NOVEMBER 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 11
T H E F R O N T
Exxon's 11-million-gallon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska received widespread attention and provoked much outrage. But a recently released study by Essential Information, the Center for Study of Responsive Law and Multinational Monitor shows that oil spills are an everyday occurrence.
The report, "Big Spillers," draws on records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Coast Guard. The 1984-1988 oil spill records for Exxon, Texaco, Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, Occidental, Tenneco and ARCO (Atlantic Richfield) reveal that in the five year period, the companies spilled, on average, over 144,000 gallons of oil-related material every month. These corporations--the nine largest oil companies--collectively reported spilling more than 6.9 million gallons of crude oil, gasoline, fuel oil, diesel and waste oil on land and in water.
The Chevron Corporation was the largest spiller, leaking 2.8 million gallons, followed by Amoco, which spilled 1.3 million gallons and Texaco with 926,000 gallons. The remaining spillers in ranking order were: Exxon 843,869 gallons, Shell 536,768 gallons, Mobil 495,696 gallons, ARCO 22,222 gallons, Tenneco 15,374 gallons and Occidental 375 gallons.
Reported spills ranged in size from one gallon puddles caused by pinhole leaks in pipelines to an 11 million gallon, 10 year leak from a Chevron storage tank in El Segundo, California.
Unfortunately, drastic inconsistencies in the annual totals for several oil spillers call into question the accuracy of the reporting system and the honesty with which these companies report spills. For example, seven of the nine surveyed oil companies reported no oil spills in 1986 and/or 1987, an unlikely event given their spill records in other years. Texaco spilled more than 300,000 gallons in 1985 and 1988 and reported no leaks for 1986 or 1987. Although Exxon spilled over 840,000 gallons between 1984 and 1988, the company did not report any oil spills for 1987; Shell did not report a single oil leak for 1986 or 1987. It is, therefore, possible that Chevron, which reported the greatest volume of spilled oil and the largest number of spill incidences of the nine companies, was simply the most honest and consistent reporter of its spills rather than the biggest spiller. The National Response Center of the Coast Guard collects all the spill data used by officials in Washington to analyze problems pertaining to spills. But the accuracy with which the agency keeps its records has been called into question. The National Response Center attributed a spill to Mobil, for example, which appears never to have taken place. Mobil told the Monitor that Coast Guard records showing a 210,000 gallon "spill" on Staten Island in 1984 were inaccurate because the alleged spill was actually a drill exercise by the company. According to the Staten Island Advance newspaper, the fire department was called to the scene at the time but realized it was a false alarm. The Staten Island fire department does not have a record of an oil spill for the date of the drill.
Lt. Ramierez of the National Response Center denies the agency erred and still believes the spill occurred. He said, "Whenever we get a call and somebody is reporting a spill we put it into our data base, unless it's a drill." Ramierez, however, did say that it is possible that Mobil "might have forgotten to tell us it was a drill" and that this type of mistake "happens quite often."
The National Response Center has also neglected to record at least one large spill that did occur. According to Mobil's spokesman John Lord, the agency failed to record a huge oil spill that occurred on March 19, 1984 in Washington State. Lou Cittle of the state's Department of Ecology acted as the on- scene coordinator for the spill. He says Mobil spilled between 170,000 and 233,000 gallons of number six low sulfur fuel oil, industrial fuel oil and heavy residual oil into the Columbia river. According to Cittle, the state fined Mobil $60,000 for pollution violations. Although the Portland, Oregon Coast Guard Station recorded the spill, the government officials in Washington, D.C. responsible for assessing oil leakages did not have a record of the spill because it was not included in the overall data collected by the National Response Center.
Companies frequently report oil slicks near facilities, such as off-shore rigs or refineries, without taking responsibility for the spills, contributing further to the incomplete nature of the Coast Guard data. The surveyed companies reported 34,900 gallons of unclaimed spilled oil between 1984 and 1988.
Fines for failure to report oil spills can be as high as $25,000, but the three governmental agencies that issue fines and notices--the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department--have become inactive and are delinquent in their responsibilities. Two hundred and eighty-eight notices were issued by the EPA in 1984. By 1987 the agency issued only 50 additional notices, an 83 percent reduction.
