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20 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaskan Coastline Remains Contaminated, Residents Still Struggle for Justice

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Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The Exxon Valdez spilled between 11 and 38 million gallons of crude oil into the fishing waters of Prince William Sound. The spill contaminated more than 1,200 miles of Alaska’s shoreline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals. It also dealt a staggering blow to the residents of local fishing towns, and the effects of the disaster are still being felt today. We speak with Riki Ott, a community activist, marine toxicologist, former commercial salmon fisherma’am and author of two books on the spill. Her latest is Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Spill. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It was March 24th, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef off the coast of Alaska. The ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was legally intoxicated at the time, had surrendered the wheel to his subordinates when it slammed into the reef. This is the distress call he made where he says the ship was “leaking some oil.”

    JOSEPH HAZELWOOD: We’re hard aground, north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef. Evidently, we’re leaking some oil. And we’re going to be here for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: The Exxon Valdez spilled between 11 and 38 million gallons of crude oil into the fishing waters of Prince William Sound. The spill contaminated more than 1,200 miles of Alaska’s shoreline, killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals. It also dealt a staggering blow to the residents of the local fishing towns, and the effects of the disaster are still being felt today.

A report marking the twentieth anniversary of the spill has found oil still persists in the region and, in some places, quote, “is nearly as toxic as it was a few weeks after the spill.” The report was put together by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversaw restoration efforts. It states, quote, “At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.”

And twenty years after the disaster, litigation against Exxon continues to drag on. In 1994, an Alaskan jury found Exxon responsible and ruled the company should pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 33,000 plaintiffs. Exxon appealed. In 2006, the 9th US Circuit Court cut the award of punitive damages in half to $2.5 billion. Then, in a 5-to-3 ruling last June, the Supreme Court cut the amount of punitive damages again and ordered Exxon Mobil to pay just $500 million in punitive damages, one-tenth of the original jury’s ruling. That equates to about four days of Exxon Mobil’s net profits.

Most of the plaintiffs in the suit were from the small Alaskan fishing town of Cordova. Back in 1989, four days after the spill, the residents of Cordova held a town hall meeting to address the cleanup. They invited Exxon spokesperson Don Cornett. This is some of what he said.

    DON CORNETT: You think you feel bad about this? We feel awful about it. But that doesn’t help to tell you that. I’m here to tell you what we’re going to do about it. Another contingency plan was deployed. And that —-

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: That is patently untrue!

    RIKI OTT: May I get a word in here, please? Just a second, folks. Let me -— if you don’t mind. My name is Riki Ott. Why wasn’t that full material loaded onto our fishing boats and taken out?

    DON CORNETT: I think that’s a real good question. I’m not aware of that.

    RIKI OTT: Yeah, right.

    DON CORNETT: First of all, we don’t have any boats. We rented local boats.

    I’m here to tell you what we’re going to do about it. And I’m going to show you what we’re doing about it. And we’re doing the best job that’s ever been done on an oil spill. And watch. Just watch. You have had some good luck, and you don’t realize it. You have Exxon, and we do business straight.

AMY GOODMAN: Exxon spokesperson Don Cornett. The woman you heard question him was Cordova resident Riki Ott. She’s joining us here in our firehouse studio, a community activist, a marine toxicologist, a former commercial salmon fisherma’am and author of two books on the spill. Her latest is Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Spill.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

RIKI OTT: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are you twenty years after the spill? Where were you March 24th, 1989?

RIKI OTT: I was in bed, and I heard this knocking on my door at 7:00 in the morning. And I thought, “What in the world?” because I live half a mile up — had to hike — people actually had to hike in. And I went rushing down, and there was the acting director of the fishermen’s union. And he just said, “We’ve had the big one.” And I knew exactly what he meant.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing then? What was your job?

RIKI OTT: I was working. I was on the board of the fishermen’s union, and I was assigned the oil issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were in Cordova?

RIKI OTT: I was in Cordova.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you see when you went outside?

RIKI OTT: I flew. I had to fly over. It was about seventy miles away. And we flew in this plane, and it was a surreal scene. It was just drop-dead gorgeous, March, sunrise, pink mountains glistening with the sunrise. And all of a sudden we come on the scene, where there’s this red deck of this oil tanker that’s three football fields long; flat, calm water, dark blue; and there’s this inky black stain that’s just stretching with the tide.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do?

RIKI OTT: We did a marine mammal survey right off the bat. We knew it wouldn’t be calm weather very long. We went to Valdez to refuel. And that’s when it hit me. What am I going to do about this? And I remember this question popped in my mind. I know enough to make a difference. Do I care enough? And I decided that, yes, I did care. This was my home. I had lived there for four years already. I had totally fallen in love with the area, the people, the lifestyle. And I decided to step up and make a difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Exxon send people right away to clean up?

