Red Light to Starboard

Angela Day
WSU Press, 2014

The Exxon Valdez and its 53 million gallons of crude oil made history on March 24, 1989. In the weeks and months that followed, more than 10 million gallons of oil bubbled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Thousands of company menus, recorded meetings, news articles, and government documents provided Angela Day ample material for her book.

She corrals those notes and perspectives from whistleblowers, cannery workers, an airplane pilot, environmentalists, the mayor of Valdez, federal agencies, union organizers, lawyers, oil company executives, and a lot of fishermen.

The story follows Bobby Day, the author’s husband and a long-time Alaska fisherman, as he struggles to grasp the scope of the disaster and its impact on his beloved frontier lifestyle. Fishing is in Bobby’s blood, and he fears losing the livelihood that “was interwoven with his relationships and sense of identity.”

The spill and its attending investigation uncovered a series of lapses within the oil industry that created an environment ripe for calamity. Captains left the wheelhouse, contingency plans were exaggerated, and polluted wastewater wound up back in the Sound.

Countless species of birds and a healthy population of orcas and sea otters once complemented the millions of herring and salmon that returned each year, but the spill left the previously teeming waters “breath-takingly quiet, too quiet.”

Slow, disorganized cleanup efforts by Exxon and government agencies left wildlife populations decimated.  Years of debate over oil industry development in Alaska left a trail of lobbyists and legislation surrounding the issue, but fell short of defending citizens’ rights in their moment of need. Litigation and clean-up efforts extended from one bad fishing season to another, through a $16.5 billion federal lawsuit against Exxon in 1994, and beyond.

But the tanker’s disastrous journey initiated changes in organization and oversight to guard against a repeat event. The spill led Alaskans to be heard in board rooms and court rooms for as long as oil flows down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.