Bookmonger: Looking back on the Exxon Valdez bungles and coverups

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 10, 2014 

Angela Day, Village Books

Angela Day shares her book, "Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster," at 7 p.m. Friday, April 11, 2014 at Village Books, 1200 11th St.

JOHN GUTHRIE — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It has been a quarter of a century since the Exxon Valdez collided with a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound and set off what was then the biggest oil spill in the nation's history.

Eleven million gallons of crude oil spread across 11,000 square miles, contaminating pristine wilderness, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and mammals, devastating fish populations, and ruining the fishing livelihood that many small communities along Prince William Sound had depended on for generations.

Twenty-five years later, oil remains on the beaches and in the water.

Now, Snohomish-based policy analyst Angela Day has written about the spill through the personal lens of her husband's experience in "Red Light to Starboard."

Bobby Day is a Valdez native and a former herring fisherman. In the early 1970s, unlike some of his fellow fishermen, he had not argued against construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Alaska was in an economic downturn at the time and Day could see the benefits of bringing a new industry into the mix.

Oil industry leaders promised they would construct a pipeline and oil transport system that would be sensitive to environmental concerns. At the same time, politicians at local, state and national levels promoted the pipeline as a ticket to economic prosperity at home and lessened dependence on tempestuous oil-producing countries abroad.

But as Angela Day points out, for all of the unctuous assurances, there were also veiled warnings. The president of Alyeska, a consortium of seven oil companies formed to handle equipment maintenance, scolded Alaskan lawmakers that "(w)hat this project badly needs is less - not more - regulation."

Yet a few years later, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, the emergency response was slow, chaotic and woefully inadequate.

The author recounts Bobby Day's shifting perspective in the days immediately following the disaster, as he struggled first with guilt that he had not given credence to the potential environmental dangers of the pipeline, and then with anger at the disingenuous promises of Exxon and the government to look after the locals who had their livelihoods shattered.

In both treatment and subject matter, "Red Light to Starboard" is a frustrating book.

Angela Day has done a meticulous job of teasing out the appalling string of lax standards, safety violations, coverups, corporate malfeasance and bureaucratic bungles that contributed to the accident in the first place and compounded the damage that remains.

However, her effort to tell the story through lengthy flashbacks from her husband's perspective is not particularly effective and sometimes leads to more questions than answers.

What a pity if this were to detract from the powerful message that the book's litany of past exploitative behaviors and breaches of trust should be conveying to the current generation.

Today we face our own versions of the Alyeska pipeline - fracking, for example, and coal exports to China. Will honeyed promises of safety and jobs cloud our understanding of the significant concerns these initiatives pose?

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service