Walt Parker was interviewed on May 28, 2007 by Sharon Bushell in Anchorage, Alaska. Walt's interview was conducted as part of Sharon Bushell's work on the book, The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster, by Stan Jones and Sharon Bushell. (Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2009) In his interview, Walt talks about the legislative response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the legislation passed by Congress in response to the oil spill, and the problems with complacency in the oil industry.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: May 28, 2007
Narrator(s): Walt Parker
Interviewer(s): Sharon Bushell
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Reaction to the oil spill
Hearings of the Oil Spill Commission
How the Exxon Valdez oil spill changed Alaska
Effort to monitor the pipeline
The problem of complacency
Problems with the federal government
What made the most difference in the oil spill response
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SHARON BUSHELL: It's Memorial Day and I am interviewing Walt Parker -- So Walt, I know that you are, that your experience with this whole Exxon Valdez thing goes back a mile and a half.
So, to keep things simple, I want you to tell me how you heard about the oil spill and what you did immediately as a result of that.
WALT PARKER: Okay. Well, my colleague on the TAPS pipeline, Chuck Channing, and I were having breakfast down at the hotel at the corner of 36th and Seward Highway and he told me about it.
I -- Our breakfast was at 8:00, and that was when I first learned about it. I never turn on the radio or TV in the mornings. So I heard about it and came home.
Called my old friend Steve Cooper and said, what can I do for you? And things went on from there.
SHARON BUSHELL: In what direction did they go?
WALT PARKER: Well, the legislature was obviously enthralled with it. And getting the legislation through to establish the oil spill commission went pretty quickly.
And Steve appointed the six of us very quickly and so we were ready to go, pretty much hit the ground running by May, which is moving fast for a legislative mandate.
And so they got together and elected me chairman, and had a very good group on there. Esther Wunnicke -- Esther and I had been together on a lot of things.
And Meg from DNR and my old friend from Seattle, and the guy from San Francisco and T -- Tim Wallace from Fairbanks and -- yeah, four Alaskans and two from outside and that was it. We sat down and started having hearings.
SHARON BUSHELL: Did you go to the site?
WALT PARKER: Did we go to the site?
SHARON BUSHELL: Mm hm.
WALT PARKER: No, we didn't go to the site as a commission. I'd been there, and by there many times when we were opening up Valdez so I -- We flew over a lot of beaches and what have you on our way to and from hearings and we'd usually take a look at what was going on with the cleanup.
We were too busy having hearings to take part in the cleanup.
SHARON BUSHELL: So the hearings were held primarily where?
WALT PARKER: Everywhere. We had hearings in Valdez, Cordova, Tatitlek, Chenega, Seward, Homer, I think we went to Seldovia, Kenai, Kodiak.
We didn't have hearings in any of the Kodiak Island villages, but they had a good turnout in Kodiak for them.
And so then we had hearings in Anchorage to bring in the feds and state agencies and the industry.
We had subpoena power so we had good turnout.
SHARON BUSHELL: You had what power?
WALT PARKER: Subpoena powers. SHARON BUSHELL: Oh, okay.
WALT PARKER: That was -- that was the big coup. And I didn't even ask for them. The legislature, since they had long experience with the oil industry by that time, just threw 'em in.
SHARON BUSHELL: So, I'm -- I'm really -- I think that one of the reasons they chose me for this project was because I have to ask the obvious questions because I don't know too much about it but -- why is it that subpoena power was so important? Do you mean to say that without -- that the oil execs, without having been subpoenaed, wouldn't have been --
WALT PARKER: If they hadn't known we had the subpoena power, they would've been much more difficult to get 'em to show up. SHARON BUSHELL: I see.
WALT PARKER: As it was when I had all the tanker captains before me here in Anchorage, why, all seven of them had had tankers operating -- all seven companies that had tankers operating in Valdez were there.
And a very mixed crew they were, too.
SHARON BUSHELL: How's that?
WALT PARKER: Oh, you know, I knew already going in that the oil industry is not -- is not -- it keeps a lot of secrets from each other and only pays, and especially in those years, pays minimal attention to how the others do things.
But when the tanker captains came in, boy that made it very clear and it's all in our report.
Because we had the people who were saying, perfectly ok to run a big tanker with a crew of nine if you had it totally automated, and at the other end of the string we had people with crews of 29, and automation also.
So, and as an old automator, why, I knew that my biggest job was teaching people that if you automate, you have to hire more people to run the automation.
SHARON BUSHELL: So, tell me about the hearings. What -- what's -- what's the most prominent thing about the hearings that -- that's interesting?
