Oil on troubled waters

When crude oil devastated Alaska's coast in 1989, the damage to wildlife was all too clear. Only now is the cost to human life being fully realised. Andy Rowell reports
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It was at 7.15am on a cold Alaskan morning on 24 March 1989 that Dr Riki Ott was awoken by a loud banging on her front door. It sounded urgent. Still in her nightdress, she raced downstairs. "How long will it take you to get dressed?" asked a distressed colleague. "Five minutes. Why?" Ott replied. "We've had the big one. There's a tanker aground on Bligh Reef. It's lost 10 million gallons, but there's four times that on board."

It was at 7.15am on a cold Alaskan morning on 24 March 1989 that Dr Riki Ott was awoken by a loud banging on her front door. It sounded urgent. Still in her nightdress, she raced downstairs. "How long will it take you to get dressed?" asked a distressed colleague. "Five minutes. Why?" Ott replied. "We've had the big one. There's a tanker aground on Bligh Reef. It's lost 10 million gallons, but there's four times that on board."

Only the night before, Ott, a marine biologist, had warned the local mayor's oil action committee about the possibility of a big spill. "Given the high frequency of tankers into Port Valdez, the increasing age and size of that tanker fleet, and the inability quickly to contain and clean up an oil spill in the open water of Alaska, fishermen feel that we are playing a game of Russian roulette," she said. "Gentleman, it is not a matter of what if, but when."

Hours later, on a calm, moonlit night, the 1,000ft-long Exxon Valdez ploughed into reef, a well known hazard in Prince William Sound. In charge was Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who, it would transpire later, had lost his driving licence through drink-driving. Having been drinking that night, he'd left the third mate at the wheel. The collision tore a car-sized hole in the vessel's side and ruptured eight of the 11 cargo tanks.

Since that day, Ott has tried to uncover the true social, health and environmental costs of the spill, and has just written a book exposing the lies and myths surrounding it. The oil spill killed more wildlife than any in history, but her book also tells of the mounting human cost of the catastrophe, and the implications for our use of oil.

Ott, 50, grew up in Wisconsin at the height of the scare over the toxic pesticide DDT. Her father gave her a copy of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which exposed the problems of DDT and helped to spark the modern environmental movement. "At 13, I decided to become a marine biologist, like Carson. At 18, I left to find an ocean." She gained a doctorate in marine toxicology and became a commercial fisherwoman.

Flying over the Exxon Valdez the morning after, Ott watched as the vessel spewed millions of gallons of highly toxic oil into the sea. A bluish haze was rising above the oil. The official estimate of the spill was 11 million gallons, but years later Ott uncovered a secret report by the State of Alaska putting the true figure at about 30 million. The slick spread over 10,000 square miles of Alaska's coastal seas, as far as 1,200 miles away.

The images were a public-relations disaster for Exxon and other oil companies. Pictures of workers wiping rocks with rags looked totally inadequate. The numbers killed ranged from thousands of marine mammals, including otters, seals and orcas, to hundreds of thousands of sea birds, such as murres and ducks, to millions of fish.

Every oil spill brings untried new ways of trying to clean up. The unacknowledged truth is that only really effective tactic is not to spill it in the first place. "They didn't know what to do. The oil industry collectively is not able to clean up oil once it is spilled on beaches," Ott says. Still, 11,000 people were hired to clean up the oil.

Exxon tried an untested method of blasting the rocks with high-pressure hot-water hoses. This washed the oil away, but with devastating consequences. As well as wiping out wildlife that had survived the disaster, the hoses caused chronic health problems for the workers - and this is the hidden story. They vaporised the oil into a fine mist that the workers inhaled. This toxic cocktail contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, now classified as some of the worst chemicals known to man.

Crude oil was known to be dangerous. A 1988 Exxon Safety Data Sheet said "High vapour concentrations are irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract, may cause headaches and dizziness... may cause unconsciousness, and may have other central nervous system effects including death" and added "Minimise breathing vapours. Minimise skin contact." Fishermen trying to stop the oil spreading soon became nauseous and dizzy. So did the first workers, who claim they weren't given protective equipment or warned that the oil fumes could be hazardous to their health.

Ott argues that Exxon failed to protect workers because it did not provide protective clothing, adequate training or information about the risks. Some clean-up crews were told that respirators were "optional", while others were given respirators that did not work. One study later found that in a survey group, 70 per cent of clean-up workers were not given respirators.

Workers started coming down with the "Valdez crud", a term used by doctors to describe symptoms including headaches, sore throats, sinus infections and coughs. The problems became so widespread that the former Alaskan medical doctor for BP warned that clean-up crews should be "pulled off the beaches to avoid further tragedy in the form of human suffering, illness and disease".

