…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Riki Ott Explains How Alaska Went From ‘Not One Drop’ to More Than 11 Million Gallons of Oil, Thanks to Exxon
Categories: Authors, Interviews


People want to pass a sustainable future — a living planet — on to their kids. That crosses red and blue. And the indigenous people call it the “Well, duh.” People are saying, “Well, how are we going to do that?” Because it’s not coming from the top down, and people really are rolling up their sleeves. I certainly came back a lot more hopeful than when I first launched in 2005. I just kept thinking, “Man, if we just get somebody from the top who will help, I think we can still turn things around.”

– Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there is literally no one better to talk to than Riki Ott. As a marine biologist, she studied the effects of oil pollution on the environment and wildlife. She settled in Cordova, AK, making a living fishing the Prince William Sound. She was one of the first people on hand after the disaster, seeing the spill firsthand. She fought Exxon’s lies in court for nearly two decades. And finally, she has the trust of Alaskans affected by the spill, a group that has lost their faith in government, industry and the judiciary.

Ott is Exxon’s worst nightmare. As a scientist, she sorted through Exxon’s doctored data and countered it with sound science. She understood what would be necessary to clean up the Prince William Sound environment, but also the economic needs of coastal Alaskan towns. As an author and public speaker, she offers real solutions to corporatism and our destructive lifestyle.

Ott told BuzzFlash what it was like to be part of a disaster that taught us so much about the toxicity of oil and the sociological cost of man-made disasters. She walked us through the frustration of dealing with Exxon’s deception, regulation dodging and delay tactics.

This interview gave us a unique view of the intersection of politics and science, a place Ott knows well. Even while she admits that all legislation is a compromise, she has high hopes for future change. In the end, Ott is optimistic and overflowing with ideas of how to make the world a better place. Most importantly, she explains how we can get real change in the midst of today’s worldwide economic crisis, and why things might not be as bad as they seem.


BuzzFlash: Well, I wanted to first talk about some of the science in the book. You talk about some of the scientific sea changes that come about from people studying Cordova, both from a sociological standpoint and an ecological one. And I’m wondering what it’s like to be community under the microscope?

Riki Ott: It’s very strange, very strange. The science part, with the animals, we didn’t mind so much, and we were very interested in. And people were going to the meetings where the scientists would present the results… people were really keyed into that. But then when it came to studying us, that was a whole different ball of wax there. At first, people didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I mean, there are people with clipboards outside your door, and who the heck are you? But in some sense, it was the same people all the time over the years. And the word got around from the folks who did let the people with clipboards in initially that it was OK. They were asking good questions. This wasn’t Exxon — there’s was that too. And maybe this would help. I kind of stepped over the boundary between scientist and hands-off participant, and actually became pretty good friends with a lot of people, to the point where sometimes they used to come back for The Iceworm Festival, not to do any surveys — just to have fun with us, which was really cool.

There was a panic when Exxon realized the significance of the sociology data up before the trial in 1994. All of a sudden, Exxon realized that it had completely not covered this base. Exxon had done parallel studies on the science of animals — hundreds of millions of dollars — where Exxon paralleled the research done by the federal government, some of the state studies, and had this whole suite of data that basically showed nothing could be tied to oil. Nothing beyond the initial deaths. High amounts of oil in the environment? No. Lingering harm? No. Exxon was completely unprepared for sociology — the emotional impacts.

So suddenly Exxon made this full-court press to access Steve Picou and Duane Gill’s data set. And Exxon was maintaining that if people participated in Picou studies then perhaps they exaggerated their claims to boost up punitive awards. Exxon’s very transparent. Everything’s about money for them. And people didn’t know if Exxon succeeded in accessing all their names, if then their compensatory claims would be jeopardized. So that was a very bad time.

And Steve Picou, to his credit and the University of South Alabama, they went to bat. The university stood up for Picou and said, “No, this is a confidential study and you can’t access the names.” But this was a very dark time, because this was when one the participants in the Picou studies got so nervous about everything that he committed suicide. And this was a former mayor of Cordova. It’s really something when one of the town leaders — someone that everybody looks up to — commits suicide. It was just a very destabilizing time in the entire community.

When Exxon ultimately succeeded in accessing the data but not the names — the court ordered a disconnect between the data and the names — Exxon managed to spin it so it looked like Exxon had won. It caused just panic in the community. I mean, the university flew Steve Picou up so he could explain what had happened. But it’s like you hear somebody died and you go through all the grieving, and then you find out, oh, actually, they didn’t die. Everything’s okay. You went through all the trauma and the horror, and that really didn’t save us very much.