WALT PARKER: The most prominent thing was getting out, some of the story I already knew, but getting out from the agencies, federal and state, how much they had completely disregarded oversight of the shipping from Valdez after the state lost the Chevron versus Hammond lawsuit.
When we went in the -- three years, ’77, ’78, ’79 after Valdez was open, we were operating under a state law, which Chancy Croft had been instrumental in passing and which my staffer -- long term staffer Dennis Dooley had worked with him closely on back in ’76, getting ready for the Valdez opening.
And this was a real carrot and stick law. If you -- if your tankers met the standards laid out in the law -- double-hulls, the right-sized crews, right-trained crews, etcetera, you were -- didn’t have to pay as much money into the state fund, the state coastal management fund.
And that was what we got sued on. We got sued on federal preemption.
We were taking over jobs that were given to the Coast Guard. And they did a lousy job -- the AG did a lousy job on defending the state’s point on that.
And so we lost the lawsuit in ’79. And at that time the oil had been busy buying the legislature.
As -- they were doing it then as they still are. And the legislature [inaudible] is becoming more and more Republican and less and less inclined to take on the oil.
So it was a very different crew from what I had been used to.
And the other thing that came out very strongly was, as soon as they won the lawsuit, the oil industry dumped every last vestige of trying to do the right job on oil spill response.
They did before in order to meet state standards. They’d had a separate crew which did nothing but oil spill response, as they do now, with SERVS. And --
SHARON BUSHELL: Wi -- I’m sorry?
WALT PARKER: SERVS is the acronym for Alyeska’s Oil Spill Response Organization that operates out of Valdez. And they completely dumped all that.
And that was of course why they didn’t try to maintain the equipment or anything, which is why all the recovery equipment was buried under several feet of snow when the Exxon Valdez hit the reef.
So it was Dan Lawn and Riki Ott and to a certain degree Stan Stephens, had been trying to tell everybody this for 10 years almost.
And completely ignored, you know. And Dan of course can bring out his files of file after file of letters written to his bosses.
And he would take chances and slip the word to the legislature and everything. No response whatsoever.
So after Exxon Valdez, it was -- after we -- what we did at the Oil Spill Commission in addition to interviewing everybody, we put that record down in 1300 pages, and -- which gave Congress the ammunition it needed to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, OPA 90.
And we -- so that was a big thing that -- you could tell how much the people who lived on the spot had been ignored and how much, after we lost the lawsuit, the system just went to hell.
‘Cause we knew all this! I had very good consultants, so when we put the ‘76 Act together too, besides Dennis to work with Chancy on that, and you know, we knew what the weak spots were in the oil shipping industry.
And we were promoting double hulls at the time and had been, oh for -- in ’76 we’d been promoting them for, some of us, for six years.
And it just was one of the many things that needed to be done. But mostly spending money on training and making sure that you had adequate crews.
So all this -- all these fixes we got into OPA 90. And now, sitting on the board of the Prince William Sound RCAC, I see things slipping again.
It’s still very good at Valdez but it’s slipping worldwide. And the Europeans just had a couple big ones. The Prestige and the Eureka, they had two big spills in the last couple years and they beefed their system up dramatically.
So we may be on our way back, but half the world -- over half the world fleet are flying a convenience carriers who don’t report to anybody. Does that term -- flag of convenience, you know what that means? SHARON BUSHELL: No.
WALT PARKER: Flag of convenience is a small country who will let your ship fly your flag and you enroll their ship in a corporation in their country and they get the income from that and then you go out and do as you will, as you please.
So enforcing against a flag of convenience is much more difficult than enforcing against the ships of a major state, with some exceptions, see.
They have a big fight going on now in the Aleutians with the Shipping Safety Partnership trying to recover things after the Selendang Ayu incident and the Cougar Ace incident and all the other things that have gone on out there with Asian-based shipping.
SHARON BUSHELL: How do you think the Exxon Valdez oil spill changed Alaska?
WALT PARKER: Initially it changed it a great deal in the oil spill region of course. The --more people were keeping an eye on what the industry was doing. And that still carries over a certain degree, even though it’s now been 18 years.
And that’s a long time, even for an old man like me. And so people are paying more attention but it’s had, as recent events indicate, almost zero effect on state oversight.
Anything that’s come about has been because of two citizen’s groups that were formed. Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have weighed in there and got enough attention from the press to put a little pressure on.
Without that, the state would have retreated totally during the Murkowski years and during the Knowles years.
Hickel kept the pressure on until Knowles took over. But first thing that Tony did, showed up in Juneau debriefing me on what the commission that was formed, the state commission that was formed after the oil spill commission to do all response, conditions, and keep things going.
