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Slick Account

Robert Gramling

Oil Spills. Joanna Burger. 260 pp. Rutgers University Press, 1997. $29.95.

In the preface Burger acknowledges that most books concerning oil spills concentrate either on a particular spill or on some specialized aspect of the subject such as cleanup, tanker safety or prevention. By inference the reader is led to the conclusion that Burger's book will be comprehensive, and it is certainly an attempt to be so. Oil Spills starts with a brief history of oil and some of the major marine spills. The book moves next to spills in an environmental context and then on to response, cleanup, rehabilitation and damage assessment. These are followed by five chapters on the effects of oil spills on vegetation, fish, birds, marine mammals and turtles, and humans. Oil Spills ends with chapters on risk and risk perception and alternatives for the future. From the onset it should be noted that this is not a book aimed at people who research oil spills or at the oil-spill response or prevention community. The target of the book is, or should be, the general reading public who may only know what they read in the paper following the Exxon Valdez spill and who want to find out more.

Given the ambitious agenda of the volume, it was inevitable that some subjects would be covered in less detail than others. Coming from a biological background, Burger is much more comfortable with the biological effects on marine plants and animals, and much less comfortable with the effects on humans, the techniques associated with response, cleanup and damage assessment, and the concepts of risk and risk perception. The damage-assessment section completely skips the slippery and tenuous relationship between dead birds and dollars, which for a relatively naive reader might be best since it does not seem to happen by any recognizable set of rules. The section on risk and perceived risk notes the variance between public and "expert" assessments of risk but fails to note that the experts are often wildly off the mark. With low-probability, high-consequence events like oil spills, risk assessments are little more than educated guesses. I believe that the environmental impact assessment for the TransAlaska Pipeline considered a major oil spill in Prince William Sound a 1-in-200-year event. It happened the 12th year.

In all fairness, given the comprehensive nature of the book I have to rate it highly. As noted above, professionals experienced with oil spills may not learn much, at least not within the narrow limits of their experience, but the average reader, or even a professional without experience in the area, who wants to know more about oil spills will find a wealth of information here. Even though it is not aimed at the scientific community, a better-referenced volume could lead the interested reader toward more information. The book is rich in maps, charts and pictures, some of which are actually worth a thousand words. I particularly remember the map transposing the Exxon Valdez spill to the east coast of the United States, which showed the spill stretching from Connecticut to North Carolina. The point is obvious.—Robert Gramling, Socioeconomic Research Center, University of Southwest Louisiana

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