RIKI OTT: There were people pouring into Valdez. It was not only Exxon; it was the Coast Guard, the State of Alaska, media from around the country, scientists, the federal government, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration folks. And, I mean, it was clear that, I mean, this was a huge spill. And how were we going to get our voice out in what mattered to us, which were the fish coming back.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a marine toxicologist. Explain the extent of the devastation.


Marine toxicology is the study of pollution, marine pollution. And the fishermen went, “OK, here come all these scientists and experts, and we have Riki.” And I’m like, “Oh, man.”

We were worried that the oil — the killing would not stop in 1989, the scientists. It was a huge devastation. I couldn’t even go out on the beaches initially. I couldn’t take the emotional hit. People came back, the fishermen, and they said they had sat down on what they presumed was rock to cry, and it turned out to be like an oiled sea otter or something that was dying. There were just bodies everywhere. The oil in some of the bays was over three feet thick. You couldn’t even hear the sound of the waves crashing on the shoreline; everything was muted. Some of the oil, with the storm that came through — there was a huge storm that came through, and it just smeared oil up to forty feet high on some of our coastline — was in the trees. I mean, it just took animals out, and it was very, very quiet.


How many animals died?


There was up to half a million seabirds, up to 5,000 sea otters, 300 or so harbor seals, billions of young salmon and herring fish eggs and young juvenile fish. And this was a problem, because it created a delayed impact. I mean, when you take out eggs, you don’t really see the impact until those eggs should have become adults and joined the adult population. That’s what we saw with herring. The crash didn’t happen until 1993, four years later, when the young of the in ’89 failed to materialize.


And so, what happened to the herring industry? How extensive was it?


Well, the salmon and the herring both collapsed, because they were spawned on these beaches, these oiled beaches. Salmon — and this was ’92, ’93. This is delayed, delayed harm. Salmon gradually came back, but herring never did. And this is a huge problem, not only for the ecosystem, but also for the economy. Herring are the main forage fish of the ecosystem of the Prince William Sound, so whales, sea lions, seabirds, everything depends on herring. Without herring, realistically, we can’t expect the sound to recover. And what the scientists are saying now is they have no idea how long it will take for herring to recover.

Meanwhile, the herring fisheries are closed indefinitely. Indefinitely. So the permits that — we pay a limited price for a limited entry permit. It’s kind of like buying a home. It’s a big price, and you take out a debt, a loan, and then you pay it back every year based on your fishing income. And zero — it’s zero income for herring fishermen. So they have incurred a huge debt on this permit. And it’s really the debt that’s eating us alive now —- $300,000. And these permits are worth now about $15,000. I mean -—


The mayor committed suicide?


One of our mayors, right after the spill, he did, and it was 1993, when the fish runs were collapsing. And I literally —- I call that year as bad as it gets. Up to that point, we had been victims. We had been waiting for Exxon to pay us. Exxon promised to make us whole. You know, “You’re lucky you have Exxon.” We hadn’t even gone to court by 1993. We had fish run collapses, bankruptcies, divorces, suicides, you know, domestic violence spikes, substance abuse spikes. The town was just unraveling. And we were waiting for somebody to help us: the State of Alaska, the federal government, the court system, Exxon. Nobody. And -—


There were 33,000 plaintiffs.


There are 32,000 claims, 22,000 plaintiffs. Some people had multiple fishing permits, so salmon fishing, herring fishing, so they would have two claims. And these are people all through twenty-two communities and even as far out as Bristol Bay, because the effect — the price dropped, and there was a price-tainting effect.

So what we did was — the mayor, in our dark hour — it really was our darkest hour — committed suicide. And what we did after the fish run collapse is we did a community-wide act of civil disobedience: we blockaded Valdez Narrows, help up oil tanker traffic. This was to bring attention to Prince William Sound. Everything was collapsing. Seabirds, marine mammals, fish.

And this got the attention of President Clinton, and he said, “What is it that you fishermen want?” And we said, “We don’t want to be fined for civil disobedience. We’re desperate. And also, we want ecosystem studies. We want the scientists to connect the dots between the seabirds, the marine mammals, the fish, the beaches. What happened to Prince William Sound?”

Those ecosystem studies began in 1994, really too late for our trial. They didn’t get completed until about 2004 — I’m talking about published papers now. And those studies show, sure enough, the oil that’s remaining on our beaches is still causing harm.


Let me see. You have brought a little jar. This is Exxon Valdez oil, Smith Island, Prince William Sound. This is one year ago. This is not from —


This is July 2nd last year, not even a year.


This is astounding.


