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Review: Not One Drop by Riki Ott

Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
By Riki Ott
327 pp. Chelsea Green Publishing – Nov. 2008. $21.95.

Riki Ott’s book Not One Drop is a history of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, told from the perspective of those most affected by it. Cutting through the cloak of willful deception, public relations campaigns and skewed, corporate-sponsored science, it finally exposes the truth about Exxon Valdez's devastating effects on the city of Cordova, Alaska, the fishing community where the spill struck.

On a broader level, the book also makes yet another compelling case for weaning off fossil fuels. In making this case, Ott does more than simply invoke the threat of future catastrophic oil spills. She also, refreshingly, points to the growing consensuses about both climate change and the peaking of world oil production (issues that aren’t often discussed together). Further, she highlights new studies suggesting that insidious carbon emissions from our tailpipes and power plants have long been contributing to a broad range of health problems. In short, her argument for getting off oil is a powerful one of unusual scope, even if it is rightly subordinated to the story of Cordova.

Ott is a marine biologist by training, and her dream had always been to write books about science intended for the general population. The route that ultimately led her to that destination couldn’t have been less likely.

A freshly minted Ph.D. in the summer of 1985, she needed to take a break from her academic work, and so she spent the entire summer crewing on a salmon fishing boat up in Alaska—a place she’d always wanted to visit. She immediately fell in love with Cordova, its culture and people, and also with the wilds of pristine Prince William Sound. What began as a summer adventure evolved into an ardent, abiding commitment to this astonishing place.

Ott quickly became a prominent Cordova “fisherma’am” and an advocate for fishermen’s issues. Because commercial fishing and big oil are so deeply intertwined in Alaskan politics, Ott’s involvement in fishing politics inevitably led her to an investigation of shady practices by the major oil companies operating out of the Sound. For instance, she helped uncover how, even long before Exxon Valdez, oil companies had been deliberately polluting waterways through a loophole in the Clean Water Act. In the years that followed, Ott became “the Erin Brockovich of the Exxon Valdez disaster,” to quote Fran Korten of YES! magazine.* And indeed, the comparison is quite apt. Although her research, advising, testimony at hearings and drafting of legislation may have been done on a completely voluntary basis, she nonetheless was truly a force with which to be reckoned.

In telling us her story, Ott revels in the way she made herself a thorn in oilmen’s sides simply by bringing out the facts. Her war stories are unfailingly riveting and often very funny. Unable to buy or intimidate this determined, pugnacious, resourceful, lone woman, oilmen quickly realized that they had no idea just what to do with her. Their desperation led to measures as drastic as hiring off-duty cops to stand guard at an Exxon shareholder meeting at which she was present, and duping her into an arrest and a day in jail.

On a more solemn note, the two-decades-long saga of environmental devastation, ruined livelihoods, broken marriages, stunted lives, failing health and vicious litigation stemming from the Exxon Valdez spill is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Ott’s premise is that most people have been kept ignorant of this story. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “There is an unfulfilled need among spill survivors to have other people understand what happened to us…This story is an attempt to fill that need.”

In demonstrating how Exxon misled the public, she cites a formidable array of reports, journal articles, books, newspaper stories and firsthand accounts. She shows how the corporation soft-pedaled the extent of the spill and claimed that it was all cleaned up when it wasn’t. How it submitted beaches to a brutal steam cleaning, even when it knew full well that this technique scalded beach life and sickened cleanup workers. How it denied citizens’ groups access to cleanup sites—and how, when these groups finally were allowed to see beaches for themselves, they were appalled by Exxon’s deceptive public relations. How it hired scientists to conclude that life was once again thriving in the Sound (using statistical sleight of hand like pooling data and taking biased samples), while simultaneously attempting to suppress all other scientific evidence gathered during lawsuits that arose from the spill.

But worst of all, Ott chronicles how Exxon promised to make the people of Cordova “whole” again, but then proceeded to fight the $5 billion punitive award in court for nearly 20 years, until the amount had been slashed to a measly $507 million. In that time, more than 6,000 claimants had died without any closure, and untold numbers had reached the brink of bankruptcy, foreclosures and abject financial servitude because the damage done to their way of life by the collapse of the Sound’s fisheries was never repaid.

Moreover, the very social fabric of the community had come undone as Cordova devolved into what sociologists refer to as a “corrosive community,” one too divided by fighting and strife to engage in collective decision-making. Cases of diagnosed anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder surged, along with domestic violence and alcohol abuse. There was even one high-profile case of suicide, in which the suicide note specifically mentioned the trauma of dealing with Exxon as a motivating factor. The litigation process only acted as a “secondary disaster,” preventing people from moving on with their lives. Perhaps most tellingly, sociologists came to consider Cordova a case study on how to help communities in general to work through disaster.

Ott stresses that while Cordovans are definitely on the road to recovery, Exxon Valdez is still very alive for them. Exxon seemed to go out of its way to leave the tragedy unresolved, through two decades of legal stalling and a refusal to accept liability for a punitive award that would truly make Cordovans whole. Thus, Ott’s unflinching exposé could hardly be a more honorable attempt to give these people the closure that they so desperately need.

But Not One Drop is far more than simply an attempt to bring closure to Cordovans by communicating the extent of their loss to others. It is also an attempt to spell out the lessons learned from this disaster, so that it won’t be repeated. Ott concludes that our legal system no longer works in cases like that of Exxon Valdez, since it allows corporations to exercise constitutional rights that were originally intended for people. In the book’s final chapters, she goes into great detail about the kinds of reforms that will be necessary in order to prevent this abuse of the legal system from continuing into the future.

Not One Drop is a heroic book. It is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the calamitous consequences of our society’s addiction to oil, or of corporations’ ability to avert punishment by claiming “corporate personhood.”


* “Chelsea Green Bookstore: Nature & Environment: Not One Drop,” Chelsea Green, http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/not_one_drop:paperback/praise... (accessed Jan. 13, 2009).



Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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