Alaska marine biologist makes an impassioned case against oil at all costs
By SILJA J.A. TALVI
SPECIAL TO THE P-I
Dr. Riki Ott has a special response to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's ardent push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
From her hometown in Cordova, Ott is sending the former vice presidential nominee a copy of her book, "Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill" (Chelsea Green Publishing, 327 pages, $21.95).
In the same package, Ott will include several rocks from Prince William Sound. Rocks covered with oil. The same oil that bled out of the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989, gushing its black poison into a pristine Alaskan landscape. Although nearly 20 years have passed since the largest oil spill in U.S. history, there are still at least 55 tons of oil buried in Prince William Sound, but there's a noticeable absence of political sloganeering on this front.
That's why Ott, a marine biologist who earned her doctorate at the University of Washington, has come up with the "Why It's Not OK To Drill, Baby, Drill Tour," celebrating the release of her book. The visionary environmental leader and self-described "fisherm'am" talked to the P-I.
P-I: What do people who live around Puget Sound have in common with you who live around Prince William Sound in Alaska?
OTT: Anybody who lives on such a beautiful shoreline should have the same heart- and soul-level connection to the environment around you. ... Up in Cordova, we feel a strong connection to the Puget Sound. ... We are very linked as the fishermen, native people, recreational users of water bodies. We are the ones who bear the brunt of these industrial accidents.
What were you doing when you first realized that Exxon Valdez had begun to spill into Prince William Sound?
I had been asked the night before to give a teleconference to the community of Valdez ... on the positive and negative effects of the oil industry they depend on for their livelihoods. This was 1989, and (the local government in) Valdez was beginning to realize that an oil spill was possible despite what the corporations said, and that such a spill would be devastating. ... I was talking to them on behalf of fishermen, on behalf of people who made a living from the land and the water ... (Ott was a leader of Cordova District Fishermen United).
At 9:16 p.m., in the middle of my talk, Exxon Valdez -- fully loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil -- took off from the tanker terminal. After the talk, I went home ... and went to sleep.
By 5:30 a.m., over 10 million gallons had already escaped into the sea. At 7 a.m., Jack (Lamb, the acting president of CDFU), came to my door to tell me we had had "the Big One." We just scrambled into disaster mode.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court slashed the initial $5 billion that Exxon was to pay to $507 million. How do the oil spill survivors feel about this?
This is a crucial question for our times right now, and not just for us in Cordova and Alaska, but for the world. What is environmentally sound development? We've got to get to the point where our human rights count, our lives count, and our little communities count more than corporate profits. How is it that corporations like Exxon, using our land and labor, are still able to shove injured communities under the carpet and roll right on with their profit-making machine while we're committing suicide, going out of business, watching our fish die, and losing our homes?
You write in "Not One Drop" that the damage and loss caused by the oil spill was far more toxic than the obvious damage to the environment and the local economy. You write of "invisible losses." Can you elaborate?
The truth is that Cordova gutted itself after the spill, especially after our fish runs collapsed in '92 and '93. The stress manifested itself in all manner of horrible things, including substance abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, depression, PTSD, isolation, divorce and suicide.
Do you feel like you're finally recovering?
Yes. We've made amazing progress in rebuilding and helping each other. ... Also, we, like other people, were duped too long into believing that it's all about making money. ... What corporations are doing, the way they're doing it, (trashes) lifestyles, cultures and ecosystems around this planet ... (and) we the people can make it stop. We have to believe in that.