Images from Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

Images of a pristine Alaskan Bay are used in the film to offset the conflicting scenes of disastrous stories and consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

A map of Cordova is used in the film to illustrate the large area affected by the disaster.

A fishing family’s testimonies recount the spill and its consequences as a contrast to pristine natural images in the film.

Scenes of locals cleaning up oil in the harbor illustrate the massive devastation following the Exxon Valdez disaster.

An image of a newspaper headline shows a legal decision blaming both Exxon and Hazelwood, providing hope for victims and demonstrating a solution that will facilitate mixing of oil and fish: avoiding recklessness.

Images of the Alaskan pipeline highlight the ongoing need for oil and its transport.

Images of tankers being filled in the bay show the immensity of the complex constructed to facilitate the transport of oil.

The latest casualty of the spill is illustrated in the film by close shots of a newspaper photo of Cordova’s former mayor.

The film ends by condemning Exxon for its greed and contrasting their profits with images of a fishing family who struggles to survive knowing their share of the award is only ten percent of their losses.

Images from Crude: The Real Price of Oil

Oil destroys culture: "Since the company arrived, we are ashamed to wear our traditional clothing."

Oil contaminates water: "As long as we consume the water, it seems that the children will keep having these skin problems."

Evidence for Chevron’s negligent practices are emphasized by close-ups of oil.

The only source of clean water is now outside nature.


Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster;
Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez; and Crude: The Real Price of Oil :
when externalities become transparent

While Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay suggest that oil production will either leave the landscape untouched or benefit its ecosystem, films responding to major oil spills, including the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez eco-catastrophe in Alaska’s Prince Edward Sound, highlight the negative effects oil disasters may have on the environment and the cultures and economies it supports. Instead of condemning the oil industry in general, however, these films attack individuals and promote safe production practices. In a move similar to that of Louisiana Story, Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster (1992), Black Wave: The Legacy of Exxon Valdez (2009), and Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009), assert that because oil and the natural environment don’t mix, they must remain separate.

Unlike Thunder Bay, which asserts that humans and the natural world can share an interdependent relationship, Dead Ahead, Black Wave, and, to a certain extent, Crude suggest that human and environmental disasters occur when safety precautions fail, either because of human error or blatant neglect. If, as in Louisiana Story, however, oil companies enter the natural world briefly and with caution to avoid an indelible effect, then, the films suggest, they can avoid such disasters. Ultimately, these films perpetuate the same two myths upheld by Louisiana Story: If implemented correctly and safely, oil drilling can leave a natural setting untouched, so that humans and their technology can remain separate from nature rather than interconnected with it. 

Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, for example, focuses primarily on the reasons behind both the spill and its slow cleanup, however, rather than on the inherently dangerous consequences of oil production and shipment. To reinforce this assertion that safety regulations, not the oil industry per se, caused this horrendous disaster and its catastrophic consequences, the film provides a reenactment of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker catastrophe, from the moments before the tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, rupturing its storage tanks and spilling millions of gallons of oil, through its devastating aftermath. According to Los Angeles Times staff writer, Susan King,

“the behind-the-scenes catastrophes after the mammoth oil spill… shocked the British creative team of HBO’s docudrama Dead Ahead.”

The film’s researcher-writer Michael Baker and executive producer Leslie Woodheadcalled the disaster “a black comedy” (King) because of the neglect and greed of oil and pipeline companies, and the disastrous choices made by the Coast Guard, the EPA, and the first Bush Administration.

As King declares, the film

“depicts the bureaucracy, fighting, and finger-pointing among officials at Exxon, the Alyeska Pipeline Company…, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bush Administration, while the spill was left basically unattended for days.”

Anger with these multiple groups’ mistakes prompted Baker and Woodhead to move forward with the film. As Woodhead explains, “It is so infuriating, the revelation that the oil laid there for three days in beautiful weather. It was just a tangle of priorities and people trying to tidy up their own images which left the oil lying there in the water” (King). Baker agrees, asserting,

“People started kind of blaming each other…. It became a question of controlling the media, not cleaning up the oil, but controlling the spill as an event” (King).

