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The Rock Doc: Exxon Valdez oil spill shows us cost of petroleum

Energy companies work night and day to bring us oil and the many products made from it. Most of that work is uneventful and unseen by the public. But when things go wrong, a disaster of epic proportions can ensue.

Twenty-five years ago, the Exxon Valdez left the Alaskan port of Valdez filled with 53 million gallons of crude oil from the North Slope. The story of what happened after the giant ship, nearly 1,000 feet long, left the dock is documented by Angela Day in her new book “Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster” (WSU Press).

Day tells the story of how the captain of the Valdez made some fateful decisions, including turning over the ship’s controls to a junior officer. Despite warnings from the lookout, within minutes the ship slammed into Bligh Reef, where it was grounded. As later inspection would reveal, the seven-eighths-inch steel hull had been punctured by the force of the impact of the ship on the reef.

Day’s book relates the story of what happened to Alaskans – particularly fishermen and people who relied on the pristine waters of Prince William Sound for their living – in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill on March 24, 1989. The events of just one night were to change the lives of thousands of fishermen for many years. The book centers on the story of one fisherman and brings to life the personal impacts of the spill. Following one person through the aftermath of the spill makes for a good read that illuminates the full cost some people in our society pay for our use of petroleum.

The giant spill launched enormous legal battles. Many millions of dollars of fines and compensation were imposed on Exxon. But corporate payments, however large, have not fully restored parts of Prince William Sound. While the salmon catch and prices did eventually rebound, other parts of the fishing industry, such as the bait herring season, the spring roe herring fishery and a pot shrimp fishery, have not recovered. At this point, it remains a challenge to predict whether the fish and the wildlife of the sound will ever recover to what they were before the spill.

What can we learn from the Exxon Valdez disaster and its aftermath? Day’s book points out that Alaskans from various walks of life had raised safety concerns before that fateful night 25 years ago. As she argues, employees in giant companies can be encouraged to raise safety issues rather than ignore them or remain silent for fear of reprisal. We need corporate cultures that value, rather than penalize, workers who raise safety concerns.

We can learn more from the tragedy that unfolded 25 years ago. Day’s book is a good place to start cogitating on the full costs of the petroleum we use each day.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.