For the residents of south central Alaska, hearing the words "Exxon Valdez" causes a visceral reaction in the gut. The carelessness, recklessness, and ineptitude of one of our supposed partners in economic development that caused the spill of 10-30 million gallons of crude oil (depending who you believe) was a stab in the heart - the heart being the beautiful and pristine waters of Prince William Sound. The Sound was home to wildlife, a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, a spiritual place of great significance to Native Alaskans, a means of livelihood for fishermen, home to several coastal communities, and a jewel in America's crown that many outside of Alaska came to enjoy, or dreamed of visiting.
The Sound has never recovered from that spill. Recent studies tell us that the resident pod of orcas will not survive. Digging in the beaches near Bligh Reef will reveal thick black crude oil inches below the surface. Many people lost their livelihoods, and more than 20% of the litigants who sued Exxon for their negligence had already died while Exxon dragged out the appeals process for almost 20 years. A conservative Supreme Court ruled again and again in favor of the corporation, while payments due to victims were whittled down to a fraction of the original amount.
The temptation to use the word "evil" to describe Exxon is strong. But this entity which seeks to maximize profit and minimize loss is only behaving like a corporation. Alaskans don't get angry at polar bears for killing people. We don't call them "evil". They are just polar bears after all, and they do what polar bears do. If it moves, it's food. Nothing personal. End of story. But, as thinking people who value our lives, we do learn to guard ourselves against them, and we never trust them, and we don't believe people who tell us we should.
And so should it be with corporations. People don't factor in to their equations. They maximize profits, and minimize losses, and make as much money as possible for their shareholders. They are just corporations after all, and they do what corporations do. The difference between corporations and polar bears, is that we haven't learned to guard ourselves against corporations, and sometimes we still trust them, and the people who tell us we should.
Today, on the shores of Cook Inlet, a body of water which lies on the other side of the Chugach Mountains from Prince William Sound, there is a tank farm owned by Chevron. This tank farm consists of seven tanks, each one capable of holding 270,000 barrels of oil. That's over 11,000,000 gallons total. This tank farm sits next to the Drift River which feeds into the Inlet. And it also sits at the base of Mt. Redoubt, which happens to be an active volcano that is currently at "orange alert" meaning it will likely erupt sometime soon.
The last time Mt. Redoubt erupted, the searing heat caused the glacier on its north face to melt, sending at its peak of flood 60,000 cubic meters of water per second rushing past the tank farm, a volume comparable to the output of the Mississippi River, only boiling hot. What might happen this time? With things like volcanoes, and tank farms on flood plains, one can never be sure.
But we have been burned before by not being prepared. Now, in Prince William Sound, we only allow double hulled tankers, containment booms are at the ready. So, when we see a potential problem in the making, like lots of oil sitting between the volcano and the deep blue sea, we want to know how much oil is actually in these tanks, what precautions Chevron is taking to make sure we don't have an environmental disaster on our hands, what equipment is available, and what Chevron plans to do if the worst happens. We need to know this in part because Cook Inlet is home to important salmon fisheries, halibut, and endangered beluga whales. Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, sits on its shores, and it reaches the coastal communities of Kodiak, Homer, Seldovia and many others.
So what is the status of the tank farm, and what are Chevron's precautions and plans? How much oil is there?
I'm not going to tell you.
It's not that I don't want to tell you, it's that Chevron doesn't think I, or you, or any member of the public has the right to know. We can expect such a response from a polar bear corporation. Transparency, accountability and the public disclosure of spill risk can make for some publicity that might undermine the profit goal. And the profit goal is what they do. Nothing personal.
But surely, there's someone out there looking out for the public's interest. What about the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC)? I see a recent press release about contaminated oysters...but nothing about Chevron. Surely the Coast Guard is there to ensure that proper disclosures are made. But, the Coast Guard agrees. You don't have a right to know.
And what is the rationale for their secrecy? Homeland security. Yes, the Coast Guard and Chevron will have you believe that this information will play right into the hands of hardy terrorists who have decided to travel to Alaska in the dead of winter, and traverse more than a hundred miles of virtual wilderness, across a major body of water with no bridge, and use this secret knowledge to commit some diabolical act of terror in a region of Alaska where there are no people.
Bob Shavelson, the executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper said in a recent interview with Bobby Kennedy regarding this situation:
"We knew right after September 11th, we saw the Bush administration come in with these draconian secrecy policies that the oil and gas industry and other corporate chiefs were very happy to embrace because it totally attacked the public's right to know about chemical hazards and threats to our public water supply. This is a perfect example. You've got an oil supply at the base of an active volcano that's about ready to blow. Chevron refuses to tell anyone how much oil is in these tanks, and they also refuse to share their plans, even though we've got remarkable salmon fisheries that lie right at the base of this facility."
So, for argument's sake, let's assume this is true; that this knowledge in the wrong hands is dangerous. It is so dangerous, in fact, that it trumps the public's right to know.
So, naturally then, if you ask how much oil there is in the tank farm in the coastal community of Valdez, where the last big oil spill occurred, you'll get the same answer, right? "Homeland security. Sorry, can't tell you." You'd think that, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong. You see, the Alyeska tank farm in Valdez not only will tell you how much oil is there if you ask, they release that information every single day. For instance, I can tell you that on February 3, the Alyeska tanks were 68% full because that's public information. A couple hundred miles away, they're obviously not worried that I'm a terrorist. See here [alyeska]
So, what are we to make of this, while keeping in mind the lesson of the polar bear? Bears will be bears and corporations will be corporations. Both are formidable, and neither should be trusted. Ask yourself why Chevron doesn't want you to know how much oil is there at the base of a volcano that's about to erupt. But more disturbingly, ask yourself why the U.S. Coast Guard considers the tank volume information from Chevron at Drift River "sensitive security information" pursuant to the Homeland Security Act, and cloaks this information in secrecy, while a couple hundred miles away in Valdez that same information is being delivered openly on a daily basis. And ask yourself why the State of Alaska is not defending your right to know.
Mt. Redoubt as seen from Anchorage.