Sixteen years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the environment of Prince William Sound has not fully recovered and people who worked to clean it up are still plagued by illness, the author of a recently released book on the subject told an audience at The Community Library on Thursday.
Riki Ott, author of "Sound Truth and Corporate Myths: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill," spoke at the Ketchum library's 11th annual Earth Day lecture.
After earning a doctorate in marine toxicology from the University of Washington, Ott moved to Codova, Ala., in 1985 and began work as a fisherman. Four years later, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil along 3,200 miles of Alaska's coast.
"That's when I decided to use my academic training to explain what happened in my own backyard," she said.
Ott said that despite a massive cleanup effort, populations of marine wildlife have still not recovered from the spill, due to widespread puddles of oil that remain about six inches below the surface of beaches and the seafloor.
"That's what the scientists who didn't take Exxon's money are discovering," she said.
Ott said invertebrates are still absorbing oil and passing it up the food chain, and research has contradicted Exxon's claim that sea otters are thriving.
"The sea otters are having babies, but the babies aren't surviving," she said. "Exxon didn't ask that question. They just asked whether sea otters are having babies."
Ott said the young otters get into the oil when digging out shellfish. She said coastal river otters that hunt in the sea are also affected when oil in their systems interferes with the amount of oxygen their blood can carry. Without enough oxygen, the otters cannot stay under water long enough to catch fish.
Ott said scientists have also discovered that some harlequin ducks, living at the northern limit of their range, are unable to survive winter because of the extra energy required to break down oil that is still getting into their bodies.
As a result of the spill, the area's pink salmon fishery collapsed in 1992. In 1993, the herring fishery collapsed, and has been closed since, affecting birds and other animals that eat them. Ott said she happened to be attending a conference in Atlanta, sponsored by Exxon and featuring company scientists, when she received a phone call about the sudden demise of the herring run. She said she spoke up at the conference to ask about the decline's possible relationship to the oil spill, but found that her microphone had suddenly been cut off.
Ott charged that Exxon also tried to keep secret the total amount of oil spilled, which she said was between 30 million and 36 million gallons, not the 11 million gallons reported in the press at the time. She said it took six years to force the state government to release that information to the public.
"By then, the press is long gone," she said.
Ott said her first involvement with the spill came when cleanup workers came to her with health complaints shortly after the work began.
"I tried to get to the bottom of that," she said. "It took me 12 years."
Ott said tracking of the workers has showed that about one-third have long-term respiratory illnesses. Liver, kidney, blood and immune system disorders have also been prominent, she said.
Ott said health effects have been caused both by the oil mist the workers were breathing and by toxic, petroleum-based chemicals used to disperse the oil.
"Our government does not set safety standards realistically," she said.
Ott emphasized that lessons learned from the spill should be used to avoid similar tragedies and to design guidelines to limit oil pollution throughout the environment. She charged that Exxon is still resisting outfitting its tankers with double hulls. A deadline of 2015 set by federal law will require them to do so.
She said studies of the effects of the spill have shown that oil is toxic in much smaller quantities than had been believed. She said the average level of petrochemical pollution in U.S. rivers is close to the level of toxicity. The National Research Council, she said, found that most of that is airborne pollutants from burning fossil fuels.
Ott urged listeners to take steps in their own lives to reduce pollution, including:
· Buying gas from oil companies that use double-hulled tankers, such as Conoco.
· Reducing electricity use.
· Buying organically grown food. (Fertilizer and pesticides are made from petroleum.)
· Using four-stroke instead of two-stroke engines. She said two-stroke engines put as much oil into the environment as tanker spills have.
· Buying hybrid, cleaner-energy cars.
A second serious oil spill, Ott said, could be just as damaging as the Exxon Valdez spill.
"If there is another oil spill, we will see complete chaos again, because there is no standard way to clean up these spills," she said.
"Sound Truth and Corporate Myths" is available at Chapter One Bookstore and at The Community Library.