The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: On Its 20th Anniversary, We Can't Let Corporate Media Tell the Story


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.

Then, of course, there's the fact that this isn't ancient history. As we saw earlier this month in Australia, devastating oil spills still occur to this day, and with alarming frequency.

For these reasons, BuzzFlash ran a series on the Exxon Valdez last month. Due to the multi-faceted nature of this story, we split it up into four parts:

Our first article addresses the efforts of Alaskans to try and force oil companies to safely transport oil before the spill, in an attempt to avoid disasters such as the Exxon Valdez. The second article in the series deals with the despicable attempts of Exxon to avoid making good on its promises to clean up and pay for the damage it inflicted upon Alaska. The third in our series details the environmental devastation that continues to plague the Sound to this day. Finally, part four talks about Exxon's commitment to shoddy science and propaganda, which supports their lies about oil and the environment.

Tomorrow we'll be publishing an in-depth interview with the aforementioned Riki Ott, who has an excellent new book out about the spill and spent the past 20 years fighting for Prince William Sound. Riki's story is our story, and there are many reasons why the progressive community needs to hear it.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest man-made disaster to ever afflict our nation. The effects of the oil, of which much is still lying just beneath the surface of the beaches of Prince William Sound, are still being felt today thanks to cover-ups and the shoddy quality of the initial cleanup efforts.

Beyond the environmental massacre precipitated by the spill itself, Exxon is guilty of extreme negligence. Alaskan fishing towns such as Cordova and Valdez are shadows of their former selves due to the environmental, economic, and social repercussions of the spill. Despite corporate promises, the communities torn asunder by the disaster were never made whole again. It's a sad state of affairs when people who have been hurting for two decades are still waiting for the situation they've been trapped in to be resolved. That is, in itself, an important reason to go back to this story on its 20th anniversary.

But the significance of the Exxon Valdez disaster goes beyond gallons and dollar signs.

The Exxon Valdez spill taught scientists a valuable lesson about how much more toxic oil is than previously thought. The ensuing litigation taught survivors that multinational corporations don't always keep their promises. And the entire process taught Exxon Mobil how to lie their way out of responsibility for their actions.

Too often our collective attention span is so short that it can blind us to stories of long-term abuse such as this one. But being aware of the facts and lies surrounding this disaster is more than just cultivating a sense of history; it means being better informed of our nation's love affair with oil and Corporate America. 

Check out the whole BuzzFlash Exxon Valdez Series:

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