Exxon Valdez Survivor To Tennessee Coal Sludge Victims: Get Everything In Writing

Open letter to Tennessee communities harmed by the coal ash spill

By Riki Ott

CORDOVA, Alaska -- I am sorry for your losses. These simple words were not said enough in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster that devastated our landscape, lives, and future.

Our community learned a lot about dealing with disaster and healing in the 20 years since Exxon's oil coated beaches in beautiful Prince William Sound and stripped our lives of innocence. Perhaps we can share some hard-earned wisdom that might save you some of the wrong turns we made.

Consider first the setup. I'll bet your spill, like ours, was an accident waiting to happen. The promised safety, spill prevention, and spill response measures weren't there when our accident occurred. The promises had fallen victim to cost-cutting measures in the name of higher profits and cheaper oil.

Don't think that the government authorities and the industry will see the error of their ways and hasten to set things right. It took an act of Congress (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990), citizen oversight groups composed of spill survivors, and a couple of decades of tireless work on our part to force change. We're still waiting for every tanker to be double-hulled, a promise made (and broken) as a condition of building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline nearly 35 years ago.

Next consider the spill. Those at fault, including the state and federal governments, will take extraordinary measures to hide the extent of the harm. Your spill has already doubled in size from initial reports. And human health risks? Government officials are telling you no worries, right?

After Exxon's spill, the state of Alaska issued public health advisories declaring there was "no risk of adverse health effects from breathing the air." Exxon failed to report 6,722 cases of upper respiratory infections among cleanup workers to federal safety officials--no worries, trust us.

Then Exxon sealed the court records from public review when the evidence of a massive chemical poisoning epidemic from breathing oil-saturated air surfaced in a toxic tort lawsuit. The records are sealed until 2023, which just happens to be four years after ExxonMobil can legally destroy all medical records from its cleanup operation. No worries!

And of course, according to those at fault, there will be no long-term environmental effects. The environment will recover rapidly. You just watch!

We watched fish populations in Prince William Sound collapse three and four years after the spill. It was obvious to us that the young fish and eggs had not survived their oil bath. There was a time delay between when the young were exposed and when the adults failed to return.

Government studies later validated our version of reality, but Exxon has loudly beat the drums of dissent and proclaimed its "science" is better. We're just delusional up here. In fact, we may have to go to court yet again, in order to get any of the court-ordered $92 million, promised two years ago, for lingering environmental harm.

Meanwhile, the herring have still not recovered from the 1993 collapse. The once flourishing fisheries remain closed indefinitely. There is a new generation of children who have never seen herring. Ecosystem recovery is delayed by loss of this key forage fish. The bankers are not delusional about the debt owed on fishing permits, once thought of as retirement security and now a financial wreaking ball of home life.

Now let's consider ways to get out of this mess. Those promises to make you whole? Relocate your homes and whatnot? Get them in writing in legally-binding agreements. In fact, put in writing exactly what it will take to make you whole as families and as a community. Use your list as a benchmark so when the media return in one-five-ten and twenty years for "anniversaries," you will have a way to gauge recovery.

Working together on something for the greater good will hasten healing. So pick a focus, whether it's dealing with the mental health and social trauma, environmental trauma, or economic trauma. Form a core working group and figure out what you need to do to short-circuit the harm--or else you'll be wallowing in it for years. Such Peer Listening Circles are tools that shift people from victim mode to survivor mode--a vital change that can literally save lives--and rebuild a sense of community. Take it from a sibling injured community: this works.

And heed our warning--lawsuits do not work to recover losses! The legal system is currently broken. Better to invest your time in mediation. Calculate your short- and long-term economic harm and the harm to quality of life. Balance these against spending the next twenty years in litigation. Make demands and make concessions, but be sure to do both as a community. Insist on a process where the people represent themselves and the lawyers take a back seat. Process is important to healing.

Finally, consider this: your lives have been forever changed. Accept it. You have your hands full now. But commit to help making the long-term and fundamental changes in our lifestyles, communities, and government so that this won't happen again--to you or to any other community.

Spill survivor and author Riki Ott shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). She also wrote Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$, on the long-term effects of the oil spill on people and the ecosystem. Ott is a former "fisherma'am" and now a full-time community activist, committed to making human values count over corporate profits. She lives in Cordova, Alaska.

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