That’s what we think, too. I take children out on the beaches now who were born after the spill and say, “This is your legacy.”


It’s just covered in oil.


The oil specifically is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs. This is actually coming out the tailpipes of our automobiles. It’s the fine soot. That’s kind of the codeword for it. And this is linked with genetic harm, not only in animals, but in people, as well, respiratory harm, reproductive impairment, cancers. Very low levels of this oil, these PAHs, cause incredible harm to people.


You’ve said that is not just an environmental disaster, but a crisis in democracy.


It is a democracy crisis. The question we started asking as our lawsuit went on and on and on, and we didn’t get paid, was how did corporations get this big, where they can manipulate the legal system, the political system? What happened here? And I thought that was a really good question, so I went to answer it. And that became the final chapter of Not One Drop.

And I learned from other people’s work that there’s actually two ways to amend the Constitution. One is formally, through people-made law, which we’ve done twenty-seven times. And one is informally, through what Thomas Jefferson called the engine of consolidation, the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court.

And in 1886, the Supreme Court made sort of a seminal decision, where it granted a railroad corporation equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, which is, of course, a civil rights amendment for due process and equal protection for African American men. For the first forty years after that passed, there were 307 lawsuits brought, nineteen by African American men, the rest by corporations.

And at that point, when the Fourteenth Amendment passed to corporations, this thing called a corporate person arose. And that corporate person, in the eyes of the law, is able to access our rights, human rights, the Bill of Rights, constitutional protections. This is wrong. The word “corporation” never appears in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. This is how we’ve lost freedom of speech. We still — we, as people, still have the First Amendment, but so do corporations. Free speech equals money. Those with more money have more speech. Pretty simple. So I began to understand that the legal system is broken. The election process is broken, all because of the same reason, this corporate personhood.


Where has Sarah Palin, the Governor, stood on the Exxon case?


She has never seen an oiled beach. She’s been protected from that. She stood with the fishermen at the Supreme Court. We had a hearing and talked. But it’s easy to stand with people. It’s a whole ’nother thing to stand against the corporations. And we haven’t seen that. We haven’t seen her claiming — asking Exxon, for example, to pay its $92 million outstanding to clean up that oil that’s still on our beaches.


1994, the jury rules you get $5 billion. What happened?


The jury — it took three weeks to come up with that decision. They didn’t just pull it out of the air. The jury asked the question: how do we holding a corporation this large accountable to people? And the jury decided they had to tie profit to punishment. So, at the time, 1994, that was one year’s net profit for Exxon, $5 billion. And that way, you can hold — you know, big corporation, big punishment.

What the Supreme Court did was they severed that link, and they instead linked profit to damages. Well, there’s a problem. We are still incurring ongoing damages in Prince William Sound, because we’re not fishing herring, for example, so we didn’t get all of our damages. Meanwhile, this one-to-one ratio of punitive to damages sets — is a problem now for everybody in America. We all lost our ability to hold big corporations accountable. This was the threat of unlimited liability. Just the mere threat held these corporations accountable to consumer safety laws, public health laws, environmental protection laws. We’ve lost that now. What we need is Congress to, what I call, overturn this by taking up the issue of punitive damages and asking the question: how do we hold these large corporations accountable?


What kind of relief have you gotten at this point, Riki Ott? What have your communities gotten? What has Exxon Mobil paid out?


We have gotten ten cents on the dollar. Most of my friends have been able to claim — to receive seven to ten percent of what they have actually lost. At this point in time, twenty years later, I even have some friends whose individual share of that punitive damage award is not — it’s less than what they will have to pay their bankruptcy lawyer.


Are you concerned about another spill, twenty years later?


I am forever concerned about another spill. It’s not just US waters. I just came back from South Korea, where they had a spill, a big spill, a year ago. The problem is that the oil companies, despite all the safety precautions — we now will have double hull tankers, and there’s a number of other precautions, mostly all citizen-driven. Oil still gets away. We can’t clean up in ice, so we have no business drilling offshore in the Arctic. Once oil spills on land, we have no way to clean it up. So this whole Alberta tar sands is nonsense. It’s making a big mess. We have no way to clean up these spills.


Where we get much of our oil, the Alberta tar sands.


Well, I think tar sands projects should be shut down. There should be a moratorium worldwide. This is way too energy-intensive. It’s taking water. I mean, come on, water’s got to be more valuable than oil. We’re squandering our gas and our water to get out this sticky substance that emits tons more, three times as much, greenhouse gases than conventional crude.


Riki Ott, I want to thank you for being with us. She has written the book Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. I thank you for joining us.


Thank you. And I’m advocating the Twenty-Eighth Amendment to strip corporations of human rights. Thank you.

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