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Rick Steiner, Part 1
Rick Steiner
Rick Steiner was interviewed on December 18, 2013 by Alicia Zorzetto at the offices of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council in Anchorage, Alaska. Amanda Johnson operated the video camera. In this first part of a two part interview, Rick recalls his experience meeting with oil industry representatives after the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. He also talks about new safeguards that have been created since the spill, such as the Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS) and the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-15_PT.1

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Date of Interview: Dec 18, 2013
Narrator(s): Rick Steiner
Interviewer(s): Alicia Zorzetto
Videographer: Amanda Johnson
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Resources Library & Information Services, Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Working as the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisor for Prince William Sound and the North Gulf Coast of Alaska.

Meeting with oil industry representatives about the oil spill

The Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS)

Impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The need for prevention efforts rather than just response preparation efforts

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay, today is December 18th, 2013. I am here at the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council office.

My name is Alicia Zorzetto, Digital Collections Librarian and I am here interviewing Rick Steiner. Rick, to start off maybe you can tell a little bit about yourself and what you were doing during or before the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

RICK STEINER: Sure, yeah, I was the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisor for the Prince William Sound and North Gulf Coast of Alaska.


RICK STEINER: And I was stationed in Cordova and I worked with the fishing industry, the Alaska Native community, the tour and recreation community, any marine users of the region.

We were working and applying science and helping to identify and resolve marine resource problems. One of the issues that we stumbled upon, of course, working with the fishing industry there years before Exxon Valdez was that there were risks and the terminal and tanker transport.

And that’s when the fishing industry became concerned about things that Alyeska and whether the state government and the federal government were actually doing an adequate job in providing oversight.

And we had several meetings in Valdez. This is probably in 1985 or somewhere around there and it became evident that no, the state and the federal government were not doing the right job and the industry was basically clicking along without adequate oversight.

I had received some information from a good friend Chuck Hammel (phonetic), who was kind of Alyeska’s thorn in the side for years, about a system in Sullom Voe Scotland.

Called SOTEAG, the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group, and so I thought, well, wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to have here. It is a major BP dominated terminal and tankers. And so we -- I proposed on behalf of the -- my constituents in Prince William Sound that we establish a citizens oversight group and this was in 1986.


RICK STEINER: Took the idea directly to Alyeska and to our state senator at the time Mike Szymanski. Subsequently met with Alyeska, the president George Nelson from BP was President of Alyeska at the time and he basically said no way, you know, we don’t want citizens breathing down our neck and we don’t need it, we don’t want, we’re not going to have it.

The state -- our state senator liked the idea and introduced leg -- drafted legislation to look at the idea of establishing these industry public advisory groups -- statewide, not just for Prince William Sound.


RICK STEINER: For all -- all large scale extractive industries and, of course, the oil lobby killed the bill even before it was introduced. So suffice to say we were unsuccessful in establishing a citizens’ oversight council prior to Exxon Valdez.

And I still feel to this day that had we been successful it is likely that the citizens’ council then could have identified these holes in the prevention system and Exxon Valdez may have never happened.


RICK STEINER: Hindsight's 20/20. Within two months after Exxon Valdez -- well, first to back up for a second and, of course, the incident happens and I find myself ankle deep in Alaska north slope crude oil on Applegate Rocks a couple of days afterwards and oil everywhere and dying otters and surf scoters and other seabirds.

Everything was dying. In fact, one of the Native elders at the time called it the Day the Water Died.


RICK STEINER: Which is a very poignant sort of encapsulation of what this thing was and resolved that there has got to be some -- a better way of doing our energy, economy and the nation and transporting oil more safely and there has got to be some silver linings to this dark cloud and we realized very quickly after participating in the emergency response out of Valdez for a month or so that that the cleanup was not going to work.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: When you say we, who do -- the fishermen?

RICK STEINER: I was designated, yeah, by the -- by the fishing organization at Cordova, CDFU, to be a representative in the emergency response group in Valdez.


