Silent Seas


Riki Ott exposes the real aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster

By Robert Gillespie
Photography by Leo Pando

The tanker Exxon Valdez gutted its hull on Bligh Reef around midnight on March 24, 1989, pouring some 30-million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. A storm two days later swept the surface slick out to the Gulf of Alaska, ultimately oiling more than 3,200 miles of Alaska's shoreline. (A slick of similar magnitude on the East Coast would stretch from New York to Cape Canaveral, Fla.) The oil, continuing to leach poisons for years, killed thousands of marine mammals, hundreds of thousands of marine birds, and millions of salmon and herring. The water died, native inhabitants said.

The public, led along by the speedy cleanup and "recovery," accepted Exxon's and Exxon-funded scientists' version of the disaster, writes Riki Ott '76, who operated a salmon fishing boat in Prince William Sound at the time. The company's version, however, set off "a bitter battle among scientists over the extent of harm to sealife injured by Exxon's spill and the prognosis for recovery." Ott, bolstered with a master's in marine biology and oil pollution and a Ph.D. in fisheries and marine toxicology, felt impelled if not fated to publish the public-trust scientists' reports, what she calls "Sound Truth."

Despite its 500-plus pages of sourced text and scores of tables, illustrations, statistics, sidebars, court records, and official reports"the outcome of Ott's six years of research and 15 years as eye-witness to the consequences of the spill"Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is more than a massive science report. Sections such as "A Cover Up of Mass Chemical Poisoning" and "Buried: Workers' Health Claims" record gripping personal recollections of post-spill affliction. Suffering, wildlife and human alike, resulted from human miscalculation and misconduct.

Everyone who worked on the cleanup, Ott writes, risked increased levels of toxins in their bodies. Investigating the subsequent lives of cleanup workers, she turned up story after story of deteriorating health due to high levels of dangerous chemicals.

A physician Ott cites likens the body's ability to absorb pollutants in the environment to a barrel filling with rain. The full barrel can accumulate no more; the overexposed human body loses tolerance for environmental pollutants. The body's response in the short term: heartburn, headache, dizziness, nausea, bowel and stomach irregularities, central nervous system problems, mood swings, and depression. Chronic problems included heightened sensitivity similar to allergic reactions, blood disorders, and liver and kidney damage.

Cleanup workers also experienced compromised physical abilities. A woman who once hunted seals and fished commercially in the Sound was too impaired to hold more than short-term jobs as census taker, substitute teacher, and banquet food-server at a hotel.

The challenges workers faced in pursuing personal injury lawsuits for chemical-induced illness added insult to their injuries. The emotional stories told or the depositions given by scientists, lawyers, and doctors as well as cleanup people, however, document the human side of the disaster, balancing Ott's self-described "scientific tendencies." A first-rate work of science bearing on an issue of global significance, her book also is a record of courageous, determined detection as long on suspense as a police procedure novel.

Ott's chapters on the legacy of the disaster lay out two new scientific paradigms that emerged from the spill: an oil toxicity paradigm (an understanding of the effects of oil in marine ecosystems) and a disease paradigm, Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance, or TILT (remember the rain barrel analogy). Simply stated, oil is more toxic to wildlife and human life than anybody imagined before the pollution of Prince William Sound. The implications for public policy are obvious.

Ott headed to college intending to become a marine biologist like Rachael Carson. Whether Sound Truth reaches the iconic status of Carson's Silent Spring, which, among other things, led to a ban on the use of DDT, Ott's version of the Exxon Valdez spill and its aftermath provides scientists, environmentalists, historians, and novelists with a rich resource and a cautionary tale. For anyone interested in public health, habitat and environment, debates about energy, or oil drilling in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and everywhere else on the planet, Sound Truth is critical information.