Backchat from Earth First! and ExxonMobil, and a response from Riki Ott
Thanks for runnin’ a blurb on Mountain Justice Summer on your fine website. The only thing is that the groups involved with Mountain Justice Summer, which include Katuah Earth First! and Coal River Mountain Watch, have specifically said we will not be engaging in property destruction (aka monkeywrenching) this summer. Coalfield residents (and other activists) don’t want to deal with the backlash from property destruction. Y’all know that EF! is not afraid of that kind of thing, but we are respecting the views of the folks on the ground and in the thick of this fight. We are not going to complain if any of that happens, but we are not going to do it or promote it. Just wanted to clear that up.
For the mountains,
Katuah Earth First!
Regarding your InterActivist article, Riki Ott is up to her usual tricks. A couple of facts she fails to mention, or outright misses (on purpose, perhaps?):
Riki says ExxonMobil never apologized for the spill. Just plain wrong. Shortly after the spill, Exxon ran a full-page apology, signed by our CEO, that was carried in more than 160 papers across the United States, including all major newspapers in Alaska. We urge you to go to the Valdez page of our website. Under various topics, you’ll find important issues discussed that directly refute Riki’s view of Valdez — and also demonstrate that we still deeply regret the spill.
Riki also knows that immediately following the spill, Exxon set up claims offices throughout Alaska and down to Seattle to quickly process fishermen’s and others’ claims. Several years after the spill, an Alaska jury set the actual damages of the Valdez accident at $287 million and the trial court commended Exxon for paying more than $300 million promptly and voluntarily to those affected by the spill. The Alaska court stated: “Exxon came with its people and pocketbook and did what had to be done under difficult circumstances.” That fact doesn’t make it into Riki’s book or lectures. You might ask her why.
Another fact she ignores: Immediately after the spill, Exxon not only apologized, we made a commitment to the people of Alaska and the United States that we would stay with the cleanup until the state of Alaska and the federal government said it was complete. Both governments, who managed the cleanup with Exxon supplying the people, supplies, and funding, declared the cleanup complete in 1992. Exxon spent $2 billion on the cleanup, and in settlements with the state and federal governments gave another $1 billion for environmental studies and conservation programs in Prince William Sound.
Another fact Riki won’t mention: Prince William Sound has had seven record salmon runs and several near-record salmon runs since the Valdez accident. Her claims regarding the spill are also at odds with some of the world’s foremost authorities on oil spills and Prince William Sound wildlife — scientists from the nation’s and world’s top universities who have studied the sound and had their conclusions in peer-reviewed journals. Her claims of worker sickness are at odds with the actual results and a safety record that was lauded as “outstanding” by the U.S. Coast Guard. She also failed to mention that a number of the spill workers were Exxon employee volunteers from around the country who paid their own way and used personal vacation time to help with the cleanup. Her claim that more oil was spilled than reported is simply ludicrous. The U.S. Coast Guard was on the scene and verified all records.
Riki also fails to mention that some of her sources are still making silly claims: One, for example, is that harbor seals have not recovered from the spill. What Riki and her sources won’t mention is the known scientific fact that harbor seals were declining throughout the Gulf of Alaska, including Prince William Sound, long before the 1989 oil spill. Yet her sources report “harbor seals will have recovered from the effects of the oil spill when their population is stable or increasing.” So the only way harbor seals could ever be judged recovered from the oil spill would be for this long-term trend — a trend completely unrelated to the oil spill — to be reversed. There are numerous other examples, some of which are mentioned on our website.
With regard to the punitive damages associated with the Valdez spill, Riki won’t tell you that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice thrown out the award, giving an awful lot of credibility to Exxon’s arguments that the award is excessive.
It’s a wonderful thing that we live in a country that protects free speech. But it seems we have an obligation to state when that speech is truly factual or, as too often in Riki’s case, fictional storytelling.
Media Relations Manager, ExxonMobil
Riki Ott replies:
ExxonMobil and I disagree on just about every point of fact about Exxon’s 1989 spill in Prince William Sound.
Since Day One of this spill, when I first heard the low-end estimate of 11 million gallons spilled and the high-end estimate of 38 million gallons, I have tried to correct Exxon’s understatements of spill damage and overstatements of the spill cleanup. I cover some of this in my book, Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, which is heavily referenced and published as nonfiction.
First, I reread Exxon’s apology letter from 16 years ago and was astonished to find it read quite differently from what I remembered reading when Exxon’s oil coated Prince William Sound. Back then, I didn’t remember reading the words, “I’m sorry,” but they were there. My apologies.
Second, regarding the spill size, records from a state of Alaska investigation into this matter were released to the public five years after the spill, in 1994. These records show that the spill size was most likely 30 to 36 million gallons, based on reports by independent surveyors. The U.S. Coast Guard did rubber-stamp Exxon’s report on spill size, but the Coast Guard did not independently investigate the spill size like the state did.
Third, ExxonMobil stated that I do not address the money Exxon spent to compensate victims of its spill or the money it spent on its cleanup. I do, but only briefly as this is not the subject of Sound Truth. However, I have written several newspaper articles to point out why fishermen feel the full $5 billion in punitive damages is justified. ExxonMobil argues it paid over $2 billion on the cleanup and demands the punitive award should be reduced to $25 million. But ExxonMobil recovered at least half, and probably more, of its cleanup expense through tax write-offs, insurance claims, and direct reimbursements.
Further, despite the 9th Circuit twice returning this case to the district court, the district court upheld the punitive damage award.
Fourth, the proof of long-term harm to wildlife from Exxon’s spill is in Prince William Sound. Dozens of different species of fish, birds, and marine mammals have experienced lingering harm and delayed recovery, which has been widely reported by hundreds of scientists. I cover these stories in Sound Truth as well as the discovery of the long-term decline of marine birds and mammals, including harbor seals, which is independent of the oil spill. However, Exxon’s oil directly killed some 300 harbor seals, which have not yet been replaced, because these seals are slow to reproduce.
Fifth, ExxonMobil often claims that worker safety was its No. 1 priority. It was indeed a miracle that there were not more accident-type injuries on the slippery oil-coated beaches. The Coast Guard called this record “outstanding,” as Exxon points out, but my focus is on the hazards of chemical poisoning from breathing oil aerosolized by the pressurized hot-water wash.
Exxon withheld its own clinical data that showed 6,722 clinical cases of respiratory problems from federal officials as well as the air-quality samples that showed cleanup workers were overexposed to dangerous oil aerosols, mists, and vapors. Further, Exxon sealed the records when the evidence surfaced in court records of lawsuits filed by sick workers.
It is clear from ExxonMobil’s comments that the writer either did not read Sound Truth or chose not to raise any of the bigger-picture issues — namely, that oil is more toxic than we thought and that our laws are not adequate to protect public health and the environment from the threat of low-level oil exposure.