Environment Forum

Lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill

May 2, 2010

EXXON OIL SPILL

–Riki Ott, PhD, has written two books on the Exxon Valdez oil spill impacts on people, communities, and wildlife, including the recently released Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  Any views expressed here are her own.–

I remember the words, “We’ve had the Big One,” with chilling clarity, spoken just over 21 years ago when a fellow fisherman arrived at my door in the early morning and announced that the Exxon Valdez had run aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and was gushing oil.

For the small fishing community of Cordova, Alaska, where I lived and worked as a commercial fisherma’am, it was our worst nightmare.

That nightmare is reoccurring now with BP’s deadly rig blowout off the Gulf Coast – with haunting parallels to the Exxon Valdez.

I was not at all surprised when officials reported zero spillage, then projected modest spillage, and then reported spill amounts five times higher than their earlier estimates.

As the spill continues, I imagine that even the newly reported amounts will continue to vastly underestimate the actual spillage.

Underreporting of spill volumes is common, even though lying about self-reported spill volume is illegal – and a breach of public trust.

Still, penalties are based on spill volume: Exxon likely saved itself several billion dollars by sticking with its low-end estimate of 11 million gallons and scuttling its high-end estimate of 38 million gallons, later validated by independent surveyors.

Sadly, it’s a foregone conclusion that BP’s promise to “do everything we can” to minimize the spill’s impact and stop the oil still hemorrhaging from the well nearly one mile under the sea off Louisiana’s coast will fade as its attention turns to minimizing its liability, including damaged public relations.

BP will likely leverage the billions of dollars it will spend on the cleanup to reduce its fines and lawsuit expenses, despite later recouping a large portion of the cleanup cost from insurers or writing it off as a business expense as Exxon did.

Such tactics saved Exxon billions of dollars in the civil settlement for damages to public lands and wildlife (in which damages were estimated at up to $8 billion; but for which Exxon paid just $900 million) and in the class action lawsuit filed by those whose livelihoods were curtailed by the spill (for which the original jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages; but which Exxon fought for 20 years until the Supreme Court lessened its burden to just $507 million).

That Supreme Court decision strictly limited corporate liability and essentially removed the ability of future oil spill victims to hold corporations accountable to the people and the law.

A friend in New Orleans is concerned about the oil fumes now engulfing the southern part of town. He says it “smells pretty strong–stronger than standing in a busy mechanics shop, but not as bad as the bus station in Tijuana.”

State health officials are warning people who are sensitive to reduced air quality to stay indoors, but anyone who experiences the classic symptoms of crude oil overexposure–nausea, vomiting, headaches, or cold or flu-like symptoms–should seek medical help.

This is serious: Oil spill cleanups are regulated as hazardous waste cleanups because oil is, in fact, hazardous to health. Breathing oil fumes is extremely harmful.

After the 2002 Prestige oil spill off Galicia, Spain, and the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea, medical doctors found fishermen and cleanup workers suffered from respiratory problems, central nervous system problems (headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc.), and even genetic damage (South Korea). I have attended two international conferences the past two years to share information with these doctors.

During the Exxon Valdez spill, health problems among cleanup workers became so widespread, so fast, that medical doctors, among others, sounded warnings. Dr. Robert Rigg, former Alaska medical director for Standard Alaska (BP), warned, “It is a known fact that neurologic changes (brain damage), skin disorders (including cancer), liver and kidney damage, cancer of other organ systems, and medical complications–secondary to exposure to working unprotected in (or inadequately protected)–can and will occur to workers exposed to crude oil and other petrochemical by-products. While short-term complaints, i.e., skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, pulmonary symptoms, etc., may be the initial signs of exposure and toxicity, the more serious long-term effects must be prevented.”[1]

Unfortunately, Exxon called the short-term symptoms, “the Valdez Crud,” and dismissed 6,722 cases of respiratory claims from cleanup workers as “colds or flu” using an exemption under OSHA’s hazardous waste cleanup reporting requirements.[2]

Sadly, sick Exxon cleanup workers were left to suffer and pay their own medical expenses. I know of many who have been disabled by their illnesses – or have died.

I have repeatedly warned Congress in letters and in person to strike that loophole because it exempts the very work-related injuries–chemical induced illnesses–that OSHA is supposedly designed to protect workers from.

