Author and oil-spill expert Riki Ott answers questions
What work do you do? What’s your job title?
For the past seven years — 1998 to 2004 — I researched and wrote a book, Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Now I’m an author/activist/scientist on book tour.
Titles: Well, I have been bestowed numerous titles by others. For example, “pain in the ass” by Alyeska, the consortium that operates and (supposedly) maintains the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. “Thorn in our side” by Arctic Power, the main lobbying group trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Propagandist” just recently by ExxonMobil in response to Sound Truth. “A saint” by several NGOs. “One Who Climbs High and Sees” by Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last living speaker of the Eyak language. You get the drift — to know me is to title me.
How does it relate to the environment?
Sound Truth is an expose of oil as an extreme human and environmental poison in much the same way that Silent Spring was an expose of DDT.
By summarizing the advances in medical research and wildlife biology — through storytelling about sick oil-spill-cleanup workers and long-term harm to wildlife in Prince William Sound — I advocate that we get off fossil fuels. They are poisons. Burning fossil fuels in our vehicles and power plants contributes over 90 percent of the oil in the air and water at levels that we now know are toxic to life.
I hope Sound Truth and my story help society progress sooner, rather than later, to an energy future based on renewables. And I hope it acts as a catalyst for all the social justice and corporate downsizing and improved public and environmental health that will co-occur with this transition.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
I love to write — especially the kind of writing that inspires others to have hope and take action on large-scale social and environmental issues. I get up early, usually between 4 and 5 a.m. and write until noon, then take the rest of the day “off” to do as Edward Abbey prescribed: Half the day for others; half the day for me. I take my friends’ dogs, and we (five of us) go exploring — hiking, snowshoeing, ice-skating (on frozen terminal lakes of glaciers — yes, it’s wild), berry-picking, bird-watching in spring, mountain biking — up into the mountains, through the rainforest, out onto the Delta. I put up berries and can salmon in the fall. In the evenings, in winter when it’s dark, I read to prep for the next day of writing, or in summer, I go on camping trips and raft trips with human friends. I love to watch the progression of light and plants and birds and wildlife as the seasons paint the landscape with different colors and sounds.
And when I’m out recharging in the wild, I find the ideas flow about how to piece today’s work into tomorrow’s work — and beyond into my life’s work.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In the late ’60s in Wisconsin where I grew up, the robins were falling out of the trees, dying from the neurotoxin DDT. I was 13. This was heavy stuff, to hear the robins fall out of trees — plop, plop — on my walk to school. I asked my dad: Why? He gave me Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Then he and a small group of friends sued the state of Wisconsin. (My dad was one of Aldo Leopold’s last students. Wisconsin was the first state to ban DDT.) I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist like Carson and write books on complex topics, made simple so ordinary people could read them and take action to fix the problem. I set off at 18 to find an ocean.
Thirteen years later, I had a masters and doctorate in marine toxicology, with a specialty in oil pollution from the University of South Carolina and the University of Washington.
Then I decided to take a summer off before I started a career path somewhere, probably as an academic. I spent the summer of 1985 in Alaska crewing on a salmon fishing boat out of Cordova in Prince William Sound. That was 20 years ago. I never left.
Along with a partner, I bought a boat and permit the following year and became a commercial fisherma’am in Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta. We fished salmon from early May through usually September. Starting in fall 1987, I volunteered to help the fishers reduce the chronic air and water pollution problems from the daily operations at the tanker terminal in Port Valdez at the terminus of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. I became a board member of both the local Cordova District Fishermen United and the statewide United Fishermen of Alaska.
After the oil spill in 1989, and after Exxon paraded out its string of endless “doctors,” the fishers pushed me onto the front lines as their “doctor.” (It didn’t take much pushing.) I helped draft legislation for what became the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, testified, and talked with press while Exxon conducted its “cleanup” that summer.
I served the commercial fishing and environmental communities in winter/spring of 1990 through 1992 as a volunteer lobbyist in Juneau, Alaska, working to strengthen and pass strong oil-spill prevention and response laws. Alaska now has some of the strongest laws on paper. (Enforcement is another story.)
When the fish runs collapsed in Prince William Sound in 1992 and 1993, I sold out of the fishery to start problem-solving in my own backyard. I formed three nonprofit organizations to deal with the lingering social, economic, and environmental harm from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (all of which Exxon says do not exist). Check ’em out: Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, Copper River Watershed Project, and Oiled Regions of Alaska Foundation.