RICK STEINER: And a couple of others were as well. Jack Lamb, David Grimes.


RICK STEINER: The three of us basically. And so we realized though within a month that the cleanup would not work and it didn’t.

Despite all the heroic valiant efforts for three summers, you know, a couple billion dollars spent by Exxon, thousands of beach cleanup workers and everything maybe six or seven percent of what was spilled was actually recovered. So from an environmental standpoint it is difficult to call that a success.

And that's the truth in all major offshore oil spills or marine oil spills. So in -- as of -- as of about a month into the spill a number of us started talking about well what good can we make out of this and one was we need a science center.

We had been trying to form a science center in Cordova and we got that -- the Prince William Sound Science Center. We realized that there had to be better, more robust state legislation and federal legislation so a number of us from the spill region, you know, integrated the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 debate, the double hulls and the federal liability provision and such.

So that was a modest success federally over the next year. And then the RCACs, we had a meeting on behalf of the CDFU I organized a meeting of all the tanker owners at the time and this was in let’s see -- the spill was March 24th, I think it was in May or early June of that year.

So two or -- two and a half months after the spill had occurred here in Anchorage.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: That’s really early in the spill.

RICK STEINER: It was just -- it was fresh and the time to strike was then.


RICK STEINER: And so we got the tanker owners together, a number of the fishing representatives in a small room that I rented down in the bottom of the Captain Cook Hotel. Cigar smoke was thick back when they used to smoke in meetings like this.

And the oil industry people were exceptionally nervous. This was their first front face-to-face meeting with Prince William Sound’s fishing organizations whose lives and businesses they had just turned upside down through their collective negligence.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Can I interrupt you for one --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And ask you a question? You said the oil industry. So I am assuming that include Alyeska.

RICK STEINER: Absolutely.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Among Exxon Mobil, BP --

RICK STEINER: All the tanker owning companies.


RICK STEINER: Which included some that were not Alyeska owners.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Okay. So it was a fairly large --

RICK STEINER: It was the right group of people. One or two may not -- may have not been there, but the right group was there.

Mike Williams was the representative of Alyeska. He had just been brought in from BP to be at the -- Vice President of Alyeska and at that meeting we had a list of demands.

They were not -- this would be nice.


RICK STEINER: These were demands from the fishing industry of Prince William Sound as to how to prevent this thing from happening again.

We knew we couldn’t do much to clean it up or restore the damage caused, but we knew we had -- at minimum had to do everything possible to prevent another one.


RICK STEINER: One central tenant of these demands was the establishment of a citizens’ advisory council. Before we broke after the meeting there was -- the industry seemed to, you know, agree to some of it.

They didn’t overtly say yes we’ll do x y and z and not these other ones.


RICK STEINER: But we wrote -- before we had gotten upstairs for our drinks with everybody to the Crow’s Nest after the meeting the list of demands had faxed to London. That who was running the show at the time and this is back when fax machines were used and the response came that we would have -- they agreed -- the one thing they agreed to right then was the establishment of a Citizens’ Advisory Council.

They said you will have this and that was in -- again in early June of 1989.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you say it went to London. Who --



RICK STEINER: Because BP was the majority owner as they are today.



RICK STEINER: And so they consented. The others sort of followed along. That was the agreement and they made good on it. They followed through. They had to.


RICK STEINER: The political, you know, pressure was enormous.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right. RICK STEINER: For them to do something.


RICK STEINER: And this was eminently reasonable. We should have been successful let’s say that before this event. We were not and as a result this thing happened which cost billions and billions of dollars and lots of heartache and millions of innocent lives lost, you know, the organisms in --


RICK STEINER: Prince William Sound and the north gulf coast. Unnecessary -- completely unnecessary, so we got agreement at that time. The other positive thing that happened out of the whole oil spill was the settlement which I proposed a settlement in July of 1990 between the gov -- the state, the federal government and Exxon and basically because we wanted a big chunk of money -- hundreds of millions of dollars to help purchase conservation easements on the coastal habitat of the oil spill region to protect it from further damage.

