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Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis.

Thomas D. Beamish. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. 232 pp. $21.95.

Silent Spill provides a penetrating account of how environmental problems are socially organized, investigating how Unocal oil field leakages and spills in the Guadalupe Dunes in California over four decades eventually became recognized as a catastrophe. By some estimates, this oil spill is the largest on record, even larger than that of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Through a combination of historical analysis and fieldwork, Beamish focuses on the social structural dynamics that shaped perceptions about the nature of the problem. The central villain in the story is the Unocal Corporation, which systematically suppressed and covered up the intensity of its environmental destruction even though it was obligated to report it to authorities. Going beyond this transparent deception, Beamish digs deeper into the context of Unocal to uncover how organizational design and culture reinforced silence about the spill until whistleblowers in the company told authorities where to find evidence of malfeasance. While this book has much to offer those interested in sustainable development, industrial policy, and the social construction of risk and crises, it also reminds us of the value of the expose tradition in organizational sociology.

One of the key contributions of the book is its focus on an understudied problem: how slow-developing, long-term problems become manifest as acute traumas or accidents many years or even decades later. Beamish notes that such "lurking potential problems that currently lack extreme attributes, a convenient location, and an obvious beginning, and which do not lend themselves easily to media coverage, grow insidiously, getting little attention and rarely evoking an outcry" (p. 12). In contradistinction to episodic events such as the Exxon Valdez spill or the Challenger disaster, Beamish argues that creeping events, such as the depletion of the ozone layer or the toxic dumping that eventually led Love Canal residents to experience deleterious health problems, are more common and disastrous.

In the case of the Guadalupe Dunes, oil spillage had occurred since oil exploration and production began in 1947, but it did not become a crisis until the mid-1990s, even though environmental degradation was apparent much earlier. Part of the reason was that this spill did not provide vivid imagery for the media because it was mostly below the surface. Also, even though locals who enjoyed the beauty of the dunes and swam in the nearby ocean observed surface oil periodically, they did not become alarmed. Workers and managers within the Unocal organization did have knowledge of the extent of the spill below the surface but kept it quiet for decades. Why?

Building on organizationally oriented accident research (e.g., Perrow, 1984; Vaughan, 1996), Beamish argues that the organizational culture of Unocal shaped how employees perceived risk psychologically. While there was an active cover-up as the nature of the disaster became more visibly obvious, for a long period of time, the oil spillage was framed as a routine part of the business. And even as environmental hazard and degradation became more apparent in the 1980s, employees continued to resist ringing alarm bells, since their livelihood depended on the continued operation of the Unocal oil field. Further, workers absolved themselves of guilt by maintaining the view that responsibility for reporting the spill, if it was indeed a problem, rested with management, since Unocal was organized as a traditional hierarchy with distributed offices and duties.

In addition to cataloging the organizational conditions that fostered silence about the spill, Beamish also carefully tracks why authorities did not intervene. In the oil industry, as in many industries, regulatory monitoring relies heavily on self-reporting. Hence, the Unocal Corporation was responsible for reporting any spillages that occurred over a nominal amount. For many years, regulators did not even know that there was a potential problem because it was never reported. As news of the spill became public, Unocal management systematically lied by denying responsibility and minimizing the actual magnitude of the spillage.

Beamish further suggests that changes in regulatory attention and jurisdiction over the time period of the spill affected when and how action by authorities occurred. He argues that until the 1990s, no particular federal or state agency had clear authority over the spill, and regulatory attention to oil spills was minimal until 1990, when oil pollution legislation was passed in the wake of the Valdez spill. Hence, regulatory inaction not only resulted because of the malfeasance of Unocal but also because of the cognitive beliefs of various regulators. Just as oil spills came on to the radar screen of regulators in 1990, a Unocal employee cum whistleblower tipped off authorities to the nature of the problem. Then, in 1992, a second whistleblower told authorities where to find documentation of the Unocal cover-up just as they were tentatively investigating the spill. The Unocal oil field has since been shut down. Even though the extent of the damage to the environment is still unclear, Unocal paid $43.8 million to settle a civil suit in 1998.

In addition to offering a good story, the book highlights the limitations of U.S. industrial policies that rely on the integrity of large corporations. One lesson of the Guadalupe disaster is that when the health of the ecosystem, including human health or life chances, is significantly affected by the activities of corporations, relying on corporate self-monitoring may not be enough. As Beamish clearly shows, and as Oliver Williamson has emphasized in his theory of transaction costs, in fields dominated by the logic of markets, incentives tend to favor self-interest seeking with guile. As the cases of Arthur Andersen and Enron have recently highlighted, malfeasance can occur even when there are third parties involved in monitoring and vouching for the integrity of corporate activity. Beamish argues that designers of industrial policy should be cognizant of how regulatory infrastructures are embedded in efforts to construct and maintain institutionally based trust that enables private, profit-making activity to exist in modern democratic societies (Zucker, 1986).

By developing an approach to shifting perceptions of risk that draws heavily on organizational theory and cognitive sociology, this book should appeal to a broad audience, including organizational researchers of various stripes. Like many case studies, however, the book suffers from the problem of generalizability. While Beamish positions the book in relation to accident research that has tended to emphasize sudden and dramatic events, I wondered how his approach would shed light on phenomena such as the 1929 stock market crash or shifts between bear and bull markets. While it would, for instance, direct researchers to uncover how organizational and field-level actors shape risk perceptions and behavior in financial markets, it is somewhat unclear how one would build on this study to construct a more general theoretical framework that outlines the conditions under which different kinds of situations will become labeled as crises. Nonetheless, given that research in this area has been limited, Beamish should be applauded for his pioneering effort.


Perrow, C.

1984 Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. New York: Basic Books.

Vaughan, D.

1996 The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zucker, L. G.

1986 "Production of trust: Institutional sources of economic structure, 1840-1920." In B. M. Staw and L. L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, 8: 53-111. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Michael Lounsbury

School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Department of Sociology Cornell University Ithaca, NY 14850
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Author:Lounsbury, Michael
Publication:Administrative Science Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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