He was -- that was cancelled immediately by the Knowles administration and nothing replaced it, and you know, to keep DEC and the other agencies really working hard.
So, as you can tell I’m not a big Tony fan [inaudible]. So despite being a much more liberal democrat than he is, why --
SHARON BUSHELL: I know, I’m the same way. I’m mystified by -- by him doing that. WALT PARKER: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: And angry.
WALT PARKER: Yeah. And in Anchorage, it made some difference. The press paid more attention and still does I think.
And that’s because they hear from people on the citizen’s bodies pretty frequently. And then about the time things are, everybody’s feeling comfortable in the industry, why, they spill another one.
Like the North Slope thing that’s got everybody going again, unfortunately. That was one of the things we really bossed on.
We made a real effort, all my old friends: Feinberg, Lawn, Stephens, Riki, etcetera the whole gang including Alaska Native groups, made a real effort that -- to have a citizen’s oversight group when the pipeline was renewed, for the pipeline seep.
Valdez has -- Prince William Sound has no real authority over the pipeline, only the terminal and the ships. So we made a massive effort on that, trips up north, did a lot of traveling to keep on 'em.
We got zero response from Gail Norton. Not a thing did she ask for from the industry on the pipeline renewal.
SHARON BUSHELL: Remind me, Gail Norton is?
WALT PARKER: Secretary of Interior. SHARON BUSHELL: Oh yes, of course.
WALT PARKER: Gone now. Her replacement’s not much as I can see, either. But anyway -- if you’re a Republican, you have to be pretty good to get my --
SHARON BUSHELL: I’m no Republican!
WALT PARKER: Anyway, so we got nothing. And immediately, of course -- almost immediately -- why, BP started spilling oil.
And they’d been told for years, we’d all told them -- I’ve been telling them since the early 90’s: those pipes are getting old, buddy. Look at your history, you know. Those pipes been running oil now for twenty years almost.
And I was part of the design team and when we -- when I signed off on them, I was told I was signing off on 20 year pipes, so stated.
Although the -- and that’s because the state, at Prudhoe Bay for almost ever since Prudhoe Bay was open, has put about half a man-year in DEC and a lot less than that in DNR on the site up there.
Out of sight, out of mind. And about a half a man-year on the pipeline, too. And they -- the guy who’s had it, Ed Meggert's had the job a long time and worked his head off, but one person can only do so much, especially when he doesn’t have any real technical staff or anything to back him up.
SHARON BUSHELL: Ed? WALT PARKER: Meggert.
SHARON BUSHELL: Could you spell -- what’s his last name, spelled?
WALT PARKER: Let me look in my book and see what I’ve got down for him.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. I can probably find -- find that out, Walt. You don’t need to go looking all over the place.
WALT PARKER: I’ve got M-E-G-G-E-R-T.
SHARON BUSHELL: You said his first name was Ed? WALT PARKER: Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. M-E-G-G-E-R-T. Meggert.
WALT PARKER: Yeah. The phone number I got for him is Fairbanks.
SHARON BUSHELL: Okay. [Recorder falls off table onto ground]
WALT PARKER: [Inaudible due to recording falling onto ground] That’s a pretty old number.
SHARON BUSHELL: That’s okay, this is my “lesser-than” tape recorder. This is the one that can hit the deck and I won’t have to hit ya. With the other one, I might have to hit ya -- even though we would be kind of equal after I took out your trees.
WALT PARKER: It was him and Dan Lawn, you know, all by himself in Valdez at the other end were pretty much it for DEC.
And one of the big thing is my old buddy Denny Kelso who I like and who is now working for, I think, the Hewlitt Packard Foundation, followed very green careers.
Denny was Commissioner of DEC when -- that’s Hera. She says, “It’s so great not having dogs in the house.”
Anyway, the -- Denny was Commissioner of DEC, so I said to him, how many times you be -- you know, he’d been Commissioner by the time he got before me for three years, I said, how many times were you in Valdez before the Exxon Valdez?
“Oh, I’d never been to Valdez.” I was completely flabbergasted. Completely. And that’s what I mean. That was one of the many interviews that led us to the conclusion that everybody had just forgot about it.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
WALT PARKER: Complacency. The two things that lead to disasters, both in aviation, automobiles, tankers, everything. I think complacency is number one and number two is probably lack of training.
But you know, we’ve been patting these shippers on the back at Valdez for a long time now because they’ve been doing, relatively speaking, a very good job.
And you’ve got to keep after them. We -- staff down there works hard.
