourth container of bikes that she’s sent to Africa.
Each one supports a local community group.
Sometimes its a hospital, sometimes an orphanage, sometimes a women’s empowerment group.
She remembers one run by former prostitutes.

“Six of them became bicycle mechanics now. And now, they don’t have to sell their bodies to put food on their plate.”

But there are some challenges.

Michael Linke runs the Bicycle Empowerment Network.
He helps the Nambians set up the bicycle shops.

“Because this is the first time a lot of these people have had formal ongoing work, it’s often difficult to get people to understand a long-term ongoing business.”

But with some mentoring, they’ve been able to make it work.
There are now 13 successful projects, with more containers filled with bikes on the way.

The group estimates that these bikes will last another 20 or 30 years in Africa. They might be junk to us, but in Namibia, they’re a precious resource.

For The Environment Report, I’m Karen Kelly.

Related Links

Big Ships Dump Oil Into the Ocean

  • Ships dump 88 million gallons of oil into the ocean illegally each year - that's eight times the amount of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Photo source: Vmenkov at Wikimedia Commons)

Each year, ships intentionally dump millions of gallons of oil into the oceans. Rebecca Williams reports everything from cruise ships to cargo ships to oil tankers have been caught:

Transcript

Each year, ships intentionally dump millions of gallons of oil into the oceans. Rebecca Williams reports everything from cruise ships to cargo ships to oil tankers have been caught:

Ships have all kinds of mechanical parts that use oil.

The ships are supposed to collect the waste oil and separate it out, but it turns out a lot of ships just dump it overboard.

Stacey Mitchell is chief of the environmental crimes section at the Department of Justice. She says some estimates are all this oil adds up to about 88 million gallons a year.

That’s eight times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. And those are just the ships they catch.

“As we do more and more of these enforcements the crews on board these vessels who are trying to defeat our purposes are getting craftier and are coming up with new ways to commit this crime and new ways to conceal it.”

Mitchell says it takes time and costs money to separate the oil the way you’re supposed to, and so they might think the chance of getting caught might be worth the risk. Though if you are caught, the fines can be in the millions of dollars.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Interview: Book Blames Coast Guard for Invaders

  • Ships sometimes bring unwanted travelers with them (Photo by Lester Graham)

Invasive species hitchike on foreign cargo ships and end up in US waterways. Lester Graham talked with the author of a new book about why the government has done so little to stop these aquatic invaders that are damaging the environment:

Transcript

Invasive species hitchike on foreign cargo ships and end up in US waterways.
Lester Graham talked with the author of a new book about why the government has done so little to stop these aquatic invaders that are damaging the environment:

Lester Graham: “Maybe you’ve heard about Zebra Mussels. The thumbnail-sized mussels have invaded freshwater lakes, rivers, clogged water intake pipes, and damaged the environment across a good portion of the US – and they’re still spreading. The Zebra Mussel is just one of dozens and dozens of invasive species brought into the US by foreign cargo ships entering the Great Lakes though the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. What happens is ships in Europe or Africa or Asia take on ballast water, sucking up millions of gallons of water from a foreign port. Aquatic life is sucked up with it. Then, as the ships take on cargo in the Great Lakes, the ballast water is discharged, and with it things like Zebra Mussels and other foreign pests. Many of those species have spread from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River system, and then transported by recreational boating in every direction from there. Jeff Alexander has written a book that chronicles not only those invasions, but the utter failure of the government to do anything effective to stop these introductions. Jeff, you make the argument that these invasive species, biological pollution if you will, amount to a more serious environmental disaster than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. How’s that?”

Jeff Alexander: “Well the Valdez, there’s no discounting the severity of the Valdez oil spill. But oil spills, over time, can be cleaned up to a certain extent, and the ecosystem can recover. In the Great Lakes, ocean freighters have brought in 57 species, they’ve caused billions of dollars in damage, and they’ve transformed the entire ecosystem.”

Graham: “There are eight states that border the Great Lakes, and members of Congress are aware of this problem, why haven’t they taken action to ensure this problem is dealt with once and for all?”

Alexander: “The shipping lobby has been very effective at keeping regulations at bay, the Coast Guard, which is the lead agency in the US, has just totally dropped the ball on this issue. They’re the ones who’re supposed to be the guardians of the Great Lakes when it comes to ships, and the Coast Guard is very close to the shipping industry. They have social events together every year. A lot of people blame the shipping industry for this problem, but I tend not to. They certainly have fought the regulations but, in the end, the reason that we have regulatory agencies is to protect public health and the environment. And our regulatory agencies haven’t done the job, and our politicians haven’t done the job – no one seems to have the backbone to stand up to the shipping industry and deal with this problem.”

