Statement by Riki Ott
Dedication of Exxon Shame Pole, Masonic, Cordova
March 24, 2007—18th Memorial Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

    Thank you, Bob, for your leadership in commissioning this Shame Totem Pole for Exxon Mobil. And thank you, Mike, for your vision to give form to the Whole of what our community lost.

    Today, on the 18th memorial of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, our speakers will follow the flow of the Shame Pole in their stories.  
√    At the top of the totem pole, where the Lies and oil spill out of Exxon’s mouth, and in the middle, where the slick lies heavy on the Sound and in our hearts, I will speak of empty promises and deception.
√     Just below the slick, Ross Mullins will focus on the Exxon’s manipulation of the legal system to prevent justice, and the failure of the punitive damage award to change Exxon’s behavior.
√    On the sides, our Youth, Matt Maxwell and Kanisha Tiedeman, will share generational harm to a fishing way of life and the Native Culture.
√    On the bottom of the Totem Pole, Patience Anderson Faulkner will address community harm and healing.

    Let us begin.     18 years ago on March 24, 1989, somewhere between 11 and 38 million gallons of oil poured from the stricken tanker Exxon Valdez into the heart of Prince William Sound. Exxon claimed it spilled only 11 million gallons, but this number was never verified by others. The State of Alaska put the spill closer to 30 to 35 million gallons. The number is important; I’ll get to why later.

    Right behind the oil spill came a money spill. The money tainted the spill science; it bought armies of corporate lawyers to fight claims from people injured by the spill. The money bought junkets for judges who would later reduce our punitive damage award; it bought studies to bias judges against large punitive awards. The money created division in communities as people agonized whether to accept it to clean up Exxon’s spill; the money split families, shattered friendships and crushed our civil society.

    The money spill created secondary disasters in the form of the cleanup and the litigation and the confused science. These secondary disasters still, to this day, prevent closure of this tragedy and prolong trauma and suffering. The money spill is painted on the Shame Pole in the carver’s blood to represent that Exxon shattered our lives and the Prince William Sound ecosystem for profit.

    18 years ago, Exxon promised to make us whole. Exxon promised to compensate us for all “reasonable losses.” “When your nets don’t fill up with fish, when your hotels go bankrupt, we will compensate you,” Exxon said.

    Our nets did not fill up with fish in 1989 when oil covered the Sound. Exxon did pay advance claims to cover some of our losses. When fish returned in 1990 and 1991, Exxon declared the Sound had recovered. Exxon flooded the media and high schools with glossy brochures and videos to share its “science,” in the same manner that the Nazis propagated Hitler’s Big Lie. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will come to believe it.” The American people fell for Exxon’s Big Lie in part because there was no one to refute it. Government scientists were silenced by a gag order in litigation.

     But here in Cordova, we knew that the pink salmon filling fishermen’s nets in 1990 and 1991 were Spill Survivors themselves—fish exposed to oil as eggs or as juveniles. We worried that the oil exposure might still affect the fishes’ ability to reproduce.

    Sure enough, trouble was brewing in the tons of toxic oil buried under beaches in the Sound. The buried oil was a slow-acting poison that killed fish eggs; it stunted growth and jammed reproductive codes of young fish; and it sickened adults.

    Our nets did not fill up with pink salmon in 1992 and 1993. This community realized that oil, buried under beaches in the Sound, was causing long-term harm to pink salmon. It took federal scientists another seven years to prove what we knew.

    Exxon denied the salmon collapse was connected to the spill even as our fishing processors went bankrupt.    Exxon did not listen to us. Exxon never has listened to us. This is why the CEO on the Shame Pole has no ears.

    The herring population also collapsed in 1993. Exxon claimed there was no connection with the suddenly missing herring and its spill. But there was. 99.9 percent of the herring eggs spawned on oiled beaches in 1989 failed to survive. Half of the future fish died. The miles of herring eggs coating beaches in spring dropped precipitously between 1989 and 1993. So did the population of Stellar sea lions, a key predator that depends on herring to survive in winter. No herring, no sea lions.

