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
√ 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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