Red Light to Starboard


Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster

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Minutes before supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, before rocks ripped a huge hole in her hull and a geyser of crude oil darkened the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, the ship’s lookout burst through the chart room door. “That light, sir, it’s still on the starboard side. It should be to port, sir.” Her frantic words were merely the last in a litany of futile warnings.

A parade of ultimately unkempt promises began the next day. President Frank Iarossi pronounced that the Exxon Shipping Company had “assumed full financial responsibility.” A week later, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper spoke at the Valdez Civic Center. “We don’t want anybody to think that they have to hire a lawyer and go into federal court and sue the largest corporation in America.”

Eight days after the disaster, Valdez native Bobby Day flew over the spill and knew his life as a herring fisherman – a marine population that would be decimated by the spill – was shattered. He struggled with feelings of betrayal and guilt, and later weathered the tensions of a divided community. His intimate portrayal lends a local perspective and conveys the damage inflicted upon individuals and the fishing industry.

Lengthy investigations revealed cover-ups, covert operations, reckless corporate management, numerous safety violations, and a broken regulatory process. At the time of the spill, oil flowed through the Alyeska pipeline at a profit of $400,000 per hour. Yet in the end, the ten thousand fishermen affected by the spill spent nearly twenty years in litigation and received little compensation for their losses. Despite a massive cleanup effort, oil remains on the beaches and continues to impact marine life.

Red Light to Starboard documents a disaster that stunned the world, recounts reginal and natural history, and explains how oil titans came to be entrusted with a spectacular, fragile ecosystem. The book discusses the environmental consequences as well as ineffective governmental and public policy decisions. It tracks responses to these failures that, through opportunities for citizen input and oversight, offer hope for the future.

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Angela Day


Washington State University Press



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