Images of the Exxon Valdez are presented to establish the problem in the film — an ill equipped oil tanker and captain. Images of the Exxon Valdez entering the harbor highlight its proximity to the pristine nature on display in the film.

From its opening scenes showing Captain Joseph Hazelwood’s (Jackson Davies) absence from the bridge because of alcohol abuse to its dramatization of conflicts between the U.S. EPA and its local representative, Dan Lawn (John Heard) and between Exxon and its spokesperson, Frank Iarossi (Christopher Lloyd), the film effectively addresses the post-spill disaster, arguing both through its narrative and cinematic portrayals of once-pristine waters and landscapes for double hulls in oil tankers and better implementation of protocols if and when another spill occurs. It does not, however, argue against the production and transporting of oil because, as Woodhead states,

“America cannot afford to be without (oil) supply, but we better try to do a lot better in controlling how we get it out of there” (King).

The powerful cinematic representations of the landscape became possible because “establishing shots and aerial footage were shot of the Port of Valdez,” even though Dead Ahead was primarily filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. According to director Paul Seed, “it would have been difficult to shoot inside Alaska because of the unpredictable weather” (King). The wild shorelines of Vancouver overlap effectively with the establishing shots of Valdez and contrast well with the post-disaster shots of a spill (recreated with a gelatin-based food thickener) to accentuate the dangerous consequences of the spill—losing the pristine beauty of wild nature.

These contrasting shots parallel the positions voiced by Lawn and Iarossi, who both in some ways oppose the organizations they see as responsible for the spill. Iarossi’s character becomes more authentic because Iarossi willingly answered interview questions, revealing, as he had during the actual spill’s aftermath, Exxon’s reactions to the spill. His focus on safety, however, reinforces the film’s emphasis on accident prevention rather than the eradication of oil production and shipment. Then president of the Exxon Shipping Company, Iarossi represented the company during public forums in Valdez and informed investigators that Captain Joe Hazelwood was legally drunk during the tanker disaster.

More importantly, Iarossi revealed that Exxon knew about Hazelwood’s drinking problem but allowed him to continue as captain of the Valdez. Iarossi resigned from Exxon in 1990 and became president of the American Bureau of Shipping, “a nonprofit corporation that classifies ships for insurers, inspects blueprints during construction and surveys vessels to make sure they are seaworthy” (“Where are They Now?). According to a 1999 Anchorage Daily New article, Iarossi told The Business Times of Singapore,

“What we need to do is to try to develop much more of a safety culture, the mentality which is very much safety-oriented on the part of shipping companies and ship operating officers.”

The film draws on this same representation of Iarossi as a figure disillusioned by Exxon’s failure to address safety issues to reinforce its argument for double hulled tankers, but not against oil.

Representations of Dan Lawn parallel that of Iarossi and, again, validate the film’s call for safer transporting of oil. As chief of the Valdez office of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Lawn’s character confronts an unresponsive state government, a complaisant EPA, and an unprepared Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, asserting the need for both better preventative systems and emergency plans to tackle oil spills and their consequences. The film’s portrayal of Lawn draws authentically on his attempts to improve both prevention and response strategies. In a 1989 Seattle Times article, for example, Lawn asserts,

“We are all to blame…. We demand petroleum products, but we’re unwilling to be taxed. We thought someone was taking care of it. We put in pro-industry officials, and our ability to control things went away” (“The Lost Frontier”).

Although the film effectively argues for more effective safety standards to prevent future oil spill disaster, Dead Ahead reinforces the arguments broached in Louisiana Story: If we successfully maintain the bifurcation between nature and culture—between a pristine Alaska and its oil—both can be preserved.   

Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, on the other hand, examines the ongoing negative consequences of the Exxon Valdez disaster from a contemporary perspective. It too, however, blames ineffective choices made by the EPA and corrupt practices of Exxon for the spill’s continuing negative effects. Like Dead Ahead, the film reasserts the reasons for the economic and environmental devastation still rampant in the Valdez area—an oil spill that could have been prevented if appropriate safety measures were in place. Black Wave takes this position further, effectively condemning Exxon not only for its failures during and immediately after the disaster but for their reluctance to clean up Prince Edward Sound and provide relief funds to fishermen and spill workers still affected by the catastrophic repercussions of this unchecked spill.   

