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Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$

Dr. Riki Ott

The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill


As we recognize the 16th anniversary of the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill, and our government officials debate on weather or not to open more lands in Alaska’s artic to oil and gas development, I thought I would take this moment to share with you excerpts from Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, by Dr. Riki Ott, a fisherwoman and environmental biologist from Cordova Alaska. To quote the praise from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “ this book doesn’t just change our views of the Exxon Valdez spill; it forces us to dramatically reassess the risks from petroleum and the enormous costs that industry is imposing on our health and planet.” To purchase a copy of this book, please go to


“BANG! BANG! BANG! I shoot up, heart beating wildly. It is 7:15a.m. on 24 March 1989. Someone is pounding on the front door! I race downstairs, barefoot in my nightgown, and throw open the door to find Jack Lamb, acting president of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU).


“How long will it take you to get dressed?”


“Five minutes. Why?”


“We’ve had the Big One. There’s a tanker aground on Bligh Reef. It’s lost ten million gallons, but there’s four times that still on board.”


We stare into each other’s eyes for a moment, then I gaze past him up Orca Inlet and across Hawkins Island to the northwest. For an instant my mind goes blank, then a tidal wave of emotion floods back in – denial, a hot white flame of anger, a surge of adrenaline, a cascade of ideas.


“I’ll get dresses. You start a fire.” In ten minutes, we are headed to the CDFU office. During the day, the fire slowly burned out.  It would be a week-and a lifetime-before I returned.”

“On 24 March 1989 the Exxon Valdez gutted her hull on Bligh Reef, spilling about 30 million gallons of crude oil – 56 percent of her cargo – into Prince William Sound, according to papers on file with an investigation conducted by the State of Alaska. After two days of calm weather, a fierce storm swept the oil through the Sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska. Ultimately over 3,200 miles of Alaska’s shorelines were oiled from the Sound, past the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, to parts of the Alaska Peninsula some 1,200 miles distant from Bligh Reef. A spill of similar magnitude

on the East Coast would have oiled shores from New York to Cape Canaveral, Florida.”


“The runaway slick left devastation in its wake. Exxon’s oil killed more wildlife than any other oil spill in the world – ever. Among the victims were thousands of marine mammals – sea otters, seals, and even orcas – and hundreds of thousands of marine birds – murres, marbled murrelets, harlequin ducks, scoters, buffleheads, goldeneyes, cormorants, and others. Untold millions of salmon and herring were killed by an invisible cloud of dissolved and dispersed oil that spread underwater, shadowing the path of the surface slick and hanging offshore from oiled beaches in the Sound.”


“The killing did not stop with the oil. Exxon’s shoreline cleanup continued to kill plant and animal life that had survived the initial oiling. The pressurized hot water wash laid bare huge swathes of beaches, normally covered with rich communities of sea plants and animals.”


“The killing did not stop in 1989. Nearly half of the spilled oil stranded on beaches in the central and southwest regions of Prince William Sound during a fierce three-day storm. This oil hit the beaches with such a force and in such quantity that relatively fresh oil was buried in the intertidal zone under mussel beds and dense forests of seaweed. Thick surface oil lay for months in bays and small fjords of the Sound, repeatedly oiling beaches with each tidal cycle.”

“By 1990, the surface oil had hardened into tarry mats and thick encrustations that posed little threat to wildlife. But the buried oil largely unnoticed, retained much of its toxicity. As this buried oil spread and redistributed over time, it leached poisons that were picked up by sea life that lived, spawned, or foraged in the shallow intertidal zone and

near shore seas. Trapped liquid oil continued killing wildlife for years after the spill.”


“Exxon waged a highly publicized media campaign, barraging the public with messages that Prince William Sound had recovered rapidly and everything was back to normal in the wake of the spill (Matthews 1993). Gradually, Exxon’s story became the popular understanding of the spill, the cleanup, and the biological effects of this tragedy. … The popular version was – and still is –Exxon’s story.”


“In pursuing the story [“Sound Truth”] of the effects of Exxon’s oil on the Sound sea life, I uncovered the story of pervasive heath problems suffered by cleanup workers. Sick wildlife and sick workers: together these two stories are perfect mirrors of the harmful effects from oil.”


“I believe that the curtain is starting to fall on the Age of Oil. Slow learners though we may be…more and more people realize that we are all in harm’s way. … [The] “Hydrocarbon Man,” Woman, and Child pay for oil spills and pipeline explosions with loss of income, loss of quality of life, and loss of life itself, while the corporations profit obscenely. Our system fails to mete out justice to corporate polluters. Our coastal sea life slowly sickens and disappears from low level of contaminates, oil among others, which dribble into our ocean. Our planet coughs and sputters from the fossil fuel-driven effects of global warming, spewing forth intense storms in strange places and swelling her seas with fresh water from melting polar icecaps.”


“Climbing a mountain begins with taking the first steps. I invite you to join the pilgrims who have already started to climb this mountain of corporate greed and fear. Step one: do not purchase any ExxonMobil gas or other products, including stock – and do not take this action out of anger or revenge, but because you wish to make other choices that match your values. Step two: write a letter to the President and your congressional delegation in support of opening the 1991 civil settlement to claim $100 million for education on long-term effects of oil. Write another letter in support of a congressional investigation of the human health effects of Exxon’s cleanup on workers. Your letters WILL make a difference. Step three; walk, bike, car-pool, or pledge that your next car will be a hybrid or some alternative that is completely free of fossil fuels – and purchase it soon!”


“If the collective will of the people makes these conscious choices, I have no doubt that together – the people, nations, and corporate businesses – we will scale the mountain before us. It is time to turn the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill into a starting place for the emergence of a revitalized, empowered democracy.”

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