Reasoning that if we can’t fix what was broken here at least we can prevent further damage to the coastline so the system will heal on its own and that was what was done. You know, in 1991 the billion dollar settlement was achieved and maybe half of that money was used to purchase habitat protections in the coastal region.

And that’s another great, you know, gold lining to this very dark cloud.


RICK STEINER: And then, of course, SERVS. That’s a real success after Exxon Valdez.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And what does SERVS stand for.

RICK STEINER: The Ship Escort Response Vessel System.


RICK STEINER: And you know there was a lot of pressure to -- on Alyeska and the Coast Guard and the state to fix this.

You know, there were obvious holes that were obviously, you know, it was obvious how to fix them and having these twin tug escorts, you know.

It took years to get the right tugs in place, but now there is a very good robust system in place in Prince William Sound.

The problem is that the lesson we learned there we haven’t been able to apply elsewhere.


RICK STEINER: We've applied it only --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: In the sound. RICK STEINER: In the sound.


RICK STEINER: Not in the Aleutians where there is twenty time the ship traffic than we have in Prince William Sound. Every day there's twenty large ships some of them petroleum product carriers or chemical tankers.

Going through the Aleutians with no adequate rescue tug in the system -- not -- no good vessel traffic system and so it’s, you know, while we learned a lesson and fixed the holes in Prince William Sound, we haven’t applied it elsewhere and plus the other areas -- the Bering Strait and the Arctic shipping that is increasing dramatically now.

We need to apply this lesson there as well which we haven’t been able to. It is sort of like -- another -- a fun example is the space shuttle program, you know.

The Challenger disaster happened what was that ’86 or something like that and so a lot of thinking and thought went into fixing what caused the Challenger disaster.


RICK STEINER: And they got that, but then the Columbia -- they didn’t anticipate the simple failures that would cause the Columbia disaster years later and so they missed that and so we’ve got to take these lessons that we’ve learned the hard way and apply them as broadly and universally as possible.

If -- if we’re smart monkeys, we’ll do that, so we will just have to see.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right and -- and I guess can you explain -- can you talk a little bit more about SERVS and what it encompasses?


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Just for people that might not be fully aware --

RICK STEINER: SERVS is certainly a -- a, you know, a real asset and it certainly is something to be proud of, both for the oil industry and for RCAC which helped put it in place.

By the pressure from the citizens making it so and the Coast Guard and state of Alaska, you know. It’s probably the best spill -- tanker spill prevention system that I -- certainly that I know of anywhere in the world. It needs to be replicated in other ports with a lot of oil cargo going in and out.

It’s a system of about ten or eleven I believe very stout, robust tugs. A couple are in escort with every loaded tanker going out. These tugs make sure the tanker stays where it is supposed to in the shipping lanes.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: You simply have two drivers rather than just one?

RICK STEINER: You got training wheels on every bicycle driving out of the sound.


RICK STEINER: Basically and it’s -- the training wheels are the tugs making sure the tanker stays in the lane -- the safe shipping lanes where it is supposed to.

If there is a failure of a rudder or the engine breaks down, they’re there immediately to render a save to pull the tanker away from a rocky shore and also if all else fails, they've got immediate spill response equipment on board.

On spill response we have learned that it very -- it just never works. A major spill in a marine environment it never has.

You have to be better prepared than Alyeska was in 1989 and you have to do better because you can defensively boom certain areas, you know, critical habitats and salmon streams, seal haul outs, things like that, but it's darn near impossible to contain or clear oil from the water surface or even from beaches once it's percolated down into the beach sediments and substrate.

So we have learned that once the oil is out you have lost ninety percent val so which brings us back to RCAC and the value there -- citizen input that, you know, all -- most of our effort has to be in preventing these kinds of things.

