Federal authorities have banned commercial and recreational fishing in a large stretch of water in the Gulf of Mexico due to the massive oil spill caused by a BP-operated rig that exploded nearly two weeks ago. An estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day is pouring into the Gulf in what might turn out to be the worst industrial environmental disaster in US history. We speak with Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and a former commercial salmon fisherma’am from Alaska who experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama visited southeastern Louisiana Sunday to view the fragile coastline threatened by the oil gushing out of a destroyed BP-operated rig in the Gulf of Mexico and assess the response to the crisis. Speaking in the town of Venice, he described the massive oil spill as a, quote, "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," but vowed to do whatever it takes to stop the oil from devastating the environment and economy of the Gulf states. He reiterated that oil giant BP bore the primary responsibility for the expanding slick.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill. But as president of the United States, I’m going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues, and we will spare no resource to clean up whatever damage is caused. And while there will be time to fully investigate what happened on that rig and hold responsible parties accountable, our focus now is on a fully coordinated, relentless response effort to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the Gulf.
ANJALI KAMAT: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the slick appears likely to move toward the Alabama and Florida coasts and engulf the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana’s southeast tip.
Meanwhile, fishing has been suspended across a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds. Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, described the situation.
LARRY SCHWEIGER: This region is being hammered at this moment by the huge oil spill, and we’re talking about thousands of yards of booms and literally miles upon miles of oil edge that are not going to be controlled. It’s clear that we’re heading for a serious, if not a catastrophic, loss of great habitat, of contamination that will last for decades.
ANJALI KAMAT: Local fishermen in Louisiana say the disaster will take a toll on their livelihoods.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What our people live on — we have always — fish, shrimp, trolling season, crab. Our seafood industry is major. And that has affected our industry tremendously.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s already been nearly two weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. And on Sunday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar admitted that an ultimate solution could take another ninety days, calling it a, quote, "very grave scenario." But amidst criticism of the slow response of both the government and BP, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday any comparison between the ruptured BP oil well and the Bush administration’s response to Katrina is, quote, "a total mischaracterization."
Well, for more on the oil spill, we’re joined now from Denver, Colorado by a marine toxicologist specializing in oil pollution, Riki Ott. She’s also a former commercial salmon fisherma’am from Alaska and experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She’s the author of two books on the spill, the latest Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
Riki Ott, welcome to Democracy Now! First comment on the enormity of this disaster. And then, what needs to be done?
RIKI OTT: It’s mind-boggling that the industry knowingly puts environment, entire communities, entire other industries, like fishing industries, at risk by really taking risks with reducing environmental protections, weakening environmental regulation, weakening — getting exemptions to laws. And then, when something like this happens, it’s like, "Oh, my, you know, how did this happen?" So I think we have more than an oil slick out of control; we also have these big corporations out of control.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Riki —-
RIKI OTT: And what can be done, I think -— well, the reason I’m — go ahead.
ANJALI KAMAT: I was just going to ask you — you have studied the Exxon Valdez spill extensively. What are the lessons we can learn from that?
RIKI OTT: This is why I’m coming down tomorrow, because it’s not just about the environment. It’s about the people, too. And I remember sitting in our community and just not knowing, our whole community not knowing. How long was this going to take? What was going to happen to us? Would it be just this year where our income would be impacted? Would it be years? We had no idea. And the not knowing was agonizing. It was agonizing.
So, what we learned from this was that it’s not — the killing does not stop in 1989 — well, for us, in 1989. The killing will not stop in 2010. The cloud of oil that is dispersed as dissolved droplets under the giant slick, this is killing everything in the water column. So, clams, they all have a component that a life — part of their life cycle is in the water column. Shrimp in the water column, the eggs, the young larvae — and all this is being wiped out. So it’s not just a fishery that’s closed this year. It will be closed probably for the next couple years, because where will be the shrimp that should have been born this year and survived and become adults? I mean, they just probably will not manifest. They won’t show up. They won’t survive. So, we found the killing did not stop. And we didn’t anticipate that. And neither did the industry.
And Exxon did everything it could to reduce its liability. Exxon never paid for long-term damages. It only paid for short-term damages. So this is really something to watch out for. I mean, it’s one thing to say we’re going to hold — the President, listening to him say we’re going to hold BP accountable to our laws. Our laws are pretty darn weak. For starters, they’re only going to protect directly damaged parties. So fishermen, I’m sorry, but in our community, as I’m sure down in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, the fishermen buy groceries, go out to restaurants, put children in school, buy clothes. If the fishermen don’t have money, where — it damages all the shoreside industry, as well. So there’s collateral damage to businesses that won’t necessarily be compensated under the law. And unfortunately, the Exxon Valdez case set precedent in the Supreme Court that these big companies don’t have to pay much on the issue of punitive damage. It got knocked way down. So it’s more like a business expense. These big companies will go on making business, drilling for oil, and, you know, fishermen are going to go bankrupt. That’s certainly what we saw in Cordova.
AMY GOODMAN: Riki Ott, I wanted to ask you about this issue of Halliburton, investigators delving into the causes of the massive Gulf oil spill, examining the role of Halliburton, the giant energy services company that we know so well from places like Iraq, that was responsible for cementing the deepwater drill hole. Can you talk about what that means, the fact that they had just finished doing this?
