Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
By Riki Ott
561 pp. Produced for Dragonfly Sisters Press by Lorenzo Press – Jan. 2005. $24.95.
At just before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, the Transocean Ltd.-owned and BP Plc.-operated floating oil rig Deepwater Horizon was boring an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect—about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast and nearly a mile underwater—when it exploded without warning from a well blowout. For more than a day the inferno raged without respite, killing 11 crew members and injuring 17 others, sending the rig’s remains plunging to the bottom of the ocean and leaving the broken seafloor well to spew millions of gallons of crude oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. BP has tried repeatedly to stop the flow, to no avail. (As of this writing on Tuesday evening, July 13, it remains to be seen whether the well cap installed last night, a Band-Aid pending completion of the long-awaited relief wells next month, will actually work.) The spill’s magnitude has beggared description or belief. By mid-June it was four to eight times the size of Exxon Valdez and had earned the title of worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. By the beginning of the current month it held the record for biggest offshore spill in world history, according to high-end government estimates.*
And as dire as the Deepwater Horizon spill is already, its harm could be magnified still further by a bungled or ill-considered cleanup response. That’s exactly what happened with Exxon Valdez, argues marine biologist and oil spill activist Riki Ott, who has been aptly called the Erin Brockovich of that earlier disaster. Ott has written two books showing how gross misconduct on the part of Exxon (now Exxon Mobil Corp.) in the wake of Valdez created a secondary disaster that was just as damaging as the first one. These books, titled Not One Drop and Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$, exhaustively document how Exxon’s actions compounded the oil’s harm and destroyed the health of thousands of cleanup workers, in many cases permanently. In the interest of helping current spill victims, both books have now been made available online for free as ebooks. Ott is presently in the Gulf Coast area, sharing her expertise and prior experience with Valdez to try to make sure that BP doesn’t get away with the same shenanigans as Exxon did.**
Ott holds a Ph.D. in fisheries and marine toxicology, and even long before Valdez was a prominent public figure and salmon “fisherma’am” in the spill’s epicenter of Cordova, Alaska. The Valdez spill was a calling for Ott. She decided to make it her life’s work to expose the truth behind the corporate line that Exxon was toeing (and that most people still believe, she feels) regarding the spill and its aftereffects. To that end, she has conducted extensive scientific research, testified at hearings, drafted legislation aimed at preventing future spills—and incorporated all of this research and activism into her two books, which are nothing short of heroic. Written with as much feeling as rigor and investigative enterprise, these books are required reading for anyone affected by either Valdez or the current Gulf spill. I reviewed the more recent of the two, Not One Drop (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), last year for Energy Bulletin. Here I review the earlier but equally important Sound Truth, a pioneering piece of scholarship that forces us to rethink our notions about how toxic oil and the chemicals used to clean it up really are.
Oil is much more toxic than scientists used to think—that is Ott’s consistent refrain throughout the book. According to the old understanding of oil toxicity, impacts from oil spills should be entirely short-term. Since for the most part oil is non-water-soluble, scientists reasoned that it must not be that harmful to aquatic life and that whatever harm it does cause happens early on as the oil is shedding its highly volatile compounds. Thus, the old thinking goes, any oil that doesn’t weather away completely after a certain amount of time is harmless, even if it remains visible in the environment for years after a spill. But studies done in the years since Valdez have shown these notions to be sadly mistaken. Oil actually becomes more, not less, harmful the longer it remains in the environment, because the weathering process exposes increasingly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—which Ott says “may well be the DDT of the 21st century.”
And it’s clear that Exxon had much more of an inkling about oil’s true toxicity than it was willing to admit, even long before the findings discussed above had come to light. Ott proves this using some of Exxon’s own documents, serendipitously obtained when company lawyers weren’t quick enough at the draw to have them barred from scrutiny. Ott’s other sources include medical records, court depositions, unpublished government reviews, academic journal articles and workers’ ledgers and travel logs. The portrait that emerges from this mosaic is sordid indeed. Ott shows how Exxon abused the legal system by exercising constitutional rights originally intended for people; covered up the devastation caused by its disaster with skewed scientific studies and a skillful propaganda campaign; and went ahead with a PR-driven cleanup that it knew was fouling the environment with additional toxins, eradicating beach life spared by the initial oiling and poisoning workers by exposing them to dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals.