The other interesting thing that was done in -- by the industry and I have to give them credit for this. The new tankers that were built pursuant to OPA 90.


RICK STEINER: Which basically simply required that they be double hulled, right? The industry went further and said, you know, the double hall is -- gives us a margin of safety.

That’s good, but we need more. What if we had an engine failure or rudder failure?

So they started building tankers with twin engines, twin rudders and even bow thrusters and that is a real credit to the industry getting -- getting, you know, getting the message that it is far more profitable for them to put a little money -- money in up front.


RICK STEINER: And prevent another Exxon Valdez than to try to deal with it afterwards. Exxon Valdez may have cost Exxon three or four or five billion dollars total and -- and they insurers.

The Deepwater Horizon in the gulf, you know, maybe forty billion. The industry has got the message that these are expensive accidents and it is better to put enough money in up front both fin -- from a strict financial calculation, but also from a political calculation.

If you keep having these events, their future drilling for oil and transporting oil isn’t as robust as what it -- what it otherwise would be so.

So, industry led the way on that and the interesting thing is federal -- federal law has not caught up. The federal law still does not require redundant engine -- redundant rudder systems and bow thrusters on tankers and it needs to.

If the industry is leading the way here in the Alaska trade these aren’t required anywhere and so some of the new tankers that are being built are not -- I understand -- this robust safety, you know, consciousness build and we need the federal legislation to require that all new tankers have these kind of redundant systems.

It makes sense and so.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So you think it should be a federal policy?

RICK STEINER: It should be a federal law.


RICK STEINER: That all -- and then, you know, when OPA 90 was passed, there was all this consternation and the oil industry and the tankers saying oh this is going to end oil shipments into the United States. Absolute nonsense.

This was their scare tactic trying to keep that part of the bill from going through. After the passage of OPA 90 and the slow phase in of the double hull standard, the international community followed suit after the Prestige event, you know, spill off of, you know, Europe and so now the IMO -- the International Maritime Organization finally followed suit -- followed the US on this and we are not often leaders in these issues, but in this case we were.

And so now all oil tankers in by -- in the next five or ten years globally will be double hull, but they will not have redundant engine and steering systems by regulation.

Some will, some won’t, but we need national and international regulation requiring that so.

I mean the bottom line is simply if we're gonna be shipping oil which we are for the foreseeable future, we have to do it as safely as we know how to.

We're not doing that now. We haven’t -- we certainly weren’t doing it 25 years ago and we know how to. It is a little more expensive, but for the consumer at the gas pump it’s -- you won’t even see it.

If -- even if it is a penny or two --


RICK STEINER: On a gallon of gas it fluctuates so much anyway you don’t, you know, you almost don’t notice and most people I know are willing to pay an extra penny for a gallon of, you know, four dollar gasoline to make sure that oil was produced and transported and refined as safely as possible.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Um -- your, you know, your discussion right now is probably one of the most uplifting ones. It sounds like -- well I know that you -- the oil spill really moved you to action.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: But I'm just curious as far as your own perspective looking at 25 years from the spill itself there are some very wonderful positive things that happened. What do you think might have been the worse negative thing that could have --

RICK STEINER: You know --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: --with the oil spill.

RICK STEINER: I often wonder about that and the biggest undone piece of work after Exxon Valdez and here we are 25 years later, first of all, before I get to that. The environmental damage from this was off the charts and it still exists today.

Twenty-five years later most of the injured populations and habitats monitored by the Government Trustee Council have not fully recovered.

Some are not recovering at all -- herring, pigeon gillamonts I believe and also the AT1 pod of killer whales. So, 25 years later I think is it safe to conclude that Prince William Sound will never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez.

It will never be the ecosystem that it would have been absent this huge toxic shock of tens of thousands tons of a toxic chemical dumped into it that’s marine spring. So with that I mean that’s -- that’s a profound blight.