BuzzFlash: It almost seems like Exxon learned the art of deception in its experience in Cordova and in Alaska, and that the whole disaster almost created an opportunity for Exxon to try out this culture of deception that it uses today. Do you think that it worked overall? Do you think that’s an accurate way to portray it?

Riki Ott: Here’s what I’ve actually come to believe, that these big corporations prey on people’s trust. I think people in general are trusting. We were wired to connect with each other. Trust is the basic element of relationships, whether it’s in a marriage, or whether it’s between friends, working together in businesses. Trust is the basic element. And of course, that grows over time and working together. But I think people are basically trusting. And we saw that with the media coming in. If the media spoke with us in the community of Cordova first, the articles tended to be spun in favor of our story. If the media spoke with Exxon people first, and then came to us, we would find ourselves having to disprove what Exxon had already said, instead of just being able to tell our own story. And the stories were always spun toward Exxon. So I think it’s a game of media capture. I think these big corporations — I’m not going to limit it to Exxon — I think all these big corporations have the public relations angle completely down, a tool that they use to control damage and ultimately to minimize liability in court.

BuzzFlash: On the trust issue, I wanted to ask if you think the majority of Cordovans have permanently lost their trust in government, industry and the judiciary through this process.

Riki Ott: I think yes. I mean, I’m just flashing over 20 years. I’ve heard in our town, “Don’t expect us to trust you because we’ve lost all trust.” And I know we haven’t got it back, and here’s why. The Prince William Sound Regional Citizen Oversight Council was created through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. That gave us citizens the opportunity to work with the industry and the government very consistently, ever since it was created in 1991.

It has been one constant fight for 20 years. The industry has consistently tried to minimize expenditures to protect Prince William Sound. And we saw the inside workings of this by being with the Citizen Oversight Council. It’s always about money — always. For example: the fights over tractor tugs. Tractor tugs are much more efficient, state-of-the-art tugs than the more conventional push-me, pull-you tug. Tractor tugs can push and pull with equal ease in 360 degrees. They were in use in England before the [Exxon Valdez] oil spill. And we had to fight to get them over in Prince William Sound.

And the disabled tanker towing study! The industry maintained, “Oh, we have a towing package. It works.” And we said, “Prove it.” And it didn’t work. These big supertankers weren’t supposed to come into the Sound. It was one of the early promises from the 1970s. And here we were: a supertanker. And the towing packages were totally insufficient. There was this big fight to get towing packages that actually worked.

The classic example is the double-hull tankers. The Oil Pollution Act was a compromise, of course, as all federal legislation is. One of the compromises was that citizens wanted a much shorter window; we wanted double-hull tankers now. They’re not due until 2015, [according to the The Oil Pollution Act] passed in 1990. So that was a 25-year window. That’s a lot of presidential administrations and a lot of opportunity for the industry to try to undermine that legislation. And that’s exactly what they tried to do several times. And it was only through the Citizen Oversight Council alerting the rest of us to this and going and testifying in Congress, that we still to this day have that standard intact. And the industry is slowly complying. Exxon, of course, is the last company to comply.

BuzzFlash: Continuing on this idea of community groups, I have heard some criticism from Cordovans of community groups that were originally created to represent the people, such as the Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU) and the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council. I’m wondering if this sort of schism is a product of actual mismanagement and betrayal on the part of these groups, or it’s more of a product of a community breakdown and a mutual mistrust.

Riki Ott: Well, there are two different reasons for each group. Let me take them separately.

BuzzFlash: Okay, great.

Riki Ott: Cordova District Fishermen United is our own community organization. And there’s traditionally been a very high level of trust with Cordova District Fishermen United. The town has pretty much always rallied in support.

After the spill, Exxon created this artificial situation where you had to have a contract [to help clean up]. Initially, people volunteered to go out on the cleanup. They just went; there was a lot of solidarity. Then, there was the issue of money. And with Exxon, it was a lot of money. People in town — and I’m definitely one of them — still feel that this whole clean up operation was tactically a divisive move for [Exxon] to divide the community against itself, because that is certainly what it did. Exxon had these contracts and you could only take your boat out on the clean up if you had a contract. The contracts were run through Cordova District Fishermen United.

I didn’t contract my boat; I kind of stayed out of that. I was on the board of CDFU at the time. There was a lot of hostility. There were a lot of charges of bribery and who gets a contract, who doesn’t. It was just horrible.