Results of the spill are emphasized by close-ups of oil-covered shores that illustrate the consequences of failed safety measures, slow clean up for Prince Edward Sound and limited relief funds for fishermen and spill workers still affected by the spill. Images of workers fighting the spill not only reveal the extent of the damage but also introduce health problems faced by spill workers who inhaled oil and dispersants.
Scenes of spraying of toxic dispersants reinforce the testimony of representatives of the 6724 workers who filed upper respiratory illness claims, reinforcing the explanation of both the spill's economic and health crises. Destruction of fishing stocks takes center stage in shots that illustrate the collapse of salmon and herring runs and reinforce the continuing consequences. Of the twenty-four species devastated by the spill, fifteen have not recovered.

In a move similar to that made in both Louisiana Story and Dead Ahead, Black Wave contrasts pristine images of Alaskan waters and shorelines near Cordova with testimonies of fishermen and oil spill workers still affected by the disaster. The film highlights scenes of a fisherman’s daughter fishing alongside her father for the first time since the spill, for example, as a powerful portrait of a family’s connection with St. Edward Sound and its bounty. But the joy the daughter demonstrates in her ode to “the earth, the water, and the fish,” is broken once the film reveals that this is the first time the daughter has fished with her father in twenty years because fishing was not financially feasible until then. Her father, Peter O’Toole, saved enough money to buy a fishing boat and permit in February of 1989. The spill in March of the same year forestalled all fishing and devastated his fishing business for twenty years, all because, as Riki Ott, a marine biologist, reveals, both the salmon and herring runs collapsed. Of the twenty-four species devastated by the spill, the film explains, fifteen have not recovered.

The lasting effects of the spill permeate the communities around Prince Edward Sound, the film explains, with permanent economic crises contributing to increased levels of alcoholism and suicide. The spill’s negative effects extend beyond the Sound’s economy, too, and include health problems faced by spill workers who inhaled oil and dispersants, toxic chemicals used to cleanup the spill. Of the 6724 workers who filed upper respiratory illness claims and the two-dozen lawsuits, only seven were settled. Recollections of Prince Edward Sound immediately after the spill reinforce the cause of both economic and health crises. Documentary footage shows mountains glowing with a glossy pink, the tanker beside them now blood red because inky stained waters have evaporated, forming a haze in the sky, the toxic hydrocarbon vapors inhaled by oil spill workers and residents of villages around the sound.

Ultimately, however, the film centers on Exxon and its greedy and corrupt practices as the cause of these continuing crises. A mandatory class action suit begun in 1994 with 32,000 plaintiffs, for example, seems to bring victory to the plaintiffs, validating Exxon’s claim that they “we will consider whatever it takes to make you whole.” Ultimately, however, a U.S. Supreme decision reduces an initial five billion dollar settlement to $500 million, despite the fact that only three percent of the spill was cleaned up. Oil residue remains in the water and along the shoreline, buried in soil only inches from the top. Polycyclic hydrocarbon aromatics were a thousand times more toxic than expected, according to the film, affecting both workers and wildlife in and around the sound. Illnesses attack the respiratory and nervous systems of former workers. The ongoing negative effects of the spill, however, are blamed on Exxon’s negligence and greed rather than the oil industry as a whole, however.

The film’s final scenes highlight failed attempts to seek justice for the damages caused by Exxon’s negligence. To highlight the court’s failure to bring justice to the victims of the disaster, the film shows close-ups of a coffin painted with the number of victims and their culprit: a court where “Justice [is] Denied.”

Here, as in other documentaries, the $100 million a year lost in the St. Edward Sound Economy  and the fifteen lost species of marine and shore life are blamed on one particular oil company’s practices. The film ends, then, by condemning Exxon Mobile for its greed. The company’s profits are at least $160 billion per year, the film explains, yet the company fought a lawsuit asking for less than three percent of their annual income and refused to be interviewed. Black Wave effectively documents the reasons for and long-term consequences the Exxon Valdez disaster, but the film fails to revile oil as an industry. As in earlier documentaries, the film suggests that if better safety and restoration practices were in place, oil spills could be avoided, as would their dire consequences. 

