Oil spills pose devastating threat to communities, warns Alaskan expert

  • Aug. 24, 2012 2:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinfret-Alaskan marine toxicologist Riki Ott was on Haida Gwaii last week, speaking to large audiences in Queen Charlotte and Masset about her first-hand experience of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster, and the dangers posed by oil tanker traffic. At her Aug. 16 presentation in Masset, Dr. Ott was introduced by John Disney as a woman “with a keen mind, the courage of a pit bull, a wicked sense of humour and a tenacity that was underestimated by her Goliath of an opponent.” Dr. Ott told the audience that after getting a PhD in oil pollution, she ended up working as a commercial fisher in Cordova, Alaska. She had been working there for several years when on March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil. Sent by local commercial fishermen to see what was going on, Dr. Ott was in the second plane to fly over the accident scene. She said she will never forget the scene: the tanker looked tiny from the air, the ocean was covered in a vast spill of oil, and there was no clean-up response evident anywhere. With her education in marine biology and oil pollution, Dr. Ott realized she was in a position to understand the full horror of what had happened. She vowed then and there to do everything she could to get society to stop using fossil fuels within her lifetime. In the direct aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez spill, Dr. Ott witnessed an industry that wasn’t at all prepared to respond to a spill in such a remote location, the toll that the crude oil took on the health of the fishermen who worked to clean it up, the birds, fish and mammals that died, and the complete ecosystem crash that took place four years later. She told islanders that the Alaskan oil industry of the 1980s made all the same promises that Enbridge is making now: that not one drop of oil would ever be spilled, and that even if it was, a world-class response would mop it up. “When I think tankers now, I think betrayal,” she said. “When I think tankers, I think sick wildlife, and crashed ecosystems.” Dr. Ott said she has taken the word “clean-up” out of her vocabulary, as there is no way to ever clean up oil that’s been spilled. She passed around jars of small rocks that she collected recently from the shores of Prince William Sound. The rocks were dark and slimy with oil, and smelled like petroleum. Tracking the effects of the spill long after the media had left Alaska, Dr. Ott witnessed the crash of the salmon and herring fisheries in 1993, which set off a chain of reactions that continue to this day. And while the direct effects of oil on animals are well known, what is less understood is that oil can permeate the air with ultrafine particles that people and animals can breathe into their lungs and absorb through their skin. The oil has direct effects – it can cause headaches, rashes and nausea – but it can also jam cell functions and wreak havoc with reproductive systems. There are also emotional effects associated with oil spills. Dr. Ott described how her small community of Cordova was hit by depression, divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide after the collapse of the fisheries led to financial ruin for many residents. “The community just completely unraveled,” she said. “We learned that financial hardship makes people do things they normally wouldn’t do.” Dr. Ott also spoke about her depressing experience with the BP Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout in 2010 – the biggest oil disaster the world has ever seen. Many of the same mistakes were made as in Alaska years earlier, she said, and the chemical dispersants that were used added to the disastrous health effects. It was the same story in Kalamazoo, Michigan, hit by a massive spill from an Enbridge pipeline in 2010. But Dr. Ott’s presentation ended on an upbeat note as she spoke about the healing process that Cordova went through over many years, with residents now involved in successful ventures like niche-marketing of their Copper River salmon, and about what people around the world are doing to fight corporations, change economic assumptions and engage their communities. She linked this struggle to the United Nations declaration of human rights, saying that governments can make illegitimate laws and that it is up to people everywhere to make sure they know what their human rights are, and to make sure their government recognizes those rights. And while islanders may have little faith in the Joint Review Panel that is considering the Enbridge pipeline, Dr. Ott urged them to submit letters of comment before the Aug. 31 deadline. Imagine that you are writing a letter to your children or grandchildren, rather than the panel, she suggested, and describe everything you value about this place. “This is a legacy battle you are fighting here,” she told islanders.

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