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Riki Ott, Part 3
Riki Ott
This is a continuation of the interview with Riki Ott on March 27, 2014 by Alicia Zorzetto at the offices of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council in Anchorage, Alaska. In this third part of a three part interview, Dr. Ott talks about oil spill related illness in cleanup workers and the politics of the oil spill. She also talks about new types of oil being discovered in the United States, and the new risks associated with that oil production.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-26-20_PT.3

Project: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Date of Interview: Mar 27, 2014
Narrator(s): Riki Ott
Interviewer(s): Alicia Zorzetto
Videographer: Alicia Zorzetto
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Resources Library & Information Services, Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council
Alternate Transcripts
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Discussing the 'Valdez Crud'

Corporate personhood and the failure of the political system

New kinds of oil and new kinds of risk

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RIKI OTT: -- where the -- we were prove -- some of what happened during the Exxon Valdez the science didn’t exist --


RIKI OTT: At the time. ALICIA ZORZETTO: Right.

RIKI OTT: To fully explain what had happened so that Valdez Crud it turns out in hindsight was actually chemical illnesses. Chemical poisoning from breathing day in day out 24/7 without respirators this -- this -- these hydrocarbons and will say that that this is now established.

It's well -- common characteristics of oil exposure, respiratory problems that’s like hallmark red eyes Valdez Crud, central nervous system problems, headaches, dizziness, flu, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting even, skin problems and blood problems, nosebleeds, ear bleeds, like what where is all this coming from and this is for unprotected workers -- for workers that are not -- for unprotected people.

And in Alaska it was pretty much the workers. Now, of course, the vessel -- the people -- the fishermen who are on contract and who respond to oil spills are all given hazwoper training, hazardous waste operator training.

They’re all given respirators -- not so in 1989. Not so in the BP disaster in the gulf.

We like déjà vu had a repeat of all these sick people, but the medical field now kind of understands the mechanism behind this. Everybody is different -- little children, older people. It expresses differently in individuals.


RIKI OTT: But the -- the gist is if we’re all breathing the same air -- if we’re going to the same beaches getting splashed getting water you get this common sort of set of symptoms and they don’t go away.

They -- they act like normal to start with. But -- so you think oh, it is a cold, it’s the flu. I’ll take some Tylenol. It doesn’t go away and you’re left with these lingering illnesses.

When I started a survey 13 years after the Exxon Valdez of the former response workers and I was learning about chemical illnesses from Dr. Rae and explaining them and he -- this one person said well I thought I had the Valdez Crud in 1989. I didn’t think I would have it for 13 years.


RIKI OTT: See that’s the difference. You have to pull this stuff out of you. So Sound Truth became this story of sick workers -- sick people -- sick wildlife.

And as Dr. Rae says when you have sick people and you have sick wildlife and they’re sick from the same chemical that’s the strongest evidence you have that chemical is a problem. And I said but it’s oil and he said so and I was just thinking, oh, I can’t just take on Exxon I have to take on the entire oil industry and say that oil is more toxic than we thought.

And that’s kind of what’s happened. So there's kind of to fast forward it to now 25 years later I went down to the Gulf of Mexico, the coastal communities. I spent a year down there.

The final lesson from the Exxon Valdez really was the community of Cordova coming to me and saying how did corporations get this big where they can manipulate the legal system. They can manipulate the political system. What happened in America?

And I didn’t know. I’m a biologist so I went and did research and I kind of did civics emersion for a year and I learned about the evolution of corporate constitutional rights.

How these pieces of paper -- these -- a business model really -- a corporate charter went through the Supreme Court through different law cases and got argued successfully to have the same rights as we living, breathing human beings.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And that’s that corporate person?

RIKI OTT: The corporate personhood issue and it’s how many times does our US Constitution use the word corporation -- exactly -- zero.


RIKI OTT: So I think that -- I think now that democracy is a work in progress. I never really think it's an end point. I think it is something that each generation needs to take up and work towards and I also think that we have taken this little detour to a plutocracy -- ruled by the wealthy elite who are in our politics -- in our government too much.

There's an imbalance right now. I think we need to get that balance back again and when I -- so that’s what I teach. I teach democracy and that is and then I also am working -- unfortunately the oil story went on.

It turns out that as that 20 years -- 25 years now post-Exxon Valdez the world is running out of the cheap easy to access oil like what we had at Prudhoe Bay to begin with.

