For the Birds Radio Program: Exxon Oil Spill

Original Air Date: April 19, 1989

Laura talks about the huge oil spill in Prince Edward Sound. (3:08) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Murre)

The Exxon oil spill off Prince William Sound has been on the news ever since the Valdez oil tanker ran aground on a reef on Good Friday, but the effects of this ecological disaster are so far reaching that it is much easier to ignore the whole thing than to deal with it. The current issue of Wilderness magazine ironically has some beautiful pictures of the sound before it was smothered in “black gold.” (The issue was printed before the spill.) Less than one month ago, this description of the sound actually fit: “The Sound’s 2,500 mile shoreline contains numerous fjords cut deep into mountain terrain, and with the spectacularly forested and snow-mantled Chugach Range as background, it rivals world renowned Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska for sheer beauty and offers wildlife in abundance–seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, mountain goats, black and brown bears, puffins and eagles, among others…”

Of course, by the time the magazine came to my house, Prince William Sound was shrouded with murderous black slime, Exxon was issuing meaningless public apologies even as they paid off boat captains to keep silent about the disaster, and the wildlife toll was mounting. Volunteers from around the country were combing through the thick muck for survivors, and working around the clock to save what little animal life they could. At times like this it always hits home that even as highly paid executives are making cost-benefit analyses to determine whether it’s cheaper to clean up the mess or just pay the fines, and while Texas oilman presidents take their time deliberating about what kind of federal action to take, it’s volunteers who rush in and do the actual work. It is volunteers who search through the oil for the inconspicuous lumps that may be dying loons or seals—and it is volunteers who pick up the glopped-up survivors and nurse them and clean them off. Not one puffin will die in the arms of an Exxon executive—their hands are clean.

This disaster is ostensibly the fault of one man, and so naturally there have been plenty of jokes going around about what can you do with a drunken sailor. But in reality, greed is to blame. All the Alaskan oil corporations have refused from the beginning to build double-hulled tankers and to use tugboat escorts through Bligh Reef. There has been plenty of evidence since 1976 that the potential for disaster was strong, but in the manner of so many corporations, the oil companies ridiculed environmentalists voicing legitimate concerns as tree-hugging obstructionists and doomsayers.

Human beings and wildlife are the losers here. The tragedy took place at the worst possible time of the year–when migration is in full swing. The dead and dying are breeding birds–and in some cases the losses threaten the very future of species. But as Dr. Seuss’s greedy character says in The Lorax, “I, the Once-ler felt sad as I watched them all go. BUT…business is business, and business must grow.” The oil companies—even down to local gas station owners—are already raising prices to cover their losses. 3M is happily supplying absorbent products to Exxon at a tidy profit. President Bush decided against declaring the spill area a Superfund site, and so Exxon will share less of the liability than they otherwise would have. Exxon plans to pay the government back for the costs of sending military units to the spill site, but they have also announced that they will be deducting the costs from their income taxes. They have so far apparently been spending more to silence people in the area than to reimburse fishermen for their losses, and they will never spend one penny in reimbursement to the sea birds and mammals for whom Prince William Sound once meant life itself.

(Recording of a Common Murre)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”