RICK STEINER: On Alaska and on our energy consumption in general. The bigger issue that I -- I find a real problem is that 25 years ago in 1989 the world oil use was about 63 million barrels a day. Now 2013 it's about 90 --


RICK STEINER: -- million barrels a day. What I had really hoped and many people had really hoped was that Exxon Valdez would catalyze a strong initiative and effort nationally and even globally to reduce our -- our addiction to oil.

It didn’t. We have gotten more efficient at using oil and gasoline and fuel and natural gas and such like that, but the total demand and use has increased by a third since 1989 and that is a -- that’s a real failure of civil society I think of our government, of the oil industry and we the people.

And I -- I really regret the fact that it was not able to catalyze that. We also hoped Deepwater Horizon would help with that and maybe -- maybe they do for a few months, you know. People are a little more conscious when they put the nozzle in their tank of where that’s coming from and how to do it more efficiently and their driving habits.

In general consuming habits, you know, how much they fly and -- and things like, you know, whether to use insulated windows or not and just how, you know, their general consciousness of their energy use.

People are, you know, that has increased. But our total use has just skyrocketed globally and that is a real unfortunate aspect of this whole thing I think so.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Maybe we can talk a little bit. I know we did off the video talk about Deepwater Horizon because it sounds like, which I find really interesting, it was a bigger spill.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And released for much longer period of time.

RICK STEINER: Three months.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right and you’d think that, you know, with a bigger -- bigger spill there'd be bigger response, you know, bigger more robust preventative action.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And you’re, you know, you’re an expert in this and what you’re saying is not really there hasn’t been the same kind of --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: Impacts that Exxon Valdez had. Can you explore that?

RICK STEINER: There was dramatic political impact that summer -- summer of 2010, because it was a very dramatic event. You know all this, you know, 24/7 this oil coming out of the well head a mile deep in the offshore Gulf of Mexico and it kept going and going and going.

And it was a much larger spill maybe close to five million barrels, you know, a huge spill, but I think there was such resistancing and the congress, for instance, after all of this passed only one law and that was simply to dedicate 80 percent of whatever recoveries -- financial recoveries the US government would get in the future back to restoration in the gulf.

That probably would have been done anyway, particularly if there was a settlement -- an out-of-court settlement between the governments and BP and the other liable parties. Regardless, the fact that congress hasn’t taken any action at all is a spectacular failure in government, I think.

The administration has done certain things and instituted more rigorous deep water safety drilling rules and things like that. I still don’t think they’re sufficient. The administration is setting up an offshore drilling safety institute.

The oil industry itself is setting up a center for offshore drilling safety. So there has been an improvement and the risk posture of deep water drilling and possibly even arctic drilling in the last three years as a result -- as a direct result of the Deepwater Horizon.

But, you know, we really haven’t gotten the message about the big sort of the global cost of our addition to oil.

You know even George Bush, Jr., when he was President, in 2006 State of the Union said, you know, America has a problem here. We are addicted to oil. Those exact words. Remarkable, particularly from a Republican president.


RICK STEINER: It was wonderful to hear, but then his administration set about doing absolutely nothing about this addiction.

And so here we are, you know, 2014 and, you know, we’re still using more -- the US has reduced demand a little bit in the last couple of years due to fracking and -- and natural gas switching -- natural gas in some -- some respects, but the global consumption has continued to increase.

Deepwater Horizon, you know, it was on everybody’s mind in 2010, but shortly after it was -- the well was capped, you know, the Oil Spill Commission came out with their recommendations which were pretty good.

Virtually none of it were adopted. None of the Oil Spill Commission’s recommendations were adopted and, for instance, a -- a good example is the liability the industry has for offshore drilling accidents.

It still owes 75 million dollars. BP waived that in the gulf. Obviously, politically they had to plus they have been, you know, suggested to have been grossly negligent. I agree with that and gross negligence eliminates that liability cap.