The first one, Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, was formed when three of us pooled our settlement money from an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the seven oil company owners of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System and the security firm Wackenhut for tapping our phones. But I digress …
I stepped down as founding director of the Copper River Watershed Project in April 1998 after completing the manuscript for my first book, Alaska’s Copper River Delta. (If you are interested in this book you can buy it from the Watershed Project website — proceeds benefit the organization.) Then I started to research and write Sound Truth.
I’m 50! I have lived long enough now to see how my life just all pieced together. On March 24, 1989, I had an epiphany. I remember staring at the mountains that day when the tanker grounded, and I asked myself: “I know enough to make a difference. Do I care enough?” I realized I did. That alone has made all the difference.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Myself. No one can push me as hard as I push myself: into complete exhaustion sometimes; into blowing out my back until I learned to manage stress (getting outside into the wild — walking or biking around town doesn’t count — away from any human-made structures counts); into major guilt trips for not doing enough, until I learned that my best was enough. On and on it goes.
My Aleut partner has taught me that my enemies are my teachers. Suffice it to say that I’ve had some great and very powerful (if you count money as power) teachers …
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
People in general, wherever they are. In buses, planes, cabs, restaurants, grocery stores, parks, meetings, elevators, stairwells, trails, sidewalks, high schools, universities, even jails. Generally, I find people ready to smile and talk wherever I come out of myself and am ready to do the same. People are nice. There is hope. Now, if we can just not lose our basic human-ness in our politics, corporate boardrooms, and courtrooms, the world would be a better place.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Hmmmm. I have a lot of worst moments because I’m constantly pushing the margin and finding myself in “situations.” But happily, the worst moments have always transformed into good things — or, at minimum, good stories, so my life is rich and full.
For example, Dallas County jail. I went down to the Exxon shareholder meeting in spring 1999 to ask the shareholders to please pay their debts, specifically, the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded to fishers and others in 1994, before Exxon merged with Mobil. I asked for, and received, permission to pass out letters explaining the grim situation in Cordova, Alaska, where long-term damages to fisheries from the oil spill were creating financial hardships. Exxon was not happy with the letter and their security asked me to step outside the hotel doors to pass them out. I was tricked into trespassing, as I did not have permission from the hotel to pass out the letters. I was arrested and carted off to jail. So in the span of 30 minutes I went from seeing how some of the richest people in the world (Exxon shareholders and corporate leaders) could care less about the suffering their spill was causing, to seeing how some of the relatively poorest folks in America — women in the holding cell at the Dallas County jail — were very caring and compassionate. Out of all this, I received a plane ticket to return to Dallas (for my court trial, which was dropped after I passed a lie detector test) and a new commitment to work for economic parity. I used the ticket to fly down to interview Dr. Rea for Sound Truth.
Of course, the real worst moment was when I first flew over the Exxon Valdez, grounded on Bligh Reef and surrounded by a massive slick of oil. Seeing that it was perfectly calm. Seeing no oil-spill containment equipment. Feeling the hot white surges of anger coursing through my body. Realizing that Exxon was paralyzed; that corporate officials had no idea what to do. Realizing that it would only stay calm for a short time and then the oil would be smeared all over the sound. Realizing all the wildlife that would die — horrible suffering and painful deaths. Realizing how the townspeople would be hurt. Realizing how my life would change forever.
This worst moment has yet to be transformed into a good thing. But because the others all have, I have hopes that this one too will ultimately lead to good things: a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels and an end to all the suffering and dying, human and otherwise, that goes on in many places around the world in order to bring “cheap” gas to Americans. Please, remember Prince William Sound when you fuel your cars and let that memory lead you to more conscious choices about your own energy habits.
What’s been the best?
The blockade of Valdez Narrows in August 1993. The townspeople and fisherfolk of the community of Cordova held up tanker traffic for three days in this geologic bottleneck in Prince William Sound, shutting down transport of 25 percent of the nation’s domestic oil supply. They demanded that the scientists get their act together and do “ecosystem studies” to determine what was wrong with the sound and when it would recover. This blockade occurred after two successive years of pink salmon run collapses and the first year of Pacific herring stock collapses. As a result of this public pressure, the scientists conducted some of the first-ever ecosystem studies of this magnitude and duration and discovered there were long-term damages to the sound’s wildlife from Exxon’s spill.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The Exxon Valdez oil spill. Because it was so avoidable. Because it was right there in my own backyard. Because I knew that many innocents, human and otherwise, were going to get hurt. Because Exxon never said “I’m sorry.” Because Exxon is still pretending that its spill had minimal impact on the Sound and on the people. Because Exxon is still applying its almost unimaginable financial strength to fight a punitive damage award that it can well afford to pay and that would help bring closure of this trauma to thousands of people. Because Exxon doesn’t care. It can afford not to.