Crude follows a pattern similar to that of Black Wave, highlighting the need to maintain the separation between nature and culture, while suggesting that oil production, if implemented effectively, can maintain a pristine wilderness. The film documents the battle between Ecuadorian indigenous tribes and Chevron over the oil company’s rampant toxic waste dumping and consequent destruction of both their rainforest home and their sources of water.  With help from Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, filmmaker Joe Berlinger provides a balanced portrait of both the dangerous outcomes of toxic waste dumping and of the lawsuit between the tribes and Chevron continuing from 1993. According to Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, however,

“the most telling arguments come from watching tribes living in a toxic wasteland with children ravaged by skin diseases and cancer.”

 According to Travers,

“The shattering sight of sludge creating a poison rainbow on a river argues eloquently about why oil and water don’t mix.”

In the film, however, the focus is not on the inherently incompatibility of oil and water but on Chevron’s negligent practices, just as Dead Ahead and Black Wave highlight the need for a safer approach to oil shipping but not the elimination of our reliance on oil or the oil industry. Recent Ecuadorian court decisions claiming Chevron owes $5 billions for damages were stopped by appeals in the U.S. courts.

Conclusion:  can oil and water mix?

Oil tanker spills like those documented by Dead Ahead and Black Wave seemed to be “a much larger threat,” (Bourne 42) than offshore oil drilling catastrophe like the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, according to Bourne’s report in the October 2010 National Geographic.  From the first offshore oil well forward, efforts to tap what Bourne calls “the largest U.S. oil discoveries in decades” went further off shore and deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. BP’s Macondo Deepwater Horizon well was fifty miles offshore and a mile below sea level. Despite the obvious risks involved in such offshore drilling, Bourne asserts that “the industry had acted as if such a catastrophe would never occur. So had its regulators. Nothing like it had happened in the Gulf of Mexico since 1979, when a Mexican well called Ixtoc I blew out in the shallow waters of the Bay of Campeche” (42). As Bourne explains,

“Drilling technology had become so good since then, and the demand for oil so irresistible, that oil companies had sailed off the continental shelf into ever deeper waters” (42).

Both Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay draw on this same belief regarding offshore oil drilling. Unlike comparatively more fragile oil tankers, offshore oil wells are regulated by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), who claimed, according to Bourne, “that the chances of a blowout were less than one percent, and that even if one did happen, it wouldn’t release much oil” (42). Despite biogeochemist Mandy Joye’s call “to green power” (quoted in Bourne 53), however, Bourne focuses primarily on BP’s decisions when it became clear their well was not stable. According to Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley expert in technological disasters and offshore engineering, for example,

“one problem… was a loss of core competence. After [a] merger BP forced thousands of older, experienced oil field workers into retirement. That decision, which made the company more dependent on contractors for engineering expertise, was a key ingredient in BP’s ‘recipe for disaster’” (quoted in Bourne 47). 

As of March 2011, the effects of the BP oil disaster continue. A Guardian article from Suzanne Goldenberg suggests the spill may have caused the death of 90 bottle-nosed dolphins, for example. Yet according to the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, “Drilling in deep water does not have to be abandoned. It can be done safely.” The last chapter of the report outlines how best to implement the safety precautions that will avoid such disasters and facilitate more offshore oil drilling.

The media responses to the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, then, draw on the more separatist philosophy represented by Louisiana Story. Although few would suggest that oil, fishing, and the water that sustains it are inherently interdependent, most media representations do assert the need for controlling oil production to maintain pristine nature rather than eliminating it altogether. As Elliot asserts, the oil and fishing industries may have learned to live together because oil brought money and jobs to the region. What remains unanswered, however, is whether or not those jobs are worth the risk to fragile ecosystems in the Gulf, as documented in Dead Ahead, Black Wave, and Crude and illustrated by Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay, films responding to the development of the first off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and water can mix, they argue, at least if appropriate safety precautions are in place.

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