Remember the “Katrina Crud” and the “911 Crud?” Standby for the “Gulf Crud” because our federal laws do not adequately protect worker safety or public health from the very real threat of breathing oil vapors, including low levels typically found in our industrial ports, our highways during rush hour traffic, and our urban cities.

Oil is not only harmful to people, it is deadly to wildlife. I am sickened to think of the short-term destruction and long-term devastation that will happen along America’s biologically rich coastal wetlands – a national treasure and a regional source of income.

In Alaska, the killing did not stop in 1989. Twenty-one years later, buried oil is still contaminating wildlife and Prince William Sound has not returned to pre-spill conditions – nor, honestly, will it. The remnant population of once-plentiful herring no longer supports commercial fisheries and barely sustains the ecosystem.

While local efforts to boom Louisiana’s fragile coasts to keep the oil out will help people feel productive and empowered (and this is important), it is an unfortunate truth that the booms have limited utility and effectiveness. In even mild sea conditions, oil will wash over and under boom. Further, underneath the visible oil slick, there is an invisible cloud of toxic oil dissolved into the water column and this dissolved oil is deadly to shrimp and fish eggs and marine life.

Still, the Gulf spill has one advantage over the Alaska spill – hot weather and the relatively warm ocean will speed the work of bacteria to degrade the Louisiana crude. Even so, the initial toxic hit is likely to harm generations of wildlife, similar to what happened in Prince William Sound.

The oil industry has had over 40 years – since the 1967 Torrey Canyon tanker spill in England – to make good on its promise to cleanup future oil spills. This latest spill highlights the harsh truth that the industry has failed to live up to its promise. It is time for Americans to demand of our leaders accountability and closure of fossil fuel industries – as we transition to new energies.

[1] City of Cordova Fact Sheet, 1989 1[29]: Robert Rigg, MD, Letter to Cordova District Fishermen United, 13 May 1989.

[2] U.S. Dept. of Labor, OSHA 29 CFR Part 1904.5(b)(2)(viii): “Colds and flu will not be considered work-related.”

__________________________

File photo shows members of the clean up crew in Prince William Sound begining work cleaning up the worst oil spill in U.S. history from the Exxon Valdez spill, Feb. 4, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

We MUST learn from this. Speak up now to get the US government involved to mobilize the cleanup. The toxic spill must be considered a threat to our homeland security. What is the emergency plan required to carry out for just such a disaster? This MUST be considered before granting BP the permits to construct this rig. And I’m not just talking about the costs in dollars.

Posted by snyounger | Report as abusive
 

History showes the fact that capitalism is in the pat of distruction, but did some one say that we got to learn from history!
Currently humanity is lost and can not understand anything but monitary relationship which has turn workers to modern slaves, which even can not earn a very simple life with capitalist standards.
While capital is driving us twords total colaps, some among us are thinking how to “reform” this rotten system, i dobt that humanity will understand the facts in front of his eyes and avoid the worest.
I am surprised how doomed humanity is today and there are no sighns that will fight to make real changes befor total colaps. Thank you

Posted by rubik2 | Report as abusive
 

It’s not the end of the world, people. Yes, it will be a mess for a few months but, unlike Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico is in a hot climate with hurricanes. As soon as the leak is stopped, oil eating bacteria will gain the upper hand and, before you know it, no trace of oil will remain. A million barrels of oil have been leaking into the Gulf from natural oil seeps each year for millions of years.
Pick up some BP stock after it finishes tanking, and you will make a lot of money in 6 years when peak oil hits and it goes way, way up. If you want to get all upset and worried about something, peak oil is it.

Posted by Discovery451 | Report as abusive
 

Nationalize oil

Posted by Wicki | Report as abusive
 

rikki ott needs to be down there on the gulf if for any reason just to explain the human nervous system damage to the hundreds of people who will try to clean up this mess and wont know the long term ratifications to their nervous system and toxicology in their bodies
i live with long term exposures and chronic pain due to exposure of oil based products i pray that this doesn’t turn out like the valdez [ real smart idea buy some bp stock
unlike Exxon bp is not an American company so it will be much tougher to buy off the courts and it isn’t a small community fighting a giant corporation all those spring break beaches will be hit along with the devastation of the heart and soul of the gulf in the delta and with the knowledge and passion of rikki ott i am sure she will provide many documents to the courts and then we will call it Louisiana petroleum bp isn’t getting out of this one so if you want “buy baby buy” but you will get burnt thanks ray stawski

Posted by raystaw | Report as abusive
 

This article discusses the “tactics” Exxon used to reduce its legal and financial liability after the Valdez incident and how BP will likely follow the same damage control path. The language the author uses makes the reader draw the conclusion that these “tactics” are somehow underhanded, dirty, and possibly illegal.

