On a hot Friday evening, a packed audience at the Native Sons Hall in Courtenay listened spellbound and sometimes close to tears to marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott.
In an event sponsored by World Community, Ott was describing the long-term impacts to fish, mammals, and humans from the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Gulf, and Kalamazoo River oil spills.
Ott, who was a commercial fisher in Cordova, Alaska, as well as a trained scientist, was in a unique position when Prince William Sound was hit by the Exxon Valdez oil spill 23 years ago. She described how the response to the spill was nothing like what had been promised by the oil companies before the port was opened.
“They said it was cleaned up,” she said, “but two years later the pink salmon run failed, and four years later the herring disappeared. The herring fishery is now closed indefinitely.”
The most poignant — and pungent — witness to the impossibility of “cleanup” were two small jars Ott circulated through the hall. They were filled with sand and beach stones from a beach that had been considered “cleaned up” for two decades.
The jars stank of oil, and the woman next to me, who touched the stones, scrambled for a tissue to clean her fingers.
“We can respond to an oil spill,” declared Dr. Ott, “We can never clean it up.”
Worst of all, Ott said, was the impact on the community, which was in chaos, as debt and despair ate at family and social life. The small fishing community of Cordova had to pull together and revision its values.
It has managed to resuscitate itself, with the help of local economic development such as niche marketing of a salmon run form the Copper River, which was not impacted by the spill.
The Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan is even more problematic, since the ruptured pipeline was carrying Alberta tar sands oil — dilbit — bitumen diluted with lighter petroleum products plus other undisclosed chemicals.
When the pipe ruptured, the dilbit separated with lighter compounds evaporating, causing the lighter PAHs to spread far and wide, and the heavy tar sands gunk to sink to the bottom of the river, spreading for 40 kilometres.
In all this, insisted Ott, over and over again, whether 23 years ago or two, the communities find themselves alone, with ruined environments, ruined industries, and lingering but unrecognised personal health impacts. Citizens, she said, are the victims of ‘lies and betrayal,” being sacrificed for the economy.
Her response, especially to the issue of the proposed dilbit pipelines facing BC, is that crisis provides the opportunity to reorganize, decide what wealth means in your community, and develop democratically-driven local economies, such as those championed by the Transition Town movement.
“Protect your local wealth with local laws,” and work for real democracy. “We can believe in it. We can work for it. It’s not a goal, it’s a journey.”
Delores Broten is the editor of the Watershed Sentinel.