    ADFG fisheries managers missed these ominous early signs of collapse, because they relied on a model that only counted adult herring and assumed a constant death rate.  But the support base of young fish was eroding. It culminated in collapse of adults in 1993. The model was adjusted to count the collapse but it left a 4-year gap.

    The outdated fishery model has since been replaced with sophisticated hydro-acoustic equipment that counts real herring in real-time. Using this equipment, local scientists traced the origin of the population collapse to the decline of young herring, starting in 1989.

    Besides outright killing young herring, oil weakened Spill Survivors. Herring born in 1989 were bathed in oil as eggs and embryos. Survivors matured in 1993 but their immune systems were damaged. A disease outbreak crashed the population when these young sickly young adults joined the other adults. The herring that returned in 1993 were covered with quarter-size bloody lesions, they swam slowly and on their sides, and the females were absorbing their egg masses.

    By 1993, it was equally obvious to sea lions and fisheries managers that something was very wrong with herring. This Sick Herring has a prominent spot on the Shame Pole. To this day, Exxon denies that the oil spill caused the herring collapse, but the Sick Herring is here for the world to see.

    The lesions on the Sick Herring are painted in the blood of the carver and five other community members who have carried this town’s spill stories into public battles with Exxon over the past 18 years.

    The herring fisheries opened briefly in 1997 and 1998 when small numbers of fish returned, but the herring were mostly young and small—as shown on the Shame Pole. The fisheries have been closed since 1998.

    Herring have not yet recovered. The loss has created a huge “hole” in the ecosystem, a hole no other species can fill. Now, on a good year, there are barely enough herring to support the Sound’s ecosystem. On a bad year, young birds starve, seals and sea lions go hungry, predators shift to other foods, and the Sound is quiet in spring. Without herring, the Prince William Sound ecosystem cannot be “healthy, robust and thriving,” as Exxon claims. It simply cannot.

    To bring attention to the double collapse of the pink salmon and herring in 1993, fishermen blocked Valdez Narrows in August 1993 and held up tanker traffic for three days. Fishermen realized that ecosystem studies were needed to address ecosystem problems.

    Three sets of ecosystem studies were started in as many years. The ecosystem studies looked at generations of fish, birds, and mammals in relation to each other and the environment. Much of value was learned about cycles of abundance in the North Gulf Coast, about the early lives of young pink salmon and herring, and about lingering harm from buried oil to wildlife.

    In essence, the ecosystem programs connected the dots among the individual species to form an ecosystem-scale understanding of spill effects. Oil was found to be 1,000 times more toxic than thought. Effects were measured from early life stages over life spans and generations. Exposure to low levels of buried oil was linked to poor survival in pink salmon and herring; in sea otters pup and pigeon guillemot adults—represented on the Shame Pole—and in other species.

    Lingering harm from Exxon’s oil was not confined to wildlife that frequent beaches—and it was certainly not confined to the few species studied by scientists. The Orca Whale on the Shame Pole represents Unknown Injury. Most of the spill’s effects on the Prince William Sound ecosystem are largely unknown. The Orca is alive, but suffering as it spouts oil—just like the Sound is alive, but still suffering as it slowly recovers.

    Over 20 Orca whales died within two years of the spill. Orcas were photographed in the oil slick. Although no whale carcasses were recovered, autopsies on oil-drenched sea otters and harbor seals found brain lesions from breathing toxic oil vapors. Whales breathed the same toxic vapors. Exxon assumed no responsibility for the dead whales and it was never fined for killing marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

    The people of Prince William Sound believe the Sound will be recovered when the herring have recovered and when we can no longer find buried oil on the beaches. Exxon, meanwhile, has declared the Sound essentially recovered since 1990.