For me, this spill will not be over until the world’s people assert our power and revoke the privilege of doing business on our planet from callous, arrogant, and recalcitrant corporations such as ExxonMobil.
Who is your environmental hero?
My father, Fred Ott. I never heard the word “environmentalist” in our family growing up. Instead, dad lived the word through his actions. We kids learned that when something is wrong — like the robins dying from DDT — you get together a bunch of friends and figure out how to fix the problem. You just do it. Sure, there are the “bricks” of the environmental movement, like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, among others, but my dad is the mortar that holds all the teachings of the bricks together by living his values daily. This is inspirational and transformational. If enough caring people acted on their convictions, the world would be a much different place.
I have other heroes too. The NOAA Auke Bay Lab scientists, under the leadership of Stanley “Jeep” Rice, were among the first to sound the alarm that oil is more toxic than we thought. Their seminal research tracked the extent of the oil spill and followed its effects through generations of pink salmon and herring. Some of the other scientists who stuck to their guns in the face of tremendous political pressure and insisted they were, indeed, finding that oil caused long-term harm to wildlife and the sound. I’ve included their stories in Sound Truth. Their work is critical, because our federal laws regulating oil pollution are all based on outdated science which erroneously holds that oil causes only short-term harm.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
ExxonMobil. Not just because of the oil spill, but primarily because of its corporate actions after the spill. For example, dividing communities and families with its money spill (the so-called “cleanup”) to silence the voices of the ones most affected. Cleanup contracts contained a clause stating there would be no communication with press.
Exxon forged ahead with pressurized hot water wash on beaches despite evidence from its own scientists and NOAA scientists that the cleanup was doing more harm than good.
Exxon didn’t warn cleanup workers that the symptoms of chemical poisoning from inhalation of oil vapors, mists, and aerosols mimic cold and flu-like symptoms. It didn’t report 6,722 respiratory distress claims to Occupational and Safety Health Administration officials. It paid workers to sign a waiver releasing Exxon from any and all health claims from cleanup operations. It discontinued manufacturing a cleanup product, Inipol, which contains an OSHA Human Health Hazard, 2-butoxyethanol, with no notice to its former workers of potential health problems.
Exxon denies global climate change and publicly fights to downplay this phenomenon. I consider global warming to be the greatest threat facing civilization today. Exxon aggressively demands rights to drill the planet for fossil fuels as our future energy path.
Exxon has yet to order double-hull tankers for service in Prince William Sound, despite a mandate in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Most other oil companies have ordered double-hull tankers without dire consequences to their bottom line.
Exxon endlessly appeals the $5 billion punitive damage award in The Exxon Valdez Case, while at the same time funding university professors to write scholarly treatises arguing that punitive damages should be capped — papers that Exxon then uses in court to try to knock down the award to $25 million. Exxon has not been forthright with taxpayers and the press. They should confess that while the Exxon Valdez cleanup may have cost the company $2.2 billion, at least half of that (and probably more) was recouped through taxes as a cost of doing business. It hides behind a shield of lawyers, financial wealth, and taxpayer dollars to fight its public-health and environmental indiscretions.
Well! This list goes on and on and is actually subject matter for the second book on the Exxon Valdez. The next book is a story that deals with the state of political science, again using this oil spill to frame a larger social issue.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
Everything boils down to individual actions because our corporations, our political leaders, our government, our NGOs are all reflections of individuals acting collectively. If the individual action changes, the collective action will eventually change. When things go wrong, we have only ourselves to blame.
Regardless of the forum, consensus action brings about the fastest change because it doesn’t get undone with a political regime shift, whether in local or national politics. Process matters if outcome is to last — something we seem to have forgotten in politics.
In the case of reducing fossil-fuel use and carbon emissions, individual actions count because a relatively few people on a global scale are contributing to the bulk of the problem. According to the National Research Council, 92 percent of the harmful PAHs in fossil fuels that are found in our air and water in North America come from individuals burning fossil fuels in our vehicles and our power plants. Americans don’t have to wait for a president or Congress to take action: We can make choices to reduce our own fossil-fuel appetite. Today.