Unfortunately, Exxon, and now BP, are and will continue to play by the rules, stretching the boundaries of existing laws and policies. To insinuate these companies are somehow underhanded for toeing the line and doing everything possible to work in the best interest of the company/shareholders, despite the public tragedy they have caused, is ridiculous.

If the public (or this author) doesn’t like the laws and policies regulating oil companies, work to change them. Don’t put these companies in a negative light for playing off the shortcomings in the ‘rulebook’.

Posted by phowie | Report as abusive
 

I know it can be cleaned up. Minimizing the additional flow to the slick is what concerns me. I would be interested in the size of the reservoir tht this is tapped into and the pressure. I would expect that any other deep water rigs would be shut down until a safe way can be determined to operate these rigs.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive
 

I’ve drilled in 5000 feet of water off the Louisiana coast. It’s very technical, very expensive, and very dangerous (both to men and machines). I was offshore for five hurricanes from 1975 to 1980. The people that do those jobs are very professional. My question is “Why didn’t the blowout preventer (BOP) operate as designed?” Was there a communication failure between the wellhead and the surface?

Posted by Alex1953 | Report as abusive
 

In Alaska the shoreline effected by the spill was about 10 feet deep, If the spill hits the marsh, where the shore is 10 miles deep, then this spill could be thousands of times as destructive.
P.S. BP is already handing out all inclusive damage waivers to the fishermen helping with the spill, offering $5000 to quit all claims and future claims against BP. BP has been asked to stop,as such an all inclusive waiver is illegal. Now that’s what I call taking responsebility.

Posted by Potatoe1 | Report as abusive
 

a documentary about the Valdez oil spill is airing on the green channel called black wave on Sunday may 9th 12;00 am and 3;00am central time
it is airing on the green channel 194 for dish viewers it is a much need to watch show about the ramifications of oil spills IT IS GREAT thanks raymond stawski

Posted by raystaw | Report as abusive
 

Only 4% of the Valdez contamination was removed. The rest is now on the floor of the water there.

Posted by HatesBP | Report as abusive
 

i reread all the post about rikki ott and her quest for tight regulations in the oil and gas industry the may 2 post at 12;15 was about laws and stretching the law my question is WHY DOES A COMPANY HAVE TO STRETCH THE LAW TO ITS MAXIMUM FOR THEIR OWN INTEREST AND SHAREHOLDERS INTEREST.
WHY NOT BE THE GOOD GUY AND DO WHATS RIGHT FOR ALL THE PEOPLE INVOLVED .DON’T STRETCH THE LAW [ THAT'S WHY NEW LAWS ARE CREATED]

Posted by raystaw | Report as abusive
 

i am sorry i pressed a wrong button and sent this last post out while i edited MY OTHER MAIN POINT WAS DOES ANY AVERAGE PERSON KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO CHANGE,CREATE,OR HOLD UP AN EXISTING LAW. people have dedicated their lives and many years to change injustices or just trying to explain to people an ignorance IN A PARTICULAR LAW, AND THEN TO TAKE ON LOBBYIST PAC GROUP, GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRACY IT IS MIND BOGGLING THE HOOP JUMPING AND TIME IT TAKES . EVEN IF IT IS A TINY LAW TO JUST PUT IN A DRIVEWAY OR DIG A POND ON YOUR OWN PROPERTY TRUST ME IT TAKES YEARS SOMETIMES THANKS RAYMOND STAWSKI

Posted by raystaw | Report as abusive
 

I have some concerns… My family & I live on the Gulf coast in west central FL. My daughter & I have been experiencing flu-like symptoms for weeks! She is on her way home from the Drs now. She’s been complaining of a sore throat for about 10 days now, and yet the doc told her that her throat is not red or inflamed. We have had sore throats, headaches, muscle cramps/pain, persistent cough and fatigue. In doing research online I have found that we have very similar symptoms to what is called “Gulf War Syndrome”! In my gut I believe that this is being caused by the Corexit that they have been dropping.
Ms. Ott, do you have any advice for us? Or anyone out there that has had experience with this? I’m looking for some feedback. Thank you.

Posted by oldsoul369 | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •