Activist builds on lessons of oil spill

Biologist Riki Ott devotes herself to raising awareness about ongoing problems

Posted: Monday, October 12, 2009

In the 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Cordova resident Riki Ott has devoted herself to raising awareness about Prince William Sound's ongoing environmental, social and financial problems.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Her experiences as an advocate for her community have recently led her to expand her focus outward. She believes the problems faced by the residents of Cordova mirror those faced by Americans across the country.

The Exxon Valdez spill, which occurred March 24, 1989, was the largest in U.S. history. More than 11 million gallons of crude oil were leaked into Prince William Sound. Although Exxon spent billions on a cleanup effort, declaring it complete in 1992, federal researchers have estimated that 16,000 gallons of oil remain buried in the intertidal zones of Prince William Sound.

Some species, such as bald eagles, have fully recovered, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council's 20th anniversary report on the ecosystem. But others, such as herring, have not come back.

While the herring collapse has not been definitively linked to the spill, the once-lucrative fishery has been closed for more than a decade. To local fishermen already in crisis, this change has been disastrous.

Ott, who has a doctorate in marine biology, has written two books on the spill and its aftermath: "Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$" and "Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill."

She has traveled the country as a community spokeswoman, giving voice to a widespread sense of betrayal at what many saw as an inadequate response to the disaster.

The betrayal she describes stems not just from Exxon's lack of action and funding, she said, but from a fundamental failure in the American judicial system to hold corporations accountable. In a series of court cases that have spanned the entire 20 years since the spill, Exxon's punitive damages payment was whittled down; the original sum, $5 billion, was halved by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 to $2.5 billion. And then, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court lowered that amount to $507 million.

Alaskans' disappointment in the judicial system spurred Ott to expand her focus. In the past year, she has visited 28 states, seeking to build support for what she describes as a grassroots movement to bring about a fundamental shift in American government. The Empire talked with her on Friday about her experience in Cordova and what she sees as the important lessons from the spill 20 years later:

Empire: You have said that immediately after the spill Exxon promised to heal the community "as a whole," how did you interpret that?

Ott: We, in our naivete, didn't realize that there was an asterisk attached to that, a little footnote that meant "to the extent mandated by the law." We didn't realize that law threw out all our lifestyle changes because they counted that as non-economic harm. So all of our quality of life losses, all our lifestyle changes, all our lost quality time with our young children on our fishing boats because we had to do oil spill cleanup, all the Native people's lost cultural claims because they weren't working with kids to teach them the traditional ways because they were working on the cleanup. Basically, there is a lost generation there. That didn't count in a court of law. It counted to us, in our community. So we started asking broader-based questions in Cordova that I thought were really good. So I went to answer them and that was the process of writing "Not One Drop."

Empire: Tell me more about the connection between what happened to the community of Cordova and what you call the current democracy crisis?

Ott: As I started to write "Not One Drop," and I was reflecting on the sociology papers (Cordova was the subject of a study on disaster trauma) and what had happened in my own community, that map that red and blue map of America that always appears before a presidential election just popped in my head, and I went 'oh my God.' The community was divided, the nation was divided, Cordova is like a mirror for the rest of the nation. All of the sudden I had this big flash of insight. The same things that had caused dysfunction in Cordova were causing dysfunction in the rest of America: Polarization.

I like to think that the democracy crisis is actually two-fold, one big element of it is healing this disease, this dysfunction that keeps us polarized and keeps us apart.

Part two is the fact that they've captured the flag, these big transnational corporations have taken over democracy and that's not going to work.

You have said that the residents of Cordova pulled themselves out of a downward spiral in 1993 by forming small focus groups to deal with specific issues, such as domestic violence and drinking. What did that experience teach you about community-based change?

Democracy only works from the grass roots up. This whole thing with Obama, people are so hopeful that Obama can fix things, but change does not come from the top down so much as from the bottom up. And what we learned in Cordova, from the sociology scientists who studied us, was really interesting to me, as a biologist. How does a community work? What holds a community together? Because then you can figure out when it breaks, what you have to fix to get it back together again.

Sociologists attributed three main things to the community falling apart, to what they call a corrosive community: Stress, which can be emotional and or financial stress.

Then there's loss of trust - trust is the one big building block of a civil society, sort of the mortar that holds everything together. We lost our trust after Exxon Valdez - Exxon wasn't there for us, the government wasn't there for us, the legal system wasn't there for us. So it was a big mess. And the third thing is litigation.

Litigation creates the same trauma as the original disaster. It is very polarizing, it's very adversarial, turning people against each other, and what you want is something that makes them work together.

Empire: So can you give any concrete examples of how people can work toward change in their own communities and take matters into their own hands?

Ott: Absolutely. The number one question I was asked across America (during my book tour) was: what can I do? We need to organize, we need to organize at the grassroots level. We're calling it kitchen table democracy. We are inviting communities to start their own gatherings. We have to learn how to be civil again, how to build networks, how to learn to trust each other. There's things you can do, from writing an article to your local paper to passing a local ordinance.

What I'm trying do to here is revitalize the grassroots democracy in America and build a popular movement to amend the U.S. Constitution. This is what I call ultimate civics.

Empire: What would this amendment say, in your mind?

Ott: I don't know what it would look like after the lawyers got done with it but the idea is to affirm that human beings have constitutional rights, and corporations, organizational entities, any legal entity is not a human being and is therefore not entitled to rights.

Empire: Do you have anyone on board in DC?

Ott: Yes, but I don't even want to light the fire there yet. I want the grassroots coming up. What I'm looking for is a 50-state initiative in the states that can do it - not all states can pass initiatives - that all say the same thing. And then we go to congress and we say "This is the language - don't even mess with it."

We've already got a number of state legislators on board with this idea but they need to see people backing it.

Empire: How have you been building support across the country?

Ott: The first year I was on tour I did a Paul Revere thing, asking if people thought corporations had too much power. It was right in the middle of economic collapse and people were just reeling.

Mostly I was talking about the oil spill but then I'd get to the end and say this is how it was, and this is why I think there should be a constitutional amendment, and people were just boom, on their feet.

Some people came to me afterward and said 'this is such a simple concept it actually might work.' I had entire question-and- answer sessions turn into strategy sessions. I came back from that year of traveling convinced that people are ready to get out of bed and take up their muskets and get out on the streets.

The idea is that we're not trying to do this ourselves, what we're trying to do is coalesce the existing movements around the country, like a thread in a crazy quilt, and we're trying to network this through ultimate civics. It's actually very exciting.

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