Mobil spokesman John Lord emphasized the fact that the surveyed oil companies together transported the greatest amount of oil and produced only 8 percent of all the oil spilled between 1984 and 1988. "Statistically, the main problem is quite obviously not the big oil companies," he said. Asked whether 6.9 million gallons of spilled oil further degrades the environment regardless of the performance of other oil transporters he responded, "That's childish ... Please ask an intelligent question . .. It did not ruin the environment." He later conceded, however, that "it clearly harms the environment at the time of the spill. That is why you clean it up."
Chevron spokesman Mike Libby said the company thought it had adequate spill prevention plans. "We're very concerned when any spills occur," he said, responding to the report's identification of Chevron as the number one spiller of the nine companies surveyed. "We have quite a number of programs designed to prevent leaks and spills and we're constantly striving to better our record. This corporation gives high priority to environmental concerns, I can assure you of that." He further stated, however, that he did not believe the oil industry and government regulators need to do more to protect the environment or that Chevron's 2.8 million gallons of spilled oil produced any substantial environmental damage. "How much are we supposed to expect life to be perfect and nobody to ever be harmed by anything?" he asked.
Lord also downplayed environmentalists' concerns with oil spills by arguing that spills involving crude oil, the same oil leaked by the Exxon Valdez, do not pose as great a problem as other oils because "crude oil will biodegrade." "From what I read," Lord said, "probably the best way for a crude oil spill to get cleaned up is to let it happen naturally." He did acknowledge that such a cleanup policy would be a "problem" because "it could take so many years" for the crude to biodegrade.
The volume of oil spilled by the nine surveyed companies varies widely by geographic region. The Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) rank as the number one oil spill region with over 3 million gallons spilled between 1984 and 1988. The Western half of the United States followed with more than 1.4 million gallons. The remaining regions in ranking order were: Central, 862,350 gallons, Southwest 728,450 gallons, Northeast 520,964 gallons and South (excluding Gulf states) 165,278 gallons. Texas and California, the top two spill states, had 2.7 and 1.1 million gallons of oil spilled in and around their waters, respectively.
Although the spillers were often vague when reporting the cause of an incident, 68 percent of the reported spills were attributed to mechanical failure and 20 percent to human error. The causes of 8 percent were unknown. Four percent of the spills were caused by inclement weather and less than 1 percent by vandalism. The specific causes listed most frequently by the nine companies were corrosion of pipes, overfilling of storage tanks, trucks and barges, malfunctioning of valves and operator spills as a result of cleaning and testing facilities.
Copies of "Big Spillers" are available from Essential Information, P.O. Box 19405, Washington, DC 20036 at a cost of $5 for individuals and $25 for organizations.
- Jim Donahue and Jim Sugarman
The Destruction of the Southeast Asian Rainforest
While International attention focuses on the burning of the rainforest in Amazonia, the destruction of the Southeast Asian rainforests has received little publicity. These tropical forests have been seriously and, in some cases, permanently damaged by logging companies. There are few signs that the destructive harvesting of the forests in this region will slow in the near future.
Each year, approximately 1.82 million hectares (one hectare is equivalent to 10,000 square meters or two and a half acres) of Asian forest are cleared, while millions more are irreversibly damaged. As in other regions, the tropical forest in South-East Asia has fallen victim to population pressures and the concomitant demand for fuel and arable land. But population growth is not the only problem; a large share of the damage is caused by commercial hardwood logging, an industry dominated by Japanese companies.
Japanese demand for wood products has grown rapidly since the 1950s and so have the country's timber imports. As in many sectors of Japan's economy, there are insufficient domestic resources to meet the demand. Imports now make up more than two thirds of Japan's wood supplies.
The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), an international environmental organization, recently published "Timber from the South Seas," a report which sheds light on the ruinous impact that the Japanese timber trade is having on Southeast Asia. The report describes the environmental degradation caused by commercial logging and criticizes Japanese foreign aid policies and corporate practices for contributing to this process.
