Next week, islanders will have a front row seat to BP’s 2010 oil spill and its toxic clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico when a leading expert on oil pollution presides at a documentary about the spill and its far-reaching effects.
Riki Ott, PhD, an internationally known marine toxicologist, author and islander, will present the film “Dirty Energy,” which follows Gulf residents as they deal with the spill, struggle to rebuild their lives and contend with ongoing health problems from the oil and the chemical dispersants used in clean-up efforts.
Ott, who now lives on Vashon when she is not traveling for work, said the film’s message is extremely relevant in communities that could be affected by oil spills, including Vashon, with Puget Sound vulnerable to a spill and toxic dispersants — banned in Europe but approved for use in this country — stockpiled and ready to be used again at a moment’s notice.
“We are poised to do this again tomorrow,” she said.
Ott, who holds a masters degree and doctorate in marine pollution with a specialty in oil pollution, has a long history of dealing with the environmental and human effects of spills.
Last week, sitting in the sun at the Vashon home where she and her partner are house-sitting, Ott talked about her experiences, which include the two worst oil spill disasters in the United States — in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and in the Gulf of Mexico — and her hopes for change.
In 1985, after earning her doctorate from the University of Washington, Ott headed to Alaska to take a break and fish for the summer. She fell in love with the work, she said, and became a professional fisher in Cordova, a small community on an inlet of Prince William Sound. In March of 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into the sound, the direction of Ott’s life changed.
She dusted off her academic credentials, she said, and with others in the affected communities, set about a decades-long odyssey that included the collapse of the ecosystem four years later, severe health problems in people
involved in clean-up efforts, a decades-long fight for a financial settlement from Exxon and now — more than 20 years later — oil still fouling the beaches. Within months after the last of the settlement work was completed with Exxon — a bitter and hard-fought process that bankrupted many people, Ott said, she learned the news of the BP disaster, now considered the worst oil spill in U. S. history.
Spent from the long battle with Exxon, she intended not to get involved.
“I specifically decided to stay away,” she said, “but the media kept calling.”
Soon her thoughts changed, she said, and she booked a flight to Louisiana, where she went first to the small, hard-hit town of Venice, wanting to help the fishing community there.
“I thought they would make the same mistakes we did,” she said.
Intending to stay one month, she stayed a year.
When she arrived a week into the disaster, she said, people were already showing signs of chemical illness from the spill: respiratory problems, dysentery, nausea, headaches, dizziness and severe rashes.
BP, she said, not only was not giving out respirators, but vowed to fire anyone they had hired for the clean-up efforts who wore his or her own. Meanwhile, she said, some workers had to be medevaced off boats and were hosed off before being transported because the contamination was considered so toxic.
Oil, she said, is toxic on its own, and the dispersants used are toxic as well. But together, science has shown, oil and dispersants together are more toxic than oil alone. In part, that is because the dispersants are solvents that penetrate the skin of anything that comes into contact with it, taking the oil into the body’s organs and cells.
“The cure is worse than the cause,” she said.
Many people are still sick now, she said: members of the Coast Guard, BP employees, fishers, government workers, tourists, and, of course, residents of the Gulf.
The wildlife is showing the effects too. Dolphins, for example, are dying at high numbers and are being born with no eyes, and many shrimp are discolored from the oil, are deformed and have tumors.
“I know fishermen that are not eating their own catch,” she said.
The dispersant issue is one even those far from the sea should be concerned about, she said, as dispersants are not just used in ocean spills, but also in the fluid used to extract natural gas in fracking and in the dilutants used to transport tar sands crude oil — happening right now in Bellingham, she noted. And in Texas, President Barack Obama has given a green light to the building of the tar sands oil pipeline between Cushing and Houston, a distance of roughly 160 miles, Ott said.
At the heart of the matter for many environmental issues, Ott stressed, is that corporations wield extreme amounts of power.
Ott said she is now working to change that through education, political action and outreach, in part through an organization she co-founded called Ultimate Civics.
Some of the answers, though, lie not with government, but close to home, she said.
“The first attitude we have to change is our own,” she said. “We must do things in a different way.”
At the film’s showing, islander and former marine mammal veterinarian Tag Gornall will introduce Ott, and it is their connection that is bringing the film to Vashon’s big screen.
Like Ott, Gornall worked in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill, called upon by Exxon to help save marine mammals there.
He did not meet Ott during that time, he said, but knew of her and her work and followed her professional life over the years.
One day last summer, he stopped by Hogsback Farm on Vashon to say hello to farm owners Amy and Joseph Bogaard. Instead, he learned the family was away and — when Ott’s partner handed him their house-sitting business card — discovered that not only was Ott on the island, but was, in fact, just upstairs.
“Things like that happen on Vashon,” Gornall said.
Beginning in Alaska, he said, Ott’s efforts to change the world some have taken a lot of fortitude.
“She has a phenomenal amount of passion and knowledge and awareness, and I can still see her swimming up stream,” he said. “I admire her tenacity.”
Gornall, who is a member of Island GreenTech, one of the evening’s sponsors, arranged to show “Dirty Energy.” He has not seen the film, he said, but as a veterinarian at a number of chemical and oil spills, he knows the story well.
“I’ve lived the movie,” he said.
In the Gulf, Gornall said, the loss of life has been huge and loss of environment enormous, and he would like to see many islanders attend the screening and Ott’s presentation.
“I hope the people who come listen take away something from it,” he said, adding about Ott, “She is a flower on the island.”
“Dirty Energy” will be shown at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Vashon Theatre. The movie will be free, but donations to support Riki Ott’s work will be accepted. Ott will speak after the film.