To begin with the impacts on wildlife, Sound Truth documents the huge losses that fish, birds and marine mammals endured as a result of the spill. The populations of numerous species crashed precipitously, and some animals began having trouble producing viable offspring or evading predators in their own native habitat. And this harm was all occurring at far lower PAH concentrations than those that scientists had long deemed to be safe, and that were permissible under existing state and federal laws. One study found significant effects in young salmon exposed to PAH concentrations that were 60 times lower than those permitted by federal law. In light of this evidence, Ott concludes that current regulatory standards for PAHs in water “are grossly under-protective of aquatic life.”
These findings couldn’t have been more at odds with those reported by Exxon-funded scientists. Exxon’s scientists detected far lower PAH levels and harm to wildlife than did government-funded scientists. A subsequent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded that this is because Exxon scientists used analytical procedures that were 10 to 100 times less likely to pick up PAHs than the procedures used by their government counterparts. Exxon’s scientists also did studies purporting to assess the recovery of numerous animal species. Among the tricks that they used to make it look like beaches had recovered, Ott relates, was the use of inappropriate control beaches. Instead of choosing unoiled beaches that hosted a similar wildlife makeup to that of the oiled beaches, Exxon’s scientists chose beaches that were naturally barren due to their harsh, glacial conditions. Compared to these glacial beaches, even heavily oiled beaches looked like they had fully recovered and were flourishing once more.
Indeed, Ott dissects in great detail many cases of Exxon scientists skewing their studies so that they “tuned out” inconvenient findings. In support of her assessment, she cites Darrell Huff’s seminal book How to Lie with Statistics, as well as a journal article identifying 18 differences in study design between government-funded studies and Exxon-funded studies that dramatically biased the latter’s results. And she laments that government scientists were unable to counter these boisterous claims by Exxon with findings of their own, due to a gag order imposed on account of pending litigation. Ott contends that by the time this gag order had expired and public-trust scientists could finally publicize their findings, it was too late: Exxon’s version had become the popular understanding of the spill and its environmental effects.
Besides the discovery of crude oil’s extreme, persistent toxicity, the other half of Exxon Valdez‘s legacy, believes Ott, is the terrible saga of thousands of people cut down in their primes by exposure to noxious cleaning agents that should not have been used. (The warnings on numerous chemicals stated that they shouldn’t be permitted to drain into watercourses, which obviously meant that they shouldn’t have been allowed to drain into Prince William Sound.) In an ominous omen for cleanup workers, Exxon’s primary cleanup contractor had been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only a year earlier for failing to maintain proper records related to hazardous wastes or adequately train personnel working around these wastes. In another ominous omen, Exxon paid workers to sign a waiver stating that they would not sue the company for any health-related problems that they might subsequently develop. Further, several cleaning solutions used during the cleanup contained an organic solvent called 2-butoxyethanol, which was on the EPA’s list of “janitorial products to avoid.” Prolonged exposure to these chemicals along with oil mists led to 6,722 recorded cases of upper respiratory infection among spill response workers. Exxon’s trick for not reporting these health claims to the government was to lump them under the heading of cold-and-flu-like “infections,” which don’t need to be reported, as opposed to occupational illnesses, which do.
As this book poignantly reveals, the Valdez tragedy also shed light on a previously little-known disease called chemical sensitivity. People with this sickness are extremely sensitive to everyday chemicals that never used to give them problems in the past (for example, cosmetics or gas fumes) because of some past exposure to dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals. Chemically sensitive people can have life-threatening reactions to even trace levels of common chemicals. From court documents, personal journals and other sources, Ott pieces together the stories of some former Valdez cleanup workers who went on to develop chemical sensitivity. Because the illness was such a recently recognized phenomenon, many people faced tremendous challenges in trying to obtain diagnosis and treatment. To their immeasurable frustration, they often wound up being diagnosed as hypochondriacs or prescribed antidepressants because their doctors thought that it was all in their heads.
