In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez
Sierra Club Books, $19.95
This book reads like the screenplay of a science fiction horror movie: a monstrous slick of blackness, engulfing birds and otters and seals before spewing them out as sticky, fluttering, moribund globs, rushes incessantly toward the innocents of Alaska, ready to lash the pristine coast with deadly and indelible filth. A host of tiny people scratch and prick at the monster, yet retreat steadily from the maw of its rage. But, unlike many screenplays, this story has no happy ending, no hero to slay the dragon. The slick is never controlled, and America is left with its worst environmental disaster.
In a swift, unadorned and remark ably evenhanded manner, Art Davidson, an Alaskan nature writer, tells the story of the grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989, the spill of more than ten million gallons of oil into the waters, the frantic and futile efforts to clear the spill, and the terrible havoc visited upon the fragile environment of Alaska.
Davidson finds a good deal of guilt everywhere. Alyeska - a consortium of six oil companies including Exxon had promised Congress and Alaskan officials that it had a contingency plan to deal with any massive oil spill. But its plan, far from adequate at the beginning, grew even skimpier with time and budget tightening. Alaskan officials had looked the other way, too content with the riches from North Slope oil to fret about the peccadilloes of the Alyeska oil companies. To compound the problem, a budget-conscious Coast Guard was relying on an out-of-date radar system incapable of warning the Exxon Valdez that it was heading into disaster.
Davidson does not spare the environ mentalists. Exxon, which quickly took charge of the spill for Alyeska, pleaded for permission to try to burn up the slick and drop dispersants into it. Davidson believes that this operation— though only a partial solution—could have been carried out in open waters without damaging the environment. But environmentalists insisted that Exxon skim up all the oil and cart it away—an insuperable task. By the time state officials agreed to the burning and the dropping of chemical dispersants, a storm had lashed the oil into a frothy, uncontrollable sludge hurtling at the rocky coastline. It was too late to stop the onslaught.
There was then little left to do but try to clean the beaches and rocks of oil, and salvage a few otters and eagles and other creatures by painstakingly removing oil from fur and feathers. The Coast Guard did have the legal right to step in and manage the operation when it became clear that the industry was faltering in its cleanup. But the Coast Guard did not have the resources to do the job quickly, and the Bush Administration did not want government to interfere with the work of private industry.
Although Davidson does praise the goodwill and energy of Exxon once it took charge and tried to prevent a public relations disaster in the wake of environmental disaster, he holds it and the rest of the oil industry accountable for ignoring signals that could have pre vented the spill. The drinking problems of Captain Joseph Hazelwood should have caught the attention of Exxon officials; his driver's license "had been suspended for drunk driving violations three times since 1984." Moreover, Exxon had been sued by an employee who claimed that Hazelwood had been abusive "while drinking aboard ship." Still, the "inescapable fact remains that the chain of command traces up to the company's policy- and decision-makers," writes Davidson. "In both practical and moral terms, Exxon is responsible for the grounding of its tanker."
Yet, Davidson also believes that Exxon devoted more energy and resources to cleaning up the spill and meeting the claims of injured Alaskans than some other company is likely to do in the future. Davidson's conclusions are sobering. The oil companies, with the connivance of politicians, have misled the public for many years. The truth is that "no amount of money spent or personnel deployed can control a large oil spill." Davidson insists that the technology simply does not exist "to deal with spilled oil on the open sea and thereby prevent it from fouling beaches and damaging wildlife and coastal resources." The lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez is that the next massive oil spill may unleash even greater environmental disaster.