On March 24, 1989, on my way to a biology class to fulfill the prerequisites of a nursing degree, I heard the news about an oil tanker spewing tens of millions of gallons of oil into a pristine marine environment.

The Exxon Valdez killed thousands of individual creatures, eliminated entire marine communities and species, and left hundreds of miles of shoreline an oily contaminated mess. My reaction was immediate, physical grief and an intense need to do something about it.

My biology teacher, rather than deliver his prepared lesson, recruited students to leave with him that evening for Prince William Sound to wash oil off ducks and otters and do what little they could to set things right again.

I told him I wanted to go, but my three little daughters at home needed me. “How can I help?” I asked.

He said, teach people to do something better.

As a nurse, I reasoned, I could help someone through illness or disease, but by working for a clean environment, maybe I could help prevent illness and disease in the first place. I left the classroom and switched my major to environmental sciences with an emphasis on hazardous waste management, graduated with a purpose, and joined King County government.

My first job with the County was to work one-on-one with business owners and operators to help them manage their dangerous wastes and follow best management practices. I moved on to work with regulating agencies, who were improving how they worked together to enforce their environmental and safety regulations.

Still with the County after 24 years, I am now part of a broad social marketing effort aimed at educating businesses and residents to manage chemicals in a way that ensures that every child in the County reaches their full potential, healthy and whole, in a beautiful, clean environment.

Every day I am surrounded by County employees, each with their own story, each having asked, How can I help?, each carrying with them their own purpose—equity, safety, health, peace, education—helping someone somewhere in some way in the public service. Every day we get to help.


DebraOliverPhotoDebra Oliver works with King County’s Local Hazardous Waste Management Program. She also volunteers with the Interlocal Conflict Resolution Group and the Equity and Social Justice Academy.

Her three little girls grew up happy and healthy; one went on to finish that nursing degree, another is raising her own little girl, and the third is an artist/activist.

The devastation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill remains with less than 10,000 of the almost 30 million gallons spilled recovered. Of the two resident orca pods living in the area, one has struggled mightily and may not survive. More help is needed.