Marine specialist Riki Ott warns about oil spills in BC

This special report, by Delores Broten, was originally published in BC’s Watershed Sentinel 

On a hot Friday evening, a packed audience at the Native Sons Hall in Courtenay, BC, listened spell bound and sometimes close to tears to marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott. In an event sponsored by World Community, Ott was describing the long-term impacts to fish, mammals and humans from the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Gulf and Kalamazoo River oil spills.

Ott, who was a commercial fisher in Cordova Alaska as well as a trained scientist, was in a unique position when Prince William Sound was hit by the Exxon Valdez oil spill 23 years ago. She described how the response to the spill was nothing like what had been promised by the oil companies before the port was opened. She talked about how any spill response actually collects, at the most, 15% of the spilled oil, which continues to cycle through the ecosystem with every tide. “They said it was cleaned up,” she said, “but two years later the pink salmon run failed, and four years later the herring disappeared. The herring fishery is now closed indefinitely.” Herring eggs fail when exposed to oil at one part per trillion.

The most poignant—and pungent—witness to the impossibility of “clean up” were two small jars Ott circulated through the hall. They were filled with sand and beach stones from a beach that had been considered “cleaned up” for two decades. The jars stank of oil, and the woman next to me, who touched the stones, scrambled for a tissue to clean her fingers.”We can respond to an oil spill,” declared Dr. Ott. “We can never clean it up.”

Worst of all, Ott said, was the impact on the community, which was in chaos, as debt and despair ate at family and social life. The small fishing community of Cordova had to pull together and revision its values. It has managed to resuscitate itself, with the help of local economic development such as niche marketing of a salmon run from the Copper River, which was not impacted by the spill.

The dispersant used in the Deepwater Horizon Gulf drill-rig spill did little to help the “clean up,” actually masking the presence of the oil and its toxic constituents. The dispersants caused a fine spray of micro-PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are major health hazards, causing cancer, asthma, hormone, and reproductive problems) to enter people’s bodies not only through the air but invisibly from water through the skin. “Ultra-fine particles,” explained Ott, “mimic mammal hydrocarbons, and are drawn into the body, jamming immune system and DNA functions.”

Those hydrocarbons bonded to the biofilm on the sand, sinking to a depth of nine inches, whereas the beach clean up only went down 8 inches. Responders were not allowed to wear respirators, even though that is now standard practice in oil spill response, because it would look bad in the media. The PAHs have not gone away, and are still causing major disruptions, despite the government and industry spin. In the Gulf now up to half the shrimp in some catches have no eyes or eye sockets. The impact on other mammals like dolphins and whales continues, while the human population has received an inadequate $7.8 billion in medical benefits.

The Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan is even more problematic, since the ruptured pipeline was carrying Alberta tar sands oil—dilbit—bitumen diluted with lighter petroleum products plus other undisclosed chemicals. When the pipe ruptured, the dilbit separated with lighter compounds evaporating, causing the lighter PAHs to spread far and wide, and the heavy tar sands gunk to sink to the bottom of the river, spreading for 40 kilometres. Human health impacts have not been recognised by government or industry but suspicious numbers of dead at a trailer court close to the spill seem almost certain to be caused by breathing the air. Community groups have now begun testing the air for themselves because of a lack of response from the oil company or government.

In all this, insisted Ott, over and over again, whether 23 years ago or two, the communities find themselves alone, with ruined environments, ruined industries, and lingering but unrecognised personal health impacts. Citizens, she said, are the victims of ‘lies and betrayal,” being sacrificed for the economy. Her response, especially to the issue of the proposed dilbit pipelines facing BC, is that crisis provides the opportunity to reorganize, decide what wealth means in your community, and develop democratically-driven local economies, such as those championed by the Transition Town movement. “Protect your local wealth with local laws,” and work for real democracy. “We can believe in it. We can work for it. It’s not a goal, it’s a journey.”

Riki Ott told the Watershed Sentinel that the recent upsurge in organizing activity through the Occupy movement is a massive opportunity for movement building, with three and four generations of people coming together for social change. When asked, she suggested that the role of the experienced grassroots of the environmental movement now is to help these new recruits: “Empower these folks,” sharing skills and historical knowledge.

Ott’s journeys of over 300 days a year on the road, are driven by the need to network small communities together, building a transcontinental movement which will move toward a real economics—one of community wealth and happiness, and diverse energy options. It is a journey we will all share, down one branch of the road or another. Riki Ott said, the question she asked herself after the Exxon Valdez spill was: “I know enough to make a difference. Do I care enough?”

Many of the almost 200 people at the meeting went home with the same question resonating for them.

Delores Broten is the editor of the Watershed Sentinel.