But still congress needs to fix the liability structure for these offshore oil transportation and drilling operations and it hasn’t yet. The other thing congress can do immediately.

We have proposed this -- actually RCAC adopted a resolution to this about a year ago is that the oil spill liability trust fund which was established as, you know, part of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which is the federal fund from a eight cents a barrel of all oil petroleum products consumed in the US goes into this fund.

It is use -- it is supposed to be used for prevention, but it is almost always only used as a response fund.


RICK STEINER: And now it is at about 2.6, 2.7, 2.8 billion dollars.

What -- what needs to happen what the RCAC resolution rightfully proposes is that it be changed such that it could be used without appropriation and it could be used for prevention measures throughout the coast of the United States, including things like funding additional RCAC’s, you know.

And the Gulf of Mexico civil societies is all about. They want an RCAC.


RICK STEINER: In the gulf cause they don’t want this thing, you know, no matter what happens with the restoration funds from that event which they know will only be modestly effective if at all. They can’t afford another one of these.


RICK STEINER: And so they need an RCAC. They know it. They want it. Industry and government have been resistant to it. One of their arguments is well funding. It can be easily funded out of the oil spill liability trust fund if a few small administrative changes are made in that.

That's what RCAC right -- rightly proposed in their resolution about a year ago.

So right on. That is what citizens can do when they have clarity of vision that governments and -- are caught up in their political machinations sometimes don’t and industry caught in their aversion to such prevention measures and such citizen oversight almost never support, but citizens get -- get behind it and we'll see hopefully Congress will listen.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah, it seems like with just from working at RCAC even I’m just thinking of the first day I came Mark Swanson, our Executive Director, gave me this RCAC 101 --

RICK STEINER: Uh-huh. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Powerpoint presentation.

RICK STEINER: I’d like to see that too.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah, I think it was about 20 -- 27 or 28 slides. RICK STEINER: Uh-huh.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And there was maybe four on response. Everything else was prevention.

RICK STEINER: Here, here.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So it sounds like realistically the answer to all these problems really lie in prevention rather than response.

RICK STEINER: Both are important, but absolutely prevention is 90 -- 95 percent of it.


RICK STEINER: And I think we all know that response just simply doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the gulf. I mean look at the scale of response there.


RICK STEINER: It was a much bigger spill and there were maybe 30, 40, 50,000 workers. It cost BP many, many, many billions of dollars.

And you know, you could have a line -- miles of booms and everything like that, but maybe two or three percent of what actually was spilled was collected.


RICK STEINER: Yeah. So that is a pretty poor response rate. They dispersed a bunch and a bunch dispersed naturally, but, you know, when you say dispersed, it just means it became smaller and entered the pelagic system down there so it doesn’t mean that it went away.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: But with regards to responses I have a question for you.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: During a spill, the Exxon Valdez spill the responses really --

RICK STEINER: It was a calamity. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Discombobulated, yeah.

RICK STEINER: Discombobulated -- ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah.

RICK STEINER: -- is a perfect word actually, although it might not be in Webster’s but.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: It was, uh , there was no -- there was no sense of a command or organization --


ALICIA ZORZETTO: -- whatsoever. And it took a fair bit of time to kind of get that -- get that ball rolling.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: And it seems like now from my experience at least that they’re more prepared in that sense --


RICK STEINER: Absolutely.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: For response, but initially for Exxon Valdez there was a question as to who should take charge.


ALICIA ZORZETTO: In your own personal opinion, you know, do you think the response belongs to the --

RICK STEINER: Federal government or to --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: To the federal government or the oil company --

RICK STEINER: Or the companies that --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: That caused the problem or --

RICK STEINER: It’s -- it’s -- I don’t -- I think it has to be a case-by-case basis.


RICK STEINER: But in Exxon Valdez I believe I was the first one to --