One of Sound Truth‘s greatest strengths is that it goes way beyond merely uncovering the scandal of Exxon’s corporate myths. It also provides clear, well-informed suggestions aimed at reducing the likelihood of future spills and better handling the spills that still will inevitably occur. Ott recommends, among other things, the enactment of federal legislation requiring spillers to pay for their cleanups but prohibiting them from being in charge of cleanups. She points out that this policy of “federalizing” spill responses has been tried in other countries and has worked well. Because those in charge of such cleanups are beholden to the public interest rather than shareholders, they have no incentive to cut corners and merely sweep the problem under the rug while doing further environmental damage.
And that brings us back to BP and its spill in the Gulf. Some commentators have taken heart from BP’s prompt admission of responsibility, its pledge to clean up the oil and its agreeing to set up a $20 billion damage claims fund. But stacked against these seemingly altruistic gestures are hints of Exxon-style negligence and secrecy, including security guards barring journalists from beaches, animal carcasses and other potential crime scene evidence mysteriously disappearing and spill response workers going without protective respirators.† Regardless of which reports reflect BP’s true colors, there’s one PR move BP chiefs could make that couldn’t possibly go wrong: putting a copy of Sound Truth into the hands of every cleanup worker, and taking care to read it long and hard themselves. It would be an honorable gesture, ensuring that workers are properly informed and outfitted—and giving us BP’s word that it intends to succeed where Exxon failed on the social/environmental responsibility front. Fortunately, however, we don’t have to wait for BP to disseminate this vital information. Anyone can access Ott’s books online for free.
* Background on Deepwater Horizon gathered from the following sources: “New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher,” Morning Edition, NPR, Jun. 11, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127760703 (accessed Jun. 27, 2010); Ken Hoffman, “Despite spill, a few birds get a chance to live,” Houston Chronicle, Jul. 4, 2010, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/deepwaterhorizon/7093979.ht… (accessed Jul. 5, 2010); “What do we know about the Deepwater Horizon disaster?, BBC News, Jun. 22, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/us_and_canada/10370479.stm (accessed Jun. 27, 2010); NPR Staff and Wires, “Transocean Seeks To Limit Liability For Oil Rig Blast,” NPR, May 13, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127760703 (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); “Anadarko Refuses to Pay Costs of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” Environment News Service, Jun. 18, 2010, http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jun2010/2010-06-18-091.html (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); Tommy Dickey, “A Brief Introduction to Ocean Oil Spills,” University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.opl.ucsb.edu/tommy/pubs/Oil_Spill_2010_vers6.pdf (accessed Jul. 12, 2010); Associated Press and Miami Herald, “BP spill hits a somber record as Gulf’s biggest,” Seattle Times, Jul. 1, 2010, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012259363_oil02.html (accessed Jul. 13, 2010).
** The Erin Brockovich comparison comes from: “Chelsea Green Bookstore: Nature & Environment: Not One Drop,” Chelsea Green, http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/not_one_drop:paperback/praise… (accessed Jun. 28, 2010). Not One Drop‘s release as a free ebook was reported in: “Chelsea Green Partners with Scribd on Oil Spill Book,” Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2010, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news… (accessed Jun. 21, 2010). Sound Truth‘s free ecopy is at: http://www.rikiott.com/pdf/Sound%20Truth.pdf.
† Riki Ott, interview with Keith Olbermann, “Countdown,” MSNBC, New York, Jun. 14, 2010, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/vp/37697092#37697092 (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); “Has BP been attempting to erase evidence? Shocking video of security guard confrontation,” World News Network, Jun. 16, 2010, http://article.wn.com/view/2010/06/16/Has_BP_been_attempting_to_erase_ev… (accessed Jun. 21, 2010).
Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA), a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.