Spills and Chills in Print

Reviewed by Terry Wechsler

Mary Kay Becker in the 70s.

Mary Kay Becker in the 70s.

An Account of the 1978 Grounding at Bird Rocks
by Mary Kay Becker and Patricia Coburn
Madrona Press, 1974
161 pages, paperback, $3.95
ISBN 10: 0914842021
ISBN-13: 978-0914842026

Bellingham’s Mary Kay Becker sits on the Washington Court of Appeals today, but nearly a decade before she graduated from law school she published the fictional “Superspill: An Account of the 1978 Grounding at Bird Rocks” with Patricia Coburn.

That tale of a crude tanker from Port Valdez, Alaska, bound for a Cherry Point refinery, described how an 8,000,000 gallon crude oil spill would impact the Salish Sea far beyond Rosario Strait. The book propelled both women into the public spotlight, and Becker into the state legislature.

The ‘70s were heady times. Talk of bringing supertankers to Cherry Point ignited a public backlash led by the Seattle-based Coalition Against Oil Pollution, according to Becker. Legislation passed at the state and federal level to reduce spill risk in the Puget Sound. But by the 1980s four refineries sat on the coasts of Whatcom and Skagit counties, with a fifth farther south in Tacoma. And then Canada discovered tar sands.

In 1977, when Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson introduced his “little amendment” to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, he succeeded in limiting expansion of crude tanker traffic to and from Cherry Point, but he could not anticipate this century’s globalization and the pressure to develop and expand ports and terminals on this regions shores on both sides of the Canadian border. The result is a level of vessel traffic today and proposals to add more that would have seemed inconceivable in the 1970s, yet here we are.

Two regional residents took up the mantle worn by Becker and Coburn over four decades ago, publishing graphic narratives about what one single spill can and will do to a maritime region. Two books appeared in paperback in March, one imagining what even a small spill in the Salish Sea would be like, and the other examining the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez on the Prince William Sound.


2016-July-Spill Image

A Story of Oil & Orcas in the Salish Sea
by Dave Anderson,
CreateSpace, 2016
180 pages, paperback, $12.00
ISBN-10: 1530433568
ISBN-13: 978-1530433568

Dave Anderson of Whidbey Island wrote “Spill: Oil and Orcas in the Salish Sea.” A life-long resident of the Sound and a retired veterinarian, Anderson commercially fished for 50 years in the waters about which he writes. He has served on the state’s legislature, on the Oil Spill Prevention Task Force as a governor’s appointee, and for a decade on the Orca Network board.



2016-July Red Light to Starboard cover

Red Light to Starboard
Recalling the Exxon Valdex Disaster
by Angela Day
Washington State University Press, 2014
272 pages, paperback, $19.95
ISBN-10: 0874223180
ISBN-13: 978-0874223187

Angela Day of Snohomish approaches the subject of spills as more of an academic and journalist. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and a certificate in Narrative Non-fiction Writing from the University of Washington. Like Anderson, she is also native to the region, but she examines actual environment disasters and their effects and published case studies used to teach graduate students in schools of public policy and administration.

Day’s book, “Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” is not a dry account of the environmental aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill. Her husband was a lifelong fisherman in that part of Alaska, and she explores personal effects on people whose livelihoods were destroyed. She examines the political, regulatory, and judicial processes that failed the people of Alaska.

Anderson’s fictional approach is no less learned. His drama involves a relatively small spill in the San Juans of only the bunker fuel of a container ship, and not the cargo of a crude tanker. The threat to Orcas and other wildlife is nonetheless profound as explained by Anderson who writes from his deep and broad knowledge of area waters.

7-1-16 Oil and Salish Sea poster


In addition to area readings, Day and Anderson will appear together on August 11, 2016, at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship to read from their books. Judge Becker will introduce them and give a brief account of the political and legal landscape of the 1970s that led to passage of much of the legislation designed to protect this region from a catastrophic spill.

With the recent lifting of the federal ban on the export of domestic crude, and growing pressure from the fossil fuel industry to weaken laws and treaties that protect our coasts and waters, Carl Weimer’s announcement on Friday, June 24, 2016, of proposed amendments to the county Comprehensive Plan could provide some measure of protection for the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area’s coast and throughout the Salish Sea.

Weimer’s amendment states an intent to limit expansion of fossil fuel shipments and would, among other things, ban future permits for a fourth pier at Cherry Point or for expansion of refinery capacity. Whatcom Watch could not ascertain prior to going to press when the amendment will go to committee for consideration, but members may email the council at council@co.whatcom.wa.us to express an opinion.

The full text of the chapter and proposed amendments:  Carl Weimer’s Proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendments


Terry Wechsler is a licensed Washington attorney and frequent contributor about fossil fuel transportation proposals in Whatcom County.