What’s your environmental vice?
When I drive, which isn’t often, I drive a mid-sized SUV. I’m getting rid of it this year in favor of some sort of alternative-energy vehicle (nope, a Prius won’t work in Cordova, Alaska, and I have two mountain bikes — one for visitors).
What are you reading these days?
The Open Space of Democracy by Terry Tempest Williams.
Yes! magazine by Positive Futures Network — the issue on Healing and Resistance (OK, I’m a little behind). This is a wonderful magazine, especially for teachers! Check it out.
What’s your favorite meal?
Fresh-caught (within 24 hours or less) Copper River wild salmon. Grilled Copper River king salmon and sockeye salmon … Yeowee! The rest of the year I make do with fresh frozen or canned salmon. Proceeds from online sales of salmon at Copper River Watershed Project go to benefit a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable use of area resources.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
My hair. I don’t have calm, tidy hair. So somehow this lumps me into the “radical environmentalist” crowd. Go figure.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Hands down the Copper River Delta and watershed.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The fact that there are some wild spaces left in America is a tribute to the environmental community’s collective effort and vision over the years.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We have polluted the common air, water, and soil despite 30 years of knowing better. We now have committed innocents and unborn generations to pay the piper. We face epidemics of cancer, asthma, depression, and other maladies from chemical poisoning.
To help reverse the dimming quality of our lives, the environmental community needs to weld the concept of environmentalism with people’s hearts and minds and just plain living. Let’s face it: We’re all environmentalists. Don’t you like clean air to breathe? Clean water to drink? Aren’t you upset about children with asthma? Or veterans with horrendous illnesses that eat away at their bodies and minds? Do you want these same chemicals in the air and water and soil? How can loggers have jobs when forests are poorly managed? Or fishers fish if global fish stocks are poorly managed?
We need to connect the very act of flipping on a light switch or turning up the heat or fueling our car with a conscious choice of knowing what energy source we are using and how much it really costs, in terms of health care, military installations, waste disposal — and then ask ourselves: Is this the energy choice I want? How can I go about my business of living on this planet in ways that will have less impact on future generations?
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Mandatory environmental education in our school system (K-12) and mandatory signing by all nations beyond Kyoto — a greater reduction of carbon emissions than the Kyoto Protocol currently calls for. (OK, so that’s two things.)
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
OK, so am I the only one who didn’t listen to music? This aversion started when I was in first grade and learning to write. The teacher had us practice with our names, and I could never remember “Fredericka.” (That’s my full name, after my father Frederick, after his mother Fredericka. Do you realize how many letters are in that?!) I wanted to use Riki, but noooo. So I wrote out the long funny name on a small piece of paper and tucked it into my shirt cuff and, sure enough, it fell out one day when we had to get up to go sing. And everybody realized I couldn’t remember how to spell my own name! Mortifying! And surely excuse enough to avoid all music and singing for a looooong time thereafter.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t watch TV. In fact, I don’t even own one and never have. They are brainwashing tools used skillfully by corporations to get people to think less and buy more. Ugh. Don’t even get me started.
Movies: Definitely my all-time favorite is Lady Hawk. I like Thunderheart, Fast Runner, Rabbit Proof Fence, Whale Rider and, well, you get the general idea. The Matrix also, although it’s too bad that the sequels didn’t follow through with the same visionary prescription for our times: Wake up and get involved!
What are you happy about right now?
It’s a beautiful sunny day on the planet. I’m full. I’m writing. And I’m about to see an 82-year-old friend and mentor I haven’t seen in awhile. Life is about connections, and I’m rich with a wide diversity of friends.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Start a new resolution to daily do one thing for the greater good and one thing for yourself.
For the greater good, for starters, please go to Soundtruth.info and request, sign, and send in the petition to reopen the 1991 civil settlement for the Exxon Valdez long-term damages to wildlife and wild lands — and tell your friends to do the same. Reopening this settlement will establish legal precedent that oil causes long-term harm, which will immediately make vulnerable all our federal laws based on the outdated 1970s science that oil only causes short-term harm. Tightening these laws will help reduce oil use.
For yourself, please get outside every day and take a hike, do a meditation, or something that connects you with what is real — earth! If you’ve forgotten how wondrous and special this planet is, invite a small child to go with you …
Get Grist in your inbox