They go to all the meetings with the shippers and everything. And we have the shippers in to meet with us at least twice a year, so the dialogue is there but whether it's -- and we’ve got the new ships, except for Exxon.
SHARON BUSHELL: By that you mean double hulled.
WALT PARKER: The new double-hulled, double power plants, everything. You know, as good of ship that can be built.
Except you’ve got to be careful because BP’s anchors broke off in a storm the other day, and that was -- they were cast in China. It was just a lousy casting job, so the anchors just broke loose from the ship and fell off.
So they -- not the chain; the anchors themselves broke.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah.
WALT PARKER: The -- so that -- but Exxon is -- bought all the old ships from the other shippers and is using them. And they claim to have double-bottom, double hulls.
Well those were the ships that were laid down in ’76, and were built in response to the original state act that I referred to earlier, and those ships are gettin' -- 30 years old now. A little over 30.
SHARON BUSHELL: So, as you know Walt, in this story you have editorial power so I can ask you a question that’s kind of dicey. Why -- why is Exxon -- is it just all about money with them?
WALT PARKER: It’s not totally about money. From my dealings with them now for almost forty years, it’s arrogance as much as anything.
Arrogance in Houston. You can have nice people working in the region who are very reasonable; as soon as it gets to Houston, it’s “No”. It’s “my way or the highway”, to use an old Tony Knowles phrase.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, that sounds like our federal government, doesn’t it?
WALT PARKER: Yeah, worse than the federal government. The federal government, you got Congress to go to, but going to Congress for Exxon doesn’t help a damn bit.
And you know, when people really start digging into our present situation in the Middle East, why, they’ll find the major oil companies long tracks there.
Why did Tony Blair back George W. Bush up in Iraq 2? Because BP and Shell had big interests in getting at Iraqi oil on the best possible terms. That’s why.
I like Tony Blair but who does he think he’s kidding? Why did we go into Iraq 2? To make sure that our oil companies would get the best possible deal.
And nobody was counting on Iraqis defending their home turf. Even after the army was gone, you know.
And Congress has not done a good job of investigating on this. The President’s Committee did a pretty good job, Baker and those guys, but -- I’m getting off the ti -- off a little bit here, but it all involves oil.
But Congress should have had hired a really first-rate investigating team of the best we have in the Middle East, which is not that great. I haven’t spent much time in the Middle East since 2000, so I -- but I used to hang around in Israel and Jordan and Iraq.
I never liked the Saudia. [Inaudible], enough to know what was going on. Now you’ve got a fantastic scene that’s being fueled by the $60 oil in the Emirates.
They now bill themselves as the garden spot of the universe and will until they go and use the terrorist's home too. Get one of their big hotels blown up or something. Yeah.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah, that’s pretty -- pretty shabby -- pretty shabby state of the -- state of the world, I have to admit.
WALT PARKER: Alaska was at its strongest when we had strong working relationships with the other coast, west coast states, which I’m trying to rebuild through the Shipping Safety Partnership and others.
To really work with them because we all have similar problems with the oil.
And so now we have four women senators who are proven very strong on this and a woman house leader who’s proven very strong on standing up against the corporations.
So with a democratic congress, why, that’s the one tool we’ve got now that we have to maximize our use on. And -- which means we have to work through the NGO groups in DC because the state’s not going to do us any good, as good as Sarah Palin is.
And she is very good, why there’s no way she can have the state’s office weigh in heavy on this one with the west coast states.
When I had Hammond backing me, why it was easy. You know, spent the state money, run down there and lining up governors and had Dooley on the job, well, half of this time lining up, you know, the other states and what have you.
I -- I don’t know, Sarah may -- I just don’t know her crew well enough to, any of ‘em. They’re all strangers to me because they’re too young and haven’t been involved in all this stuff through the years.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Why do you suppose it is that you’re getting so much cooperation from women in particular?
WALT PARKER: From where? SHARON BUSHELL: From women in particular. You mentioned --
WALT PARKER: I think that women sense -- they treat the dominance of the corporations the way they used to really treat the dominance of men. They regard the corporations as the same kind of target.
SHARON BUSHELL: And when you say -- when you say corporations, tell me, which corporations do you -- you mean?
WALT PARKER: Well, I mean everybody, everyone that has a big international presence, so that includes all the big oil companies and includes companies like Wal-Mart. I’m not sure Costco has the same kind of international presence as Wal-Mart.
It includes Microsoft and HP and all of the gu -- everybody who has to, you know, deal with a bunch of countries. You know, Exxon's a presence in probably more than 30 countries. Maybe a lot more than 30 now.
