This is a script from the audio broadcast/podcast “Ghosts of Exxon” by Radio Ecoshock.
The audio version contains clips from an important new speech by Dr. Riki Ott, plus news clips and excerpts from films not shown in the script.
To hear the full version (20 minutes long) – just CLICK ON THE TITLE ABOVE.
(The sound may take a minute to download.)
[Opening: Clips from trailer for 1992 docu-drama “Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster”]
Have we heard the real truth about the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Who cares – it’s old laundry. Anyway, I heard on the news that nature has healed herself. Move along, it’s all over, nothing to see here.
At least that’s what the world’s biggest oil company, Exxon Mobile, has told us, through the scientists, lawyers, and public relations companies they’ve hired. In media, you get what you pay for.
Hello, I’m Alex Smith from Radio Ecoshock.
Did you know more than 6600 of the estimated 11,00 workers steam cleaning Alaskan beaches claimed long-term health impacts? Many suffer the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome, perhaps for the same reason: poisoned by a component of oil called PAH’s, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. It doesn’t matter if you are Saddam Hussein torching oil wells, or just a commuter burning gas, you are releasing this chemical recently recognized by the American EPA as toxic in just parts per billion. Scientists studying the Exxon Valdez spill found evidence that our whole oil economy is toxic to humans, animals, and ocean life. Exxon never mentioned that.
[Riki Ott clip]
That’s Doctor Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist specializing in oil pollution. She’s also a former fisherwoman and resident of Cordova, Alaska, the community hardest hit by the spill. Riki Ott was in the second plane flying over the slick, just hours after the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded and ripped open on March 24, 1989. She became the people’s scientist, a persistent David to Exxon’s Goliath. We’ll be hearing excerpts from a speech she gave in Vancouver, Canada on April 26th, 2006.
For all those who live near, or love the beaches, in Spain, France, California, Dubai, Australia – or along Canada’s pristine West Coast – we all need to know that oil can NOT be “cleaned” off beaches.
[Clip of Riki Ott – “You can’t really clean a beach”]
The chemicals used make it worse. And the oil lives on below, beyond the camera’s eye, to this very day, 17 years later. Really, the only way to clean oil from beaches is to stop it from getting there. After the Valdez spill, the oil spread over the open ocean for three days with Exxon dithering, and doing practically nothing. Then a big storm blew it onto beaches, over a thousand miles of coast..
[clip from Sierra TV, there’s 100 tons of it down there]
Then, the really big lesson from Valdez. Sociological studies show: where natural disasters tend to bring communities together, man-made ones, from the Valdez spill, to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown, to the pesticide leak in Bhopal India – technical failures drive individuals, families, and communities into long-lasting anger, fights, and despair. What does this mean for climate change? Will the millions of refugees from drowned or burned countries just die quietly, while we drive gas guzzlers? Or will they bring their explosive anger back to the so-called civilized world, to the people who pumped carbon into the atmosphere? Will such human-induced disasters, and there will be more, move from blame to a warring world?
You see, the Exxon Valdez fiasco isn’t over. There’s plenty of meat here for our brains.
Let’s go to our featured speaker, Doctor Riki Ott.
[Ott clip on size of spill]
That’s right, a suppressed government report reckoned that three times more oil spilled than Exxon said. And the untrue factoid about 11 million gallons versus 33 million, carefully fostered by Exxon just after the event, lives on as an urban legend, even in the speeches and songs of activists. Journalists quote the low lying figure like a mantra. PR becomes history.
[Exxon cover-up clips, from Ott, and Sierra Club…]
We all remember the images of workers blasting a blazing hot mix of chemicals and water through high pressure hoses, scouring the oil rocks and beaches. Countless shellfish and other species that managed to survive the tide of oil, were killed by the supposed cure. We did it to make things look better, we sterilized the beaches. But the lower tidal areas, beneath the cold water, was left loaded with tons of oil.
The cleaning chemicals were a new mix prepared by Exxon for the event, and never field tested anywhere. Prince William Sound was the big experiment. Dubbed Inipol EAP 22, the mix included dry cleaning solvents and the highly toxic 2-Butoxyethanol. That’s known to cause joint pain, and impairment of the nervous and immune systems. The high pressure hoses created an oil/chemical aerosol, coating the skin and lungs of thousands of workers. The toxic mist included PAHs from the oil, the same toxic fraction of oil polluting our lungs from oil-burning oil power stations and car engines.
Exxon tried to buy the workers off, offering them 600 dollars and 50 cents to sign a waiver on all future health damages. Some signed and suffered later. Worker illness developed over the following years, into thousands of cases of illness and disability, all over America. Exxon tried to hide the numbers by sealing court records, but Riki Ott got there first, and we know that more than 6,000 workers complained of health impacts.
[clip Ott on PAH’s in cars & EPA most toxic list]
The PAH’s and cleanup chemicals made the animals sick as well.
In 1992 and ’93, the pink salmon stocks collapsed, causing financial heartache to the fishing fleet. The Herring collapsed as well, and has never really recovered its dependable annual harvest. Some long-time fishing families gave up.
Fed-up, and ignored by the Federal Government, fishing boats blockaded Valdez Narrows, the sole passageway for shipping Alaskan oil. Tankers were stopped for 3 days. Finally, the new Clinton government agreed to fund scientific research – to find out how oil spills damage the environment. Otherwise, all the studies would come from Exxon-funded scientists.
It was the most extensive research ever made into Alaskan ecology and the toxicity of oil. The scientists of the 1990’s developed new models, replacing previous misconceptions from the 1970’s. For example, for the first time, forensic chemistry from human health was applied to animals. They could measure the toxic chemicals in fowl and fish.
In her speech, and in her book, Dr. Ott gives an alarming picture of the impact of oil on a wide range of species, from See Otters to ducks. Her book is a treasure house of science, and nature study. It should be required reading for biology students, environmentalists, and anyone using oil. It’s title is “Sound Truth and Corporate Myths: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Get it from Amazon.com or any bookseller.
[clip of “Toast the World with Exxon/Mobil” from www.exposeexxon.org]
Journalist Greg Palaste has stayed on the case of the Exxon victims. But Palaste blames Alyseka Pipeline Services, the company controlled by British Petroleum. Alyseka was supposed to have the boats and equipment for immediate response to a spill. They failed utterly.
In articles in Britain’s Observer newspaper, on March 21st, 1999, Palaste exposed BP intimidation of critics and whistleblowers who warned the oil company was un-prepared for an emergency, despite long-standing promises and regulations.
But Exxon is hardly the angel. They never provided the double hulled tankers promised back in the 1970’s. And Greg Palaste writes:
“The captain, Joe Hazelwood, was below decks, sleeping off his bender. The man left at the helm, the third mate, would never have hit Bligh Reef had he simply looked at his Raycas radar. But he could not. Why? Because the radar was not turned on. The complex Raycas system costs a lot to operate, so a frugal Exxon management left it broken and useless for the entire year before the grounding.”
Despite the warnings, broken equipment, lack of mandated response teams – we all go with the myth of the drunken captain. Hazelwood did it, not Exxon, BP, or us, the oil drinkers.
[clip of man saying he drives 100 miles a day… followed by clip of Exxon lawyer, plus newsman]
According to Palaste, Exxon/Mobil has been the largest campaign contributor to President Bush. And when the corporation didn’t like the multi-billion dollar jury award for punitive damages, and couldn’t beat it in Alaskan courts, Exxon took their lawsuits to Bush-friendly judges in the good old State of Texas. Even those judges refused to quash the award. Exxon lobbied Congress to pass legislation quashing the damages. The Alaskan House of Representatives tried to stop that, by unanimously passed HJR 9 – a bill urging Congress not to violate the courts, and justice itself.
Of course, none of Exxon’s 36 billion dollars profit from last year could be paid to the workers, residents, and eco-systems who suffered from their negligence. Sixteen years after the judgment, they’re still hiding behind the courts, still haven’t paid up.
Native communities, who lived closest to the sea, got lots: a couple of months of good pay to breathe toxic chemicals during the alleged cleanup, a ruined coastline, dead fisheries, poisoned shellfish beds, and more blows to an already abused culture. With Justice, you get what you pay for.
Let’s sum up with three big lessons from Dr. Ott about technical disasters.
Number one: promises made by big corporations and big governments about long-term cleanup and help will be betrayed. It doesn’t happen unless citizens force new written laws and enforcement guarantees.
Second: when companies or governments promote big projects, and new jobs, they don’t tell people about the long-term risks. In Prince Williams Sound, Chernobyl, and Bhopal, the residents were taken by surprise.
Finally, genuine restoration of nature is seldom possible. We don’t make nature, and we can’t re-make it.
Ott says the best safeguard is to organize your community BEFORE risky ventures come knocking. Get people talking about their values, and what they want for the future, including a sustainable eco-system. With communication and vision, you are less likely to sustain a technical disaster, and more likely to weather the slick if the worst happens.
Studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service found crude oil toxins remain on at least 28 beaches in Prince William Sound. Exxon tried to say it wasn’t theirs, but other scientists have identified the specific fingerprint of Exxon oil. The Sea Otters and Harlequin Ducks are still struggling to come back, despite high death rates, as are many species of fish, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. You can find out more from the Oil Spill Trustee Council, a joint federal-state panel for restoration.
Meanwhile the Valdez accident continues to spill into popular imagination, in films, music and Net publications. Exxon Valdez is the name of a British Punk Band, a group in the Netherlands, and musicians in Ecuador. Even Frank Zappa penned a musical fantasy called “Outrage at Valdez.” People compare new tanker disasters, like the 2002 wreck of the vessel Prestige off the coast of Spain – as “bigger than the Exxon Valdez.” Recently Senator John McCain labeled the NSA/telecom spying scandal as an Exxon Valdez of private information. The spill has become a measuring stick for the size of man-made messes.
Here are some more multimedia resources on the Exxon Valdez spill and its aftermath.
Dr. Ott’s speech in Vancouver, BC at is available for download at:
Her website is: www.soundtruth.info
Sierra Club TV did an episode on the Valdez spill. It’s called The Day the Water Died, at www.sierraclub.org/tv/episode-exxon.asp
And we’ve used clips from the 1992 movie Dead Ahead, directed by Paul Seed.
Grist magazine has an interview with Dr. Ott, dated March 14th, 2005 at
The troubling impact of technical disasters is the theme of a new movie from Macumba International, produced by Robert Cornelier, called “Endless Fallout.”
This report is from Radio Ecoshock, the Net’s only all-environment radio station, free at www.ecoshock.org