RIKI OTT: I can talk a little bit more broadly about Halliburton. I have been working widely on helping communities try to transition off oil and gas. And what I’ve discovered in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, is this coal bed methane fracking. And actually Halliburton invented fracking, and Halliburton also got an exemption, got an exemption, to the US Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s called the Halliburton exemption. So I think — I’m encouraging the news media to look really more broadly at this corporate tendency to say, "Oh, well, these little environmental protection laws, these laws that protect public safety, worker safety, public health, they’re in our way, so we’ll just get exemptions to them." I think we need to look at what the industry has done, the fossil fuel industry, coal, oil, gas, in terms of exemptions to the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Act, US Safe Drinking Water Act. You’ll find it’s just riddled with exemptions.
And even more scary, as more oil dumps into the ocean, we are going to see more money dumped into our political campaigns, because of the Citizens United case. So I’m really concerned that these big corporations are just going to buy off our politicians, buy off the judges, and it will be business as usual. It’s really time to end this corporate rule and legalize democracy. The people need to rule. I encourage people to go take a look at our website movetoamend.org. That’s our national grassroots coalition to legalize democracy: movetoamend.org.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Riki Ott, finally, can you talk about the impact on health workers — on cleanup workers, the health impact of breathing oil vapors on cleanup workers?
RIKI OTT: That is a huge problem, and it’s not just the cleanup workers. I’ve had my friends email me from New Orleans and say it smells like a big gas — worse than a gas station right now. And this is not a good thing. The classic symptoms of overexposure to crude oil fumes are — is headache, nausea, dizziness, and something that looks like a cold or flu-like symptoms. We called it the Valdez crud in Alaska, and I’m very sure that we’re going to see this, not only with the cleanup workers, but also just in the communities.
Exxon Valdez, we saw this phenomenon. Exxon got away with not reporting cleanup workers’ health problems. There were over 6,722 workers who reported upper respiratory illnesses, I discovered in toxic tort lawsuits. And there is an exemption to the Occupational Safety and Health Act that says these industries don’t have to report colds and flu. So, instantly, all this coughing and these cold and flu-like symptoms become colds and flu instead of probably what it really is, which is chemical-induced illnesses, work-related. So we really need to be — we need to close that loophole in OSHA.
And this is — oil spill cleanups are considered hazardous waste cleanups under OSHA regulations. Workers should be wearing full face protection. They should have what’s called HAZWOPER training, hazardous waste emergency — operator emergency response training. This is like forty hours of training. This is serious. And it’s not just a headache and a little cough now. Your body gets overwhelmed by these chemicals. You go home, and you don’t get better. If it’s a cold or flu, you get better. But I have had cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez, who I am still in touch with, tell me, "You know, I thought I had the Valdez crud back to 1989. I didn’t think I would have it for fourteen years or twenty years." We’re talking about people who are left untreated. They are disabled, 100 percent disabled. Who’s paying for that? Taxpayers, not Exxon. We’re talking about people who have died.
AMY GOODMAN: Riki Ott, I wanted to — I was just looking at a paper in Alabama called the Press-Register, and it has a piece with the headline "BP Told to Stop Circulating Settlement Agreements with Coastal Alabamians." And it says, "Alabama Attorney General Troy King said [...] that he has told representatives of BP [...] they should stop circulating [these] settlement agreements. The agreements, King said, essentially require that people give up the right to sue in exchange for payment of up to $5,000." Is this something that sounds familiar to you?
RIKI OTT: This whole oil spill, or oil leak — I’m going to call it an oil leak, because we don’t know how much is going to spill. This is like déjà vu. Exxon came to our community and, similarly, all the other twenty-two oiled communities in Alaska with a similar paper asking people to waive their rights to sue. The judge upheld this. Anybody who signs that paper is giving away probably hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially. Potentially. As we know in Exxon Valdez, that our case got knocked way back down, and people recovered about seven to ten percent of what they actually lost. So, absolutely do not sign that.
I am planning on spending the next three weeks down in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area. I hope to be meeting with ordinary people, circles of people, having peer listening circles. These were developed by Dr. Steve Picou, who’s in Mobile, Alabama, and his colleague Dr. Duane Gill, and in conjunction with the people of Cordova and the Alaskan Native community. And this was found to be the most beneficial to alleviate some of the stress from the spill, were these peer listening circles. And it’s just people getting together and talking about their agony and talking about the fear and what are we going to do. What are we going to do? Don’t depend on BP to help you. Don’t depend on the federal government. Don’t give your power away to the state of Alaska. The people need to get together and figure out, how are — what are we going to do to make our — put our lives back together?
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly — Riki Ott, interestingly, BP may not be liable for more than $75 million. Under the law called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, operators of the offshore rig face no more than $75 million in liability for the damages that might be claimed by individuals, companies or the government, although they are responsible for the cost of containing and cleaning up the spill.
RIKI OTT: This will be the first time that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 is really put to test. So, we’re kind of a little bit in new water here, but for what we know is that the industry does everything it can to limit its liability. And I’m sure that this happened also under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. So we’ll see how this plays out. But the people should not count — even though the President is saying, "We will make sure BP pays," BP is going to pay to the extent that it is made to pay by law. And these big corporations, they help write our laws, and they help elect our Congress people that pass the laws. So we’re kind of playing on a very stacked deck.
AMY GOODMAN: Riki Ott, we want to thank you for being with us, and we’re going to check back with you as you travel through the Gulf. Riki Ott is headed there today or tomorrow. Riki Ott, marine toxicologist and former salmon fisherma’am, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Spill.