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Riki Ott: These Big Corporations Prey on People’s Trust

Riki Ott appeared today on BuzzFlash.com in an interview with Meg White. They speak about the lasting devastation the Exxon Valdez oil spill has had on the people along the Prince William Sound. Often, when we talk about the 20-year-old disaster, we focus too closely on the environmental devastation and forget to consider that thousands upon thousands of people’s lives were destroyed in the course of a morning. Exxon never made ammends, and in fact, only intensified the trauma by dragging the victims through a two-decade court battle for the future that Exxon had stolen from them.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

BuzzFlash: It almost seems like Exxon learned the art of deception in its experience in Cordova and in Alaska, and that the whole disaster almost created an opportunity for Exxon to try out this culture of deception that it uses today. Do you think that it worked overall? Do you think that’s an accurate way to portray it?

Riki Ott: Here’s what I’ve actually come to believe, that these big corporations prey on people’s trust. I think people in general are trusting. We were wired to connect with each other. Trust is the basic element of relationships, whether it’s in a marriage, or whether it’s between friends, working together in businesses. Trust is the basic element. And of course, that grows over time and working together. But I think people are basically trusting. And we saw that with the media coming in. If the media spoke with us in the community of Cordova first, the articles tended to be spun in favor of our story. If the media spoke with Exxon people first, and then came to us, we would find ourselves having to disprove what Exxon had already said, instead of just being able to tell our own story. And the stories were always spun toward Exxon. So I think it’s a game of media capture. I think these big corporations — I’m not going to limit it to Exxon — I think all these big corporations have the public relations angle completely down, a tool that they use to control damage and ultimately to minimize liability in court.

BuzzFlash: On the trust issue, I wanted to ask if you think the majority of Cordovans have permanently lost their trust in government, industry and the judiciary through this process.

Riki Ott: I think yes. I mean, I’m just flashing over 20 years. I’ve heard in our town, “Don’t expect us to trust you because we’ve lost all trust.” And I know we haven’t got it back, and here’s why. The Prince William Sound Regional Citizen Oversight Council was created through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. That gave us citizens the opportunity to work with the industry and the government very consistently, ever since it was created in 1991.

It has been one constant fight for 20 years. The industry has consistently tried to minimize expenditures to protect Prince William Sound. And we saw the inside workings of this by being with the Citizen Oversight Council. It’s always about money — always. For example: the fights over tractor tugs. Tractor tugs are much more efficient, state-of-the-art tugs than the more conventional push-me, pull-you tug. Tractor tugs can push and pull with equal ease in 360 degrees. They were in use in England before the [Exxon Valdez] oil spill. And we had to fight to get them over in Prince William Sound.

And the disabled tanker towing study! The industry maintained, “Oh, we have a towing package. It works.” And we said, “Prove it.” And it didn’t work. These big supertankers weren’t supposed to come into the Sound. It was one of the early promises from the 1970s. And here we were: a supertanker. And the towing packages were totally insufficient. There was this big fight to get towing packages that actually worked.

The classic example is the double-hull tankers. The Oil Pollution Act was a compromise, of course, as all federal legislation is. One of the compromises was that citizens wanted a much shorter window; we wanted double-hull tankers now. They’re not due until 2015, [according to the The Oil Pollution Act] passed in 1990. So that was a 25-year window. That’s a lot of presidential administrations and a lot of opportunity for the industry to try to undermine that legislation. And that’s exactly what they tried to do several times. And it was only through the Citizen Oversight Council alerting the rest of us to this and going and testifying in Congress, that we still to this day have that standard intact. And the industry is slowly complying. Exxon, of course, is the last company to comply.

 Read the full interview here.

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