What’s now called conventional oil and as the world wanders off, including the United States into these what are called unconventional oils -- tar sands oil which is very heavy molasses-like -- worse actually peanut butter-like substance.

And these frack oils like the shale oils -- hydraulic fracturing -- these are very light oils.

So it is kind of like you have the heavy oils, the light oils and the conventional oil in the middle.


RIKI OTT: And our national contingency plan was actually created for this oil.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: That’s a good plan.

RIKI OTT: This conventional oil -- 1968 the oil that floats on the surface.


RIKI OTT: And if --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: So our contingency plan --

RIKI OTT: Plan isn’t working anymore and I actually think we’re in worse shape now 25 years after Exxon Valdez in terms of oil spill response than we were during the Exxon Valdez which is not saying very good things because in Exxon Valdez we weren’t very prepared either.


RIKI OTT: So the tar sands oil sinks. It is also mixed with diluent. Diluent it turns out is very similar to dispersant. It is an industrial solvent. It causes all the same health issues as I witnesses during Exxon Valdez -- as I witnessed during the BP disaster -- as I witness now in Michigan at the Kalamazoo River.

I've been working with sick people there. I have been working with sick people in Arkansas after the Exxon Pegasus spill there. It’s -- it’s the nature of the beast.

It’s these heavy oils plus these solvents that are mixed together and on the other extreme these frack oils, they’re exploding. Oil is not supposed to explode.

It's because it has too much of the volatile light ends mixed with the fracking fluid which are the same thing as the diluents in the dispersants. It is these petroleum distillates that are industrial solvents that are used to either dilute thick oil to thin it, to ship it in pipeline or railcar, used to break up oil slicks, used to dissolve, extract the oil from the tight rocks, the shale rocks.

It's all the same. It is an industrial solvent across the board. Extreme human health hazard. So I am wondering if the national contingency plan which was really written for oil and for hazardous substances and there was an attempt to keep these two things separate.

Now we’re seeing with the heavy oil and the light oil they are kind of hazardous oils. So what do we do with them? We really shouldn’t be treating them as oil.

It's too dangerous. Look what happened in Lac-Megantic in Canada where the railcars exploded and incinerated 47 people. So even the -- at this point in time the first responders have taken notice that this stuff -- the block and shale in particular is way more toxic -- way more hazardous.

By nature and the Department -- US Department of Transportation has actually implemented emergency regulations that say that the shippers of this shale -- this shale oil -- frack oil -- volatile oil have to make sure they classify it properly.

They have been misclassifying it so it won’t look so dangerous and they have to ship it in these souped up railcars right now. Because these shipments of frack oil are going through our towns, by our schools, past our churches.

They’re in serious urban areas.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: And they don’t -- people don’t even know that they’re going through do they?

RIKI OTT: No. So -- I, you know, now I’ve kind of morphed instead of Alaska focus it is kind of a national focus both on the democracy -- well, here -- here’s how I tie it together.

On March 24, 1989 when I flew over the Exxon Valdez, I made a vow that I would work upstream of oil spills to helping our nation transition off oil. As a scientist I was aware of the climate stuff even though it wasn’t really out then.

You know I was aware that there was problems with oil that this was a dirty fuel and that we -- we -- at some point we collectively globally had a transition off of this and the climate imperative with climate chaos global warming whatever you want to call it has made this even more imperative now.

But back then I figured as long as we drill we’re going to spill so I would work upstream to help -- do whatever I could to transition the nation off fossil fuels.


RIKI OTT: And I didn’t realize what a long strange journey that would become. I thought it would be a science based call --

ALICIA ZORZETTO: A political journey.

RIKI OTT: I thought science drove public policy. I didn’t realize how corrupt things could get along the way with, you know, our democracy getting hijacked and the oil boys basically having the power of pen to write our public future.


RIKI OTT: With our future energy policy and it’s like, okay, whoa. We need to get our democracy back where people have the power of the pen and we can make decisions that are best suited to living, breathing human beings --


RIKI OTT: Not the business machinery.


RIKI OTT: We can’t breathe money. We can’t drink money. We need clean water. We need clean air.

We need an energy that's not going to explode and kill us or make us sick. So that’s what I’m still committed to to this day and I will be for as long as I’m in this lifetime.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Fascinating. Amazing. Thank you for conducting this interview with me. I really appreciate it.

RIKI OTT: Thanks for all the time.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: Yeah, of course.

RIKI OTT: I feel like a catharsis. I got a lot off my chest.

ALICIA ZORZETTO: That was awesome.