The tropical hardwoods from this region are desirable for their density, workability and aesthetic quality. Several European countries and the United States import them for use in furniture, panelling and other decorative purposes. But "Timber from the South Seas" is particularly critical of Japan, which imports more than the United States or the European Community (EC), and which uses the timber products for less specialized purposes such as in plywood construction molds for pouring concrete or as flooring for buses. A major portion of the Japanese tropical timber imports is used for plywood in construction. Builders use plywood sheets an average of only 2.75 times before they discard them. Approximately 1.76 million cubic meters of hardwood is exhausted this way each year, according to the WWF report.
The reports' authors allege that this sort of wasteful mass consumption is needlessly depleting the forests and probably causing permanent ecological damage. They claim that for many of these uses, other kinds of woods could be used from less sensitive and better managed forest resources. For instance, softwoods found in North America and the Soviet Union could replace the Southeast Asian hardwoods for the plywood used by Japan's construction industry.
But such substitutions are unlikely as long as the tropical hardwood from Asia remains so inexpensive. Until recently, the main hardwood-producing countries have had either very weak or no controls over the logging and export of their timber. This has enabled Japanese companies to export hardwood logs without paying for reforestation or the development of indigenous industries. Where laws requiring the use of conservation techniques in logging and reforestation existed, the report's authors claim, Japan simply ignored them.
In some areas, the companies have logged themselves out of business by destroying the forests completely. In the Philippines, for example, commercial forestry has declined drastically because of overlogging and consequent deforestation. The Philippine elites who held the large forest concessions were more than willing to cooperate with the Japanese trading companies who wanted to harvest and export mahogany.
When the loggers have exhausted a country's resources (as they have in the Philippines and in Thailand), they move on to the next location, employing the same methods again, with the same disastrous effects.
Several countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, have placed bans on the export of logs but this has not stopped the logging. Increasingly, Japanese companies are subverting these export controls by investing in overseas processing plants which make plywood and sawnwood for export to Japan and other markets. This allows Japan to import the wood as a processed product rather than in its regulated, raw form.
The Japanese timber-trading companies operate in complex and interlocking relationships which make efforts to analyze, measure and regulate their activities difficult. Local companies do much of the actual logging and timber processing in Southeast Asia, but these smaller enterprises depend on Japanese trading companies for help with financing, equipment, distribution and marketing.
The complexity of the corporate arrangements allows the trading companies to hide a great deal from the indigenous governments. Exporters consistently underreport timber shipments to Japan in their filings with the government customs agency, the WWF report states. In 1984, for instance, the Japanese customs administration reported that 903,000 cubic meters of Philippine logs were imported to Japan while the Philippines reported only 603,700 cubic meters leaving.
Such cheating exacerbates the ecological problems by encouraging overlogging since the exporters will harvest as much timber as they think they will be able to slip out of the country. It also deprives the producing countries of revenue needed to fund forest conservation and economic development. Ironically, companies trading in tropical hardwoods often defend their business by claiming that they are helping the producing countries to develop their economies. The evidence suggests the contrary.
Efforts to stem the destruction of the forests have focused on developing economically feasible reforestation techniques and viable alternative industries, like exporting nuts, fibers and meat or producing medicinal products which do not depend on tree harvesting.
The urgency of the situation, however, has moved some groups to push for more immediate action to curb the hardwood timber trade. WWF and the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, for example, have urged the Japanese government to regulate hardwood trade. Other organizations, including the European Commission of the EC, have proposed a "Code of Conduct" for hardwood importing companies, prohibiting business with hardwood producers which do not practice conservation techniques. But little progress has been made with these or other proposals.
The WWF report points out the negative impact that bilateral aid and loans have had on the forests. Among other things, the authors write, foreign aid "has provided subsidies for the construction of logging roads in areas which were later exploited by Japanese companies. The official justification has been that local people want to use the roads. In many cases this is far from the truth."
WWFs Tropical Forestry Program has been pressuring the Japanese government to rein in the tropical logging trade and to reform its aid policies, but they have achieved little success. Robert Buschbacher, director of the Tropical Forestry Program, says, "I don't see logging coming under any control."
- Gawain Kripke