Graham: “Are the foreign ships that bring in this cargo and take away grain or the other things from the Midwest so economically valuable that it is worth this economic and environmental cost?”

Alexander: “There is some debate on that, but the best economic study estimated if we kept these ocean freighters out of the Great Lakes, made them offload their cargo in Montreal and put it on trains and trucks, it would cost us an extra $55 million a year to move that cargo. That’s compared to the estimate of $200 million a year that foreign species are costing us in terms of economic and environmental damage. It’s not a stretch to make the case that the environmental and economic costs have far exceeded the economic benefits.”

Graham: “Jeff Alexander’s new book is ‘Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway’. Thanks, Jeff.”

Alexander: “Thank you.”

Jeff Alexander spoke with The Environment Report’s Lester Graham.

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The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

  • A NOAA scientist surveying an oiled beach to assess the depth of oil penetration soon after the spill (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Twenty years ago this week, an oil tanker ran aground on a rocky reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. It’s considered to be perhaps the biggest ecological disaster in US history. Ann Dornfeld has this look at how oil spill prevention and preparedness have changed in the two decades since Valdez:

Transcript

Twenty years ago this week, an oil tanker ran aground on a rocky reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. It’s considered to be perhaps the biggest ecological disaster in US history. Ann Dornfeld has this look at how oil spill prevention and preparedness have changed in the two decades since Valdez:

The call came in just after midnight.

“Ah, evidently leaking some oil and we’re gonna be here for a while.”

Court records indicate Captain Joseph Hazelwood was likely drunk when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

There was hardly any clean-up equipment on hand. No plan for action. The location was remote.

Oil polluted a stretch of Alaskan coastline the length of the entire west coast of the U.S. The oil killed fish, sea otters, harbor seals and an estimated quarter of a million birds. Today, there is still oil on some beaches.

Twenty years later, a cargo vessel has just reported a spill of 160
gallons of oil in Washington state’s Commencement Bay. Investigators
have filled the “Spill Situation Room” in the state Department of Ecology.

“Who’s responsible for actually maintaining
the bow thruster, when was the last time they performed maintenance on it?”

“You mean one of the staff on board?”

“Yeah.”

Spill Response Manager David Byers says coastal states learned a lesson from Exxon Valdez, and developed rapid response systems like this.

“We’ve got crews headed up in a helicopter to do on-
water observations, we’ve got response resources on the water headed out to do containment when we find the location of the oil.”

Byers says the state handles dozens of spills this size each year, making it somewhat of a well-oiled machine.

After the Exxon Valdez, the state of Washington put in place some tough prevention standards. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state.

The court ruled the state was making safety demands of oil companies that only the federal government could make.

Mike Cooper is Chairman of the state’s Oil Spills Advisory Council. He says that ruling is one reason why small oil spills are common in Washington’s bays. He says other states have come up against the same restrictions.

“When the Massachusetts legislature passed strict laws,
the United States Coast Guard and the industry did the same thing that they did to the people of Washington state. They sued the people of the state of Massachusetts and said, ‘We’ll decide if industry has to pay.'”

The federal Oil Pollution Act did raise industry’s liability and the amount of federal money available in the event of a spill. It also requires oil tankers and barges in U.S. waters to be double-hulled by 2015. The Exxon Valdez’ single hull was easily gouged open when it ran aground.

Today, most U.S.-flagged tankers and barges are double-hulled. Most foreign tankers aren’t yet.

But there’s no law requiring a second hull on cargo ships. Bruce Wishart is Policy Director for People for Puget Sound. He says it’s cargo vessels that are most likely to spill oil.

“It’s commonly assumed that oil tankers pose the
single greatest threat in terms of an oil spill. There are actually many, many more cargo vessels plying our waters that pose a very significant risk simply because they carry a lot of fuel on board.”

In 2007, the cargo vessel Cosco Busan spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Thousands of birds died, including endangered species. A fully-loaded cargo ship can contain 40 times more oil than what leaked from the Cosco Busan.

So, while oil tankers have become safer in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez, the nation’s waterways still remain at risk of a major spill.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

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