OPINION: After Hazelwood’s death, reflecting on the Exxon Valdez and preventing future disasters

The recent death of Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez, serves as an important reminder to Alaskans of the devastation of the 1989 oil spill disaster.

Playwright Dick Reichman’s play, “The Big One,” written 20 years later, was part of Cyrano’s season celebrating the 50th anniversary of statehood. There were five world premieres by Alaska playwrights spotlighting various components of Alaska’s history. Dick’s commissioned assignment was to write about black gold, as oil has played such a central part in recent Alaska history.

Oil has both plagued and enriched all of us who call Alaska home. Can you blame us if we have mixed feelings about the storehouse of natural resources that are ours, as well as the current fossil fuel crisis for which we are front row center for witnessing Alaska’s contribution to climate change?

I hope we’ve learned lessons about the fragility of our ecosystems and improved our oil response technology. It was 20 years after the spill that plaintiffs even began to receive money from the traumatic and stressful litigation, but at a fraction of the original judgment. For the rest of us, the spill is a cautionary tale about the high cost of complacency and neglect and fair warning of the perils of putting off disaster planning for another day.

We hoped our play moved people to action. And as John Devens, Sr., executive director of Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’ Advisory Council, or PWSRCAC, said, “The laws and regulations that were passed after the Exxon Valdez spill are powerful tools, but they are just tools. They are only as effective as the people who use them. We who were around for the spill have used them with great passion and, we feel, with considerable success for two decades now. But the time is not far off when we’ll need to place them in new hands to carry on the job of making sure that future generations of Alaskans don’t have to find out the hard way what we learned in 1989.”

In Dick Reichman’s director notes, he stated, “Who is to blame for the Exxon Valdez spill? The press and public had easy answers, a drunk tanker captain and the anti-environment bosses at Exxon. But to blame individuals is to miss the point; the actual villain was a cascade of cost-cutting measures taken by government and industry at all levels. A cheaply regulated, cheaply run, and cheaply maintained operation is an accident waiting to happen. But ours is a profit-driven system; cheapness is encouraged. Workers everywhere are given incentives to cut cost, to do the wrong things, often dangerous and deadly things. We need to change our system. To encourage people to do the right things instead. But it is easier just to blame individuals.”

Dawnell Smith summed it up this way: “The layering of stories and scenes suits the subject matter because the spill involved not just one lapse in judgment but many; the tragedy played out not just in the Sound but in board rooms and homes and fishing boats and bars and courtrooms. The script touches on the litany of shortcuts and mistakes leading to the spill. The company slashes its labor budget, the captain drinks one more round, the response gear never gets bought or maintained. The Coast Guard downgrades its radar system, the majority of people turn a blind eye to the lack of oversight. Reichman throws out data. 10,000 people got jobs mopping up the spill and two-thirds of them filed medical claims. But he lets his characters become real human beings. ‘The Big One’ certainly succeeds in turning the Exxon Valdez into documentary theater worth seeing.”


While the idea of producing a play on the spill didn’t sound like a good theater bet at first, Reichman said he wanted to write it anyway as an exploration into the complexity of corporate versus human values. It explored the question of whether a for-profit operation can keep us safe if it’s always cutting costs and concerned about profits.

Playwright Reichman had moved to Valdez in 1987 and was working as a bartender at the time of the spill. He heard many of the stories firsthand. He worked on a cleanup crew following the spill. Then he moved on to public radio shortly after that and spent the next 10 years talking about it. The dialogue and active scenes are regularly accompanied by short narratives explaining court findings, science and curiosities like the fact that, unlike other ships, tankers tend to be referred to as “he.” Despite the fact that we know how this ends from start to finish, theatricality was tautly dramatic.

Cyrano’s also performed the play at the Pratt Museum in Homer, which was having a major retrospective show about the oil spill and the impact of the oil industry in Alaska.

Riki Ott, a character portrayed in the play, was a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisherwoman who witnessed firsthand the ecological destruction and social chaos of the Exxon Valdez spill. She became an “accidental activist” in its wake. Ott was instrumental in supporting the community through the process of establishing guidelines for dispersant use in Prince William Sound and the first Citizen Advisory Council in Alaska post-spill to improve oil industry oversite and oil spill preparation and response. Riki was a voice for holding the oil industry and state accountable.

Just before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Riki presented before the Valdez mayor’s committee on behalf of United Fishermen of Alaska a talk she had given six weeks earlier at the International Oil Spill Conference in Texas.

Congress and regulators ordered major reforms after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in 1989 spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Other oil spills have exceeded the Exxon Valdez disaster in sheer size. More than 200 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 from the damaged rig, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, but the environmental harm along Alaska’s nearly pristine coastline and coves was near total in some places and on full display as one of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history.

“Had a spill the extent of the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred off the United States east coast, the devastation would have stretched from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay,” wrote Walter Parker, head of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission in 1990.

Cyrano’s production, “The Big One,” was filmed and still available on Vimeo.

Sandy Harper was the co-founder of Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse and was producing artistic director for Cyrano’s Theatre Company.

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