From the bookshelf: Oil spill controversies still fester

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2005


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  Silence in the Sound

Sound Truth & Corporate Myths

Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the "Exxon Valdez" Oil Spill

By Riki Ott

Dragonfly Sisters Press

$24.95 (softcover)

Silence in the Sound

By Merle Savage

Publish America



Silence in the Sound

It has been 16 years since the Exxon Valdez gutted itself on Bly Reef and created the nation's largest man-made environmental disaster. The incident still evokes anger and a sense of unfinished business.

A few writers quickly wrote overviews, and sundry experts produced reams of technical reports. But only now, after all these years, are insiders beginning to share some disturbing aspects of the spill and its aftermath.

Two recent books, "Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$" and "Silence in the Sound" are full of revelations.

Riki Ott is uniquely positioned to speak about the spill. Before adopting Cordova as her home and commercial fishing as her career, she earned a doctoral degree in marine pollution. The night before the spill, she was speaking in Valdez, warning that oil-spill prevention and preparedness were inadequate. An informed insider throughout the debacle, she remains a gadfly for accountability and reform.

Her hefty tome grew out of 14 years' work reviewing more than 500 scientific papers, interviewing participants and combing through court depositions with the assistance of Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

"In pursuing the story of the effects of Exxon's oil on the Sound's sealife, I uncovered the story of pervasive health problems suffered by cleanup workers. Sick wildlife and sick workers: together, these two stories are perfect mirrors of the harmful effects from oil," Ott writes in her introduction.

Ott is not writing to entertain. She aims to document history, raise public awareness and indict Exxon and its allies. She accuses them of intentionally ducking accountability and deceiving the public through secrecy, bad science and strong-arm legal tactics.

"Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$" is really two volumes in one.

The first part explores health problems afflicting workers from the 1989 cleanup. Through interviews, court documents and review of chemical and medical reports, the author makes the case that many workers suffered insidious illness, often delayed, from exposure to crude oil and industrial solvents. She alleges that Exxon played loose with safety requirements, obstructed attempts to track health effects and coerced workers to sign waivers and gag orders.

The second part chronicles the research that tracked effects on natural systems. She gives well-deserved credit to the public-trust scientists who worked with incredible zeal, braved physical and career threats, and made groundbreaking, brilliant discoveries about Alaska's marine ecosystems.

One such discovery is that oil remains toxic at far lower levels and far longer than anyone had predicted. This has broad implications for the nation's entire system of assessing risk, regulating industry, setting water-quality standards and safeguarding workers.

Ott probes many aspects of the spill, making her case with numerous citations and explanations from the general to the technical. She is exhaustively thorough, but she makes no bones about dismissing Ex-xon's work, which she calls statistical tricks and "deception by design."

"It was ludicrous from the outset to try to shift the source of the Sound's woes from millions of gallons of fresh toxic crude oil that stranded overnight in a highly productive biological zone to miniscule quantities of hydrocarbons that had accumulated in deep-water sediments over thousands of years. But try Exxon did," she writes.

She concludes her book with a series of recommendations, urging readers to take action on the spill's unfinished business.

Savage's book is very different, yet equally disturbing in its own way.

In April of 1989 she lived in Anchorage and Whittier and signed up with VECO Inc. to clean shoreline in Prince William Sound. That decision plunged her into the bizarre maelstrom of oil-spill activities.

"Silence in the Sound" is her memoir of that fateful summer, written from diary notes at the urging of her family.

Savage began as an "ORT" — oil recovery technician. Sent to the boulder beach at Seal Island, she faced intense physical demands. She describes her first day:

"In our quest to follow orders we began taking deliberate steps, trying not to fall on the rocks, but every step we took was another dangerous en-counter of rubber boots on round, slippery oily rocks. After a while I found the best approach to remain upright was to step in the cracks between the large rocks. By noon, blue, purple and red bruises covered half of my body."

Supervisors promoted Savage and, in the battlefield atmosphere, she found herself general foreman of a "floatel" — a barge modified to serve as housing for remote beach crews by the hundreds. It was a life of stress and foul odors, weird people, duct tape, Visqueen and black crude crud.

She calls the entire cleanup program a pretentious cover-up. With candor, she writes about beach crews reporting wildly exaggerated claims of oil recovered and about pervasive corruption at all levels. She witnessed evidence of incompetence, bribery, embezzlement, prostitution, drug-dealing and even murder.

On a more personal note, she found herself the target of disgusting sexual harassment on the one hand, yet on the other caught up in a rewarding sense of accomplishment and camaraderie.

Savage's tale is unvarnished and unpolished. In its humble way, it is the most accurate description yet published of what working on the spill really was like.

Both these books would have benefited from better editing. Ott's could be tightened up and shortened; Savage's prose is rough.

Despite their shortcomings, both books contain the drama, conflict and emotional wallop still intrinsic in events connected with the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

With the Selendang Ayu on the rocks near Unalaska, plans afoot to drill wildlife habitat on the North Slope and Exxon's civil settlement to Alaskans still unpaid, the 1989 spill still rankles. Ott and Savage have done a real service in revealing much that slick public relations firms and superficial mass media have not. It is worth noting that both women say they are working on sequels.

Savage speaks for many associated with the spill when she writes:

"No one knew what went on out there, they only thought they did. ... The (real) news, like the black oil at the bottom of the ocean, was well covered and no one dared to tell the truth."

Until now.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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