The Shame Pole is a great example. [The Shame Pole is a totem pole dedicated to Exxon] that was carved by Mike Webber, an Eyak Native fellow, on the 18th memorial of the spill. It has dollar signs in the oil spill, spilling out of the Exxon CEO’s mouth. And the dollar signs are painted in the carver’s own blood, representing the “money spill,” as we call it — the cleanup money — that divided the town. Eventually, the cleanup ended. We got over all that. And then people were supporting CDFU again.

The Trustee Council — that was a whole different story. That was created through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the trustees are actually delegated in the legislation. There’s three federal trustees, three state trustees. They are essentially appointed by the governor or by the president, because they’re positions. It’s like the Department of Commerce or the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] person. It’s the Department of Justice for the State of Alaska. So these are not really scientists so much as political designates. And that changes, depending on the political philosophy of the president or the Alaska state governor. So it’s flipped and flopped depending on whether, frankly, there were Republicans or Democrats in charge.

Extremely luckily, we had President Clinton for eight years. At the same time, [we had Alaska] Governor Tony Knowles. These were Democratic regimes and they were interested in doing restorative studies that analyzed the impact of long-term effects of oil. I think if we had had a Republican regime, that wouldn’t have happened. I say that because at the closure of these two — Knowles and Clinton — we did have Republicans coming in. And they immediately tried to undo this block of eight years of pretty solid science that confirms long-term effects of Exxon’s spill on the Prince William Sound environment and the environment of the Gulf of Alaska.

So the public was totally supportive of the Trustee Council when we felt like the science that was coming out was reflecting the reality of what we were seeing in Prince William Sound. And then the Bush folks came in and starting declaring the species were recovered with the wave of a wand, and they simply weren’t. We took issue and had letters and got things de-listed again that were listed as recovering. So politics and science really should not mix is the upshot of all that.

BuzzFlash: I’m wondering if you see that shift in the way we think of oil as a harmful substance, which did largely come out of that kind of science, as instrumental in the entire global climate change debate?

Riki Ott: Yes, absolutely that plays into climate change. I think this is the sort of Achilles’ heel of the whole oil spill for the oil industry itself, because certainly they never expected to have this science pop out that shows that oil is much more toxic than we thought. And the only reason this science did pop out was this eight years of pretty solid studies that were able to explore outside the box. The thinking at the time in the 1970s was that oil just wasn’t that toxic. And that’s what framed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. And that’s the science that we entered the oil spill with. Instead we had fish runs collapsing, the Sound going dead on us; it’s a dead zone.

When the scientists actually had the freedom to look — was it oil? Was it food? Was it temperature change? What exactly caused this collapse of the Prince William Sound ecosystem? Then they were able to definitively pin it on very low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a fraction of oil, which was not considered toxic in the 1970s for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. So this opened up a whole Pandora’s box for the oil industry. And Exxon still to this day is fighting. They just had another paper that half a dozen people in Cordova sent to me, saying, “Riki, write something!”

Still to this day, Exxon is liable for this because of the reopener clause in the 1991 [reauthorization of the] Clean Water Act. All these accidents that happened under the Clean Water Act — there’s always a reopener clause. And the reopener clause states: At some distant point in the future, if there is unanticipated harm from when we settled for damages, then this settlement can be reopened to accommodate and mitigate the long-term harm. And there is the sunset clause, which in our case was 2006. Well, by then, we had plenty of information that oil had caused the long-term harm and delayed recovery for Prince William Sound. We were the first successful case that actually was reopened. The Department of Justice and the state of Alaska asked for $92 million more to mitigate harm to the beaches. This is a contractual obligation, and it runs out in six years. So we have until Sept. 1, 2012 to actually get this money from Exxon.

Exxon has two options. They can either pay, which they have not done, or they can go to court. And they don’t get to initiate going to court. It has to be the state and the federal government. Apparently this has slipped by everybody’s radar screen, and it needs to be elevated again. We want the State of Alaska and this new Department of Justice to go and get this money from Exxon.

We had oil spill on our beaches. And now we believe we have a way of cleaning it up that’s not intrusive. This is with Paul Stamets — the mushroom guy, as he’s known in the Pacific Northwest. He has demonstrated with other oil spills that his microrhyzae — basically fungus — consume and degrade and break down oil much faster than bacteria in cold climates with this Prudhoe Bay crude. And much faster than the chemicals that Exxon has tried to use in the past. So we have a way to do this and all we have is a reluctant company.

What Exxon has done parallels for me with the spill science and with Exxon’s climate change denial. The spill science shows that oil harms wildlife at an extremely low level. The climate science shows that burning fossil fuels harms the planet at extraordinary low levels: just using our cars every day and our power plants. All of this adds up. Exxon, as we know, funded a right-wing think tank to deny global climate change.┬áThen there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Exxon was sort of stuck by itself. So it funded hundreds of millions of dollars of studies to show that oil does not cause long-term harm. It’s just wrong and it all adds up to the oil industry’s cause that we need to continue drilling.

I always think of the old commercial whaling crews down in the Antarctic and up in the Arctic. When their industry was dying, did they lobby Congress and put up this great hue and cry? Or did they just go find some other job? I think we’re in this transition of industries, and the oil industry’s fighting it tooth and nail.

BuzzFlash: Definitely. Well, I enjoyed reading at the end of the book about your proposed changes to the American judicial system. You warn that environmental changes and pollution will increase the chances of more man-made disasters and litigation, like what happened with Exxon Valdez, in the near future. So I’m wondering: How do you create and sustain the political will to change such an entrenched system when we’re in the midst of this global financial and environmental crisis?

Riki Ott: Actually what I’m seeing is a huge opportunity here to change everything at once, because everything is so broken and so interconnected that if you just try to fix one piece of it, over time it will just revert back to being broken again because the whole system is what’s broken. When I talk with university students, I challenge them to think about envisioning something big and new that will work, and dream all aspects of it. Because that’s what we’ve got to fix. Instead of thinking of yourself as the victims coming in when everything’s broken and falling apart, and there’s not enough, and there’s going to be huge fights — what if you chose to believe, as some cultures do, that you get to choose when you come in? And you chose now because you want to be a problem-solver. What if you thought of yourself in that way instead? What would you do differently tomorrow if you believed that you chose to come in now? And then do it.

I think what we’re not seeing in the national media are the positive things that are happening. They are happening everywhere, from people’s basements with fourth-grade experiments with the kids — you know, biodiesel conversion, making oil work, waste food oil; to high school where there’s science projects on solar and wind; to universities where they’ve got architects, and kids are helping with the LEED design buildings, the green architecture. The mayors, like Seattle just voluntarily doing this Kyoto protocol, and getting other cities on board, to state compacts, like what is happening the Northeast where a coalition of states got together and said, “Well, we’re going to do Kyoto protocol.” This is happening, and I think it’s not slacking off, even if we have cheap oil right in this instant.

Certainly the Wall Street debacle sensitized everyone to corporations having too much control over our lives. I think we’re going to see the 1931 kind of attitude, where people in general aren’t going to go back to trusting these big institutions again, even if the federal government bails them out.

What I’m seeing in my travels is people are wanting self-reliant communities. A large part of this is driven by this lack of trust. Part of this came from the Bush Administration, where he was pressing oil at the same time as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was saying, “Hey, global climate change is happening.” People started to do their own get-off-oil kick, which I just talked about. But people also started building self-reliance in other ways. The whole organic food movement, and eat within 100 miles, is all about building self-reliant communities.

I think people are going to start not believing in Wall Street, going back to credit unions and community banks and just building a structure from the ground up again. And I think this will [change] eventually, when enough people get burned. The legal system might take a little bit longer. But I think when we start having problems with climate change, and enough people get burned, that the legal structure will change too. And I definitely think the Supreme Court decision with the Exxon Valdez case sets precedent for other communities in terms of being vulnerable to industry greed. That is definitely a wedge that I’m going to use to try to start initiating some of these changes to the legal system.

BuzzFlash: Well, I’ve got to admit you made me feel a lot better about it now. It’s a very great note, I think, to end on. Reading Not One Drop, I was a little discouraged because I thought, “It’s such a huge problem.” But the way you’ve described it, you make me feel a lot more hopeful.

Riki Ott: That’s what I feel on book tour, and this is definitely not how I expected to feel. I’ve done over 26 states now, and I’m seeing there’s a whole grassroots effort coming up. People want to pass a sustainable future — a living planet — on to their kids. That crosses red and blue. And the indigenous people call it the “Well, duh.” People are saying, “Well, how are we going to do that?” Because it’s not coming from the top down, and people really are rolling up their sleeves. I certainly came back a lot more hopeful than when I first launched in 2005. I just kept thinking, “Man, if we just get somebody from the top who will help, I think we can still turn things around.”

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Meg White.

* * *


About Riki Ott

Riki Ott’s Huffington Post blog.

Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, by Riki Ott, available at the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

Ott is also the author of Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Artists for Nature in Alaska’s Copper River Delta.

You can find out more on the subject in our series on the Exxon Valdez disaster.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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