    But Exxon’s spill science is smoke and mirrors, an exercise in creative deceit. Exxon can afford to buy hundreds of scientists, but corporate-funded scientists are beholden to industry. The peer-review process is just that: peers review the studies. Industry-sponsored journals publish industry-funded papers. The peer review process is an easy system to hack.

    An Exxon scientist in charge of spill research told the Chronicle of Higher Education, Exxon’s spill science was “largely a defensive mode. I see a study coming from the [EVOS] trustees with allegations, and then we’ll design a study to examine their conclusions.” This isn’t science. This is corporate blackmail. This is the worst sort of advocacy, conducted solely to manipulate numbers and obfuscate the truth.

    Exxon then wielded its advocacy science like a club to fight us in court and reduce fishermen’s claims to a pittance of what we lost from fishing. Yet, if oil harms generations of salmon and herring, then Exxon should pay for generations of lost fishing. To us, this is a reasonable claim.

    The compensatory damages from the spill were largely limited to what Exxon paid in advance claims and oil spill cleanup work—one year of lost fishing time for us. Claimants are now relying on the punitive award to compensate us for other spill losses. Ross is going to talk more about the Injustice System and our court case.

    Before he does, I will share three more examples of Exxon’s abuse of public policy and the legal system. First, to return to spill volume, the year after the spill, laws passed that require oil shippers to plan for, and respond to, an “Exxon Valdez-size” spill. Think about this. If three times as much oil spilled, then the amount of equipment required by the current contingency plans is not adequate to respond to an “Exxon Valdez-size” spill. The public, communities and environment are left holding the risk, just as we were 18 years ago.

    Second, Exxon argues that the $5 billion punitive damage award was excessive and unwarranted. Punitive damages are supposed to alter the behavior of the perpetrator to prevent the same accident from happening again. If the $5 billion punitive award was sufficient, then Exxon should have been the first oil company in Prince William Sound to double hull its tankers—instead of the last. Instead of buying new tankers as the other oil companies have done, the richest company in the world recently bought BP’s old double hull tankers, built in the 1970s. Once again, the risk of operating these old tankers will be borne by the public and the environment.

    Third, Exxon continues to cover up evidence that over 6,700 workers became sick during the 1989 cleanup. Likely thousands may be suffering lingering illnesses from exposure to oil vapors and chemical cleanup products. By law, under a hazardous waste cleanup, the spiller must pay for long-term health monitoring. But Exxon continues to deny that workers are sick because of the cleanup. The oil spill absorbent boom at the base of the Shame Pole symbolizes the failed cleanup and the sick workers.

    In closing, we have lost more than fish and businesses. Much of what we lost was considered unreasonable claims in the eyes of the law. We lost our sense of confidence in the health of Prince William Sound and the future of our fishing industry. We lost a unique way of life that supported our families and our town. We lost the rich interweavings of a culture based on harvest, sharing, and celebration of wild foods. We lost our trust in the government and oil industry to safeguard the environment while pursuing oil profits. We lost years of quality time with our children and Elders.

    These losses to quality of life and Native Culture are invisible in court of law, but the losses are painful and real. As Spill Survivors, we have learned that the power to heal our community comes from within each of us. Healing happens when we work together on issues and when we gather for dances, theater, parades, salmon feeds and festivals.

    Community Unity—carved into the base of the Shame Pole—draws us together, binds us, and heals us.

    For the past 18 years of empty promises, clever deception and outright lies, the Shame Pole speaks for all the oiled communities. We ask the world to listen and join us as we declare: Shame on Exxon Mobil.
.    Richard Thorne and Gary Thomas, “Herring and oil don’t mix: A lesson from the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” Proceedings Oceans 2006; Gary Thomas and Richard Thorne, “Acoustical-optical assessment of Pacific herring and their predator assemblage in Prince William Sound,” Aquatic Living Resources, 16:247-253.
.    Lila Guterman, “Slippery Science:  15 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, researchers debate its lingering effects with $100-million on the line,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2004.

18th EVOS Memorial