Coast Guard:

Adequacy of Preparation and Response to Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

RCED-90-44: Published: Oct 30, 1989. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 1989.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) evaluated the oil industry's and the federal government's preparedness for responding to a March 1989 spill of over 10 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska; and (2) examined industry and government measures that could prevent future spills.

GAO found that: (1) the firm operating the vessel targeted its oil spill response plan for spills that accounted for less than 1 percent of the amount spilled in March 1989; (2) equipment breakdowns and weather and water conditions hampered recovery efforts; (3) current recovery and response technology was not adequate for addressing such large spills as the March 1989 incident and had not significantly changed over the last 2 decades due to substantial cuts in federal funding for research and development; (4) although Alaska required the firm operating the vessel to have a spill response plan, other states did not require such plans; (5) the Coast Guard believed that it had authority to monitor spill response and assume partial or total control over response, but lacked authority to ensure the adequacy of response plans before accidents occurred; (6) the federal and state governments widely varied in their use of such oil spill prevention methods as monitoring and directing ship movement, using harbor pilot or tug escort assistance, licensing, and industry training procedures; (7) over the past 20 years, there has been an average of 80 accidents a year involving about 900 tankers transporting other types of hazardous cargo; (8) funding sources for increased prevention efforts included direct industry funding, user fees, and direct appropriations; and (9) there was no single entity or leader responsible for developing, monitoring, or enforcing oil spill prevention and response methods.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is no longer applicable because the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 will serve as an action plan.

    Matter: To help ensure that an effective course of action is developed for improving the nation's capabilities for preventing and responding to oil and other hazardous cargo spills, Congress may wish to consider legislation designating a single entity or leader for developing an action plan. Alternatives for filling this role include a federal agency, such as the Coast Guard, or commission comprised of representatives from industry, federal agencies, states, and other groups that play key roles in spill prevention and response.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Title I, Liability and Compensation, established a $1-billion-per-spill federal oil spill fund supported by a 5-cent-per-barrel tax on oil. An accomplishment report is in process.

    Matter: To help ensure that sufficient funds are available to support improved prevention and response capabilities, Congress may wish to consider establishing a fund, or modifying existing funds, to finance the improvements. Funding options include allowing direct industry funding, user fees such as a per-barrel tax on oil, direct appropriations, or a combination of those three options.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gave the Coast Guard explicit authority to carry out response preparations. The Coast Guard also has delegating authority. An accomplishment report is in process.

    Matter: Because the Coast Guard does not now believe that it has the necessary authority to ensure that adequate response preparations have been made, Congress may wish to consider providing the Coast Guard with explicit authority to carry out its role. Congress may also wish to consider allowing the Coast Guard to delegate this responsibility to states demonstrating an ability to effectively carry out this role.


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