The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: On Its 20th Anniversary, We Can't Let Corporate Media Tell the Story
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
This week you may catch the sliver of media coverage regarding the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- and, regretfully, there will only be a sliver, for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, a lot of the people telling the story have spoken to Big Oil before talking to small town Alaska, and the meager amount of anniversary coverage that the public will receive will be damaged because of that.
Riki Ott, a marine biologist living in Cordova, AK who has studied the ecological, social, and economic effects of the spill from day one, told BuzzFlash what she, as an unofficial spokesperson for those hurt by the spill, learned about the game of "media capture" in her spars with Exxon:
"If the media spoke with Exxon people first, and then came to us, we would find ourselves having to disprove what Exxon had already said, instead of just being able to tell our own story. And the stories were always spun toward Exxon. So I think it's a game of media capture," Ott said in a BuzzFlash interview. "I think all these big corporations have the public relations angle completely down, a tool that they use to control damage and ultimately to minimize liability in court."
That media capture game continues to this day.
Some of the misinformation is unintentional and unavoidable. Though you'll see "11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound" repeated in the media, there's no way to know if that number is accurate. Most scientists say 11 million is a low-end estimate, now placing their guesses as high as 30 million gallons.
Other "facts" are blatantly misreported. The New York Times' editorial piece about the 20th anniversary asserts this about the current state of affairs:
Supertankers have been made safer with double hulls, emergency teams given better equipment. Some fish species, though not all, have recovered.
Sure, some supertankers have double hulls. But that technology, while available and promised many decades ago, is far from universal, and Exxon Mobil is dragging its feet against the extra precaution as strenuously as any other oil company, if not more so. The double hulls aren't actually mandated by Congress until 2015, thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was inspired by the Exxon Valdez spill itself. In addition, the debate over which species have recovered and even what recovery means is contentious to say the least, and the above editorial does not even acknowledge the controversy.
Even some progressive news sources take Exxon's word that they've paid $3.4 billion in damages and cleanup costs, but they're victims of fuzzy math. According to Amy E. Trainer in her article The Whole Truth: What Exxon really paid for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (available for download here), "The true amount of financial liability that Exxon incurred, after factoring in tax credits, insurance payments, and the discount rate as applied to the civil natural resources damages fine, is much closer to $1,776,000,000 or roughly half of what Exxon has claimed."
Even if they correctly present the facts and the lies of this complex story, you can bet few news organizations will bring up Exxon Mobil's annual profits. As the rest of the world sinks into a recession, Exxon is breaking its own records in the money-making contest. Yet they still drag out payments to Alaskans who have lost everything, driving many into poverty as appellate courts halve settlement amounts over and over again.