"They told workers they were safe, and they weren't," Ott says. "They put keeping their reputation intact ahead of protecting people. When people start to get sick you find out why, you get respirators, you get proper protective gear. That didn't happen... They could have stopped the high-pressure hosing. When they realised it wasn't working, they could have stopped it. Exxon killed Alaska while trying to save it."

Ron Smith was one of the workers who headed to the spill hoping to earn good money. He worked on the boats. He started to get intense headaches, especially on sunny windless days, where he could watch the "vapours rising like heat waves". Even after stopping work, the headaches and mood swings continued. Eventually he went to see doctors specialising in environmental medicine in Dallas, to be told he had "very high levels of some pretty dangerous chemicals" in his body. Smith later settled a personal injury lawsuit against Exxon, and he was subject to a gag order.

But it was not just oil the workers were exposed to. Exxon used fertilisers and other industrial chemicals to try to break down the oil. One of the chemicals used was Inipol. Its Safety Data Sheet warned that Inipol caused a variety of health effects: dizziness, headaches, blood and kidney damage, and red discolouration of the urine. Some workers, including Don Moeller, started peeing blood.

When Moeller heard about the spill, he took time off from his job to looking mentally handicapped people to work on the beaches, mopping up. Like many, he had problems with the respirators, which were "no longer good after a couple of hours".

His ledger for 1 August noted that, after the raingear he was given fell apart, he worked for two hours with his legs "exposed". But he was told by Exxon of Inipol that there was "no hazard to us. Just wear the right gear." He was pulled off the beaches after blood was found in his urine. Moeller continued to experience chemical sensitivity problems and night sweats for the next few years. In 2001, he settled a lawsuit against Exxon and its contractor.

Captain Richard Nagel worked on the clean-up for three years. In some bays, the oil was six inches thick on the water. "You couldn't breathe right and your eyes would tear constantly," he recalls. He was told about Inipol: "This stuff is harmless. You can eat it and it won't harm you." In the early Nineties, he too started suffering chronic symptoms - calcium breakdown and blood disorders, seizures, acute anxiety and severe depression, loss of balance, night sweats, blurred vision and memory loss. He has been told by his doctors that he is dying.

Ott has been collating information about people who sued Exxon. "I found Exxon's clinical data, showing that 6,722 workers reported respiratory distress. That is more than one in two clean-up workers. That is like an epidemic," she recalls. She argues that Exxon "covered-up mass chemical poisoning of the clean-up workers".

At the end of their three-year investigation, Ott and her assistant, Pam Miller, concluded that "there are, unquestionably and undeniably, people who have died, and people who are suffering from chronic health problems stemming from wrongful exposure during the clean-up."

It is unlikely that any of these people will be compensated. Of the cases against Exxon so far, many have been lost, with a small number being settled for tiny amounts, for a variety of reasons. These included the difficulty of proving in court that the health problems were due to the spill, and the fact that Exxon has the financial and legal muscle to defend any case vigorously, including going to appeal. Exxon argues that "no cause and effect" between ill health and the spill has been proven in the 25 cases that have made it to court.

Indeed, Exxon is still contesting the main civil legal case against the company. In 1994, a judge ordered the company to pay about $4.5bn in punitive damages, but the case has gone back and forth between America's Supreme Court and the Alaskan courts. Ott claims that Exxon has saved billions by delaying paying compensation.

Exxon's spokesman, Tom Cirigliano, dismisses Ott as a "propagandist" and her book as "nothing new and flaky science". He argues that Exxon acted "responsibly" and took the spill "very seriously", pointing out that they "stayed with the clean-up until the federal government and State of Alaska said it was complete". He dismisses the health concerns, arguing that Exxon monitored the health of workers: "Safety was our number one priority during the clean-up of the spill."

He said: "Certainly, there were respiratory problems, which are very common when you put large groups of people together in very small quarters."Asked if any of the respiratory problems were due to the spill, he said: "No, we don't believe there were any... It is hard to say. There may be people who had a sensitivity to some of the materials being used ... There was certainly no increase in the normal number you would expect who have a sensitivity". He does admit that hot-water hosing "would probably not" be done today.

Ott says scientific studies have shown that an estimated 50-100 tons of oil remains in Prince William Sound. As it breaks down, it accumulates in the food chain from mussel beds, clams and whelks to worms, crabs and fish and then to mammals. Ott contends that oil continues to harm wildlife 15 years after a spill.

Ott says the Exxon Valdez spill forces us to re-evaluate our continuing dependence on oil because of the effect it is having on our health and wildlife. She draws a parallel with lead in petrol: "With lead, we recognised these problems back in the 1920s, but it took us until 1989 finally to get the lead out of petrol. Now it looks like we need to take the petrol out of our cars as well."

'Sound Truth and Corporate Myths: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill' by Riki Ott is published by Dragonfly Sisters Press (see http://soundtruth.info/)