SHARON BUSHELL: Exxon is the biggest?
WALT PARKER: The -- I think -- somebody just -- Wal-Mart was the biggest for a while, as far as corporate size. And Exxon was number two and I’m not sure where they fit now. But Exxon is one, two, or three.
And Now Gazprom in Russia is getting big and buying stations in the United States and Western Europe and what have you.
And of course Russian gas is being structured so they can turn the spigot off to Western Europe, which gets about 70% of its gas from Russia.
They can turn it off in a hurry. They got their gas, they had lots of gas from the North Sea for quite a while, but that’s running out and they’re going to be more dependent on Russia. It’s Russia or LNG for them. Oh, that's --
SHARON BUSHELL: So Walt, who do you think was the biggest hero in the oil spill, or the biggest heroes? Who -- what made the most difference?
WALT PARKER: What made the most difference was how fast you could move when you made up your mind and put the full power of the state of Alaska and the other states behind it to achieve a bill like OPA 90.
We met in J -- had our first hearings in June -- in May and June of ’89 at the Oil Spill Commission. We had our report out in the fall and we had OPA 90 by the next October.
So it took us 16 months to get that major bill. And, you know, without that kind of push, without the kind of staffing -- I had the funds to pull together why, we’d have never done it, you know?
I had John Havelock as my lead attorney. And plenty of money to hire other attorneys, I had money to hire the best consultants, the guys who’d help put the ’76 act together.
Virgil Keith and Joe Porcelli at ECOL, to put them to work full time on it, pretty much. And I had Dooley back. Who hadn’t gotten sick on me yet.
You might want to talk to Dennis, he’s in town. And he's came down with -- when he was only 50 he came down with -- whatchamacallit, one of the nerve diseases.
SHARON BUSHELL: Parkinson's? WALT PARKER: Huh? SHARON BUSHELL: Parkinson's?
WALT PARKER: No, one of the other ones. Begins with M, I think. You get into your 80's, your memory starts going. My wife had Rheumatoid Arthritis for 25 years, you’d think I would be good on diseases if nothing else.
SHARON BUSHELL: Why -- go, go ahead --
WALT PARKER: Anyway, so I had Marilyn [inaudible] who just finished working for the legislature, so it was -- had a lot of context there. On the state legislation, Drue Pearce did a great job of backing us up there, despite the fact that her future husband was on the other side. Thank god they weren’t married yet.
And the legislature pulled itself up by its bootstraps and realized they had to do something so they passed effective state legislation, which is not being strongly implemented now.
And I -- but Sarah’s showing good signs of, you know, she’s got that group working. For the first time they've got a special state group working on the North Slope and what have you.
If need be, I suspect she’d do the same thing for Valdez. After the legislature’s out -- well, they are out, but after she has a minute or two to come up for air I think I’ll pull a couple people together and we’ll go talk about things to her and whoever from her staff she chooses to invite on board too.
Boy, corrosion exists throughout the pipeline. If a tank breaks at Valdez, why, that’ll do the job. But we don’t want that to happen. We want to get there before then.
SHARON BUSHELL: Yeah. Well this -- although this interview’s been brief, I know I’m going to end up using 90% of everything you said, which is gonna be still three times as much material. So, is there anything you want to say in closing?
WALT PARKER: No, I think we covered everything. Just remember, it took us over 20 years of hard work to get double hulls in the tankers.
And if we’re going to get the kind of improvements we want at Prudhoe Bay and at the Valdez Terminal and the pipeline in between them, if we are going to get the kind of changes we need there, we don’t want it to take 20 years, because the pipe will be, some of it will be 60 years old.
And the feds, we’ve got a little bit of attention, but if we’re going to get the necessary federal attention to this, get the necessary money being spent on corrosion control as the principle item and on pipeline oversight and what have you, the feds have really got to chime in with some bucks.
The Joint Pipeline office is too far down in the structure and its leader is too far down in the structure to get the attention of the White House when he needs to.
And one advantage I had was, Steve Cooper was governor and did a very effective job of backing up the Oil Spill Commission.
And we had a democratic Congress, so George Mitchell, who was majority leader in the Senate, welcomed us on board and always found time for his staff to talk to my staff.
And -- and my buddy Scoop Jackson was still with us and backing us to the hilt. 'Cause Scoop and I had flown together over a lot of this stuff and looked at it, so -- I miss old Scoop.
He was kind of more of a hawk than I am but he -- he knew his way around things.
SHARON BUSHELL: Gosh.
WALT PARKER: I miss Warren Magnuson too.