Riki Ott

If you’re not angry, then you’re just not paying attention, asserts author and professor Riki Ott. With her razor sharp wit, slicing skepticism, and boundless energy, the civil rights activist and marine toxicologist will be taking on the biggest bad guy of all-the oil industry-in her upcoming book, Not One Drop, due out this fall. The book also discusses our society’s capability to cope with large-scale disasters like oil spills. To further inform the public on the subject at hand, Ott will be holding a series of public lectures and discussions in the coming months, the next of which takes place at the Santa Barbara Public Library on February 6.

A resident of Alaska for the past 22 years, Ott was deeply moved and angered by the ramifications of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and she has since crusaded against the oil business, the lies and deception she claims they promote, and America’s addiction to the goopy fossil fuel. “I’m trying to educate the public,” said Ott to The Independent. “Only then will policies change, but the oil industry is trying to block any progress.”

Not One Drop is about the Exxon spill’s toxic legacy and uses the infamous disaster as a framework for a larger story about our society. Ott believes we are generally unprepared when things go wrong and risks materialize. “We live in a risk-riddled society,” she said. “We depend on technology, and we make a million assumptions every step of the way. Almost none of us know where our food comes from, or our water, or our electricity, and almost no one knows what’s in our oil and in the air.”

Exxon <em>Valdez</em> oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989. Workers operating the high-pressure, hot-water wash suffered respiratory problems.

Ott seeks to educate the public on issues like oil combustion’s long-term effects on public health-a matter she declares has long been concealed from public ears. She also asserts that many state and federal laws meant to protect us from dangerous emissions-including those of the 1988 California Clean Air Act-are complete failures. They have done nothing, she says, to guard us from abundant airborne particulates which are far more dangerous than previously believed. In this arena, Ott’s number-one nemesis is the polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), which has been associated with immune system failure, respiratory problems, depression, asthma, and reproductive system collapse.

“If you live within 300 feet of a freeway, if you live 30 miles downwind of an oil refinery, if you drive every day in rush-hour traffic, you are literally shaving years off your life,” she said.

One of the most dramatic environmental effects of PAHs came after the Exxon Valdez disaster: the collapse of the local herring fishery. In the early 1990s, the estimated biomass of herring plummeted from 120,000 tons to 20,000, and biologist Richard Thorne of the Prince William Sound Science Center subsequently discovered that PAHs may disorder, disrupt, and destroy an animal’s capacity to procreate. Thus the dots were connected, and Exxon, which still owes $92 million in damages to the state and feds, lay at fault. Today, the herring biomass hovers at approximately 16,000 tons-less than the estimated threshold for successful procreation. The fishery has been closed indefinitely.

But the oil industry can’t be blamed for all of society’s hydrocarbon-related ills. While they dole out their oil, we are the ones that demand it. Beyond that, our government subsidizes the industry with our tax dollars.

“Americans pay $2,700 every year through subsidies to put this poison into our cars,” said Ott. “Just think of how much better and cheaper wind or solar would look if we just shifted those subsidies.”

Ott, who plans to conduct a lengthy Q&A session at her talk, will also be discussing our chances for reversing the damages we’ve inflicted on our environment. In fact, with the publicity garnered by Al Gore and the general discussion on global warming, Ott believes we are “nearing the tipping point on oil.” Just on the other side lies a promised land of solar panels and wind turbines, energy sources Ott is urging our government to support and develop.

If we don’t make the shift, she warns, the next generation will pay.

“I’m worried most of all about our kids,” Ott said. “This is all going to fall into their laps, and I can’t believe my own generation has left them in such a quandary and left them so unprepared for what climate change could do. Global climate change is nothing but a slow-moving disaster, and it’s going to pick up speed.”

But there may still be time to avert the disaster. “It’s not all too late for climate change, but we’ve got to get on it,” said Ott. “We’ve got to hustle.”

4•1•1 Marine oil pollution expert Dr. Riki Ott talks oil, politics, and climate change on Wednesday, February 6, at 7 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery. Not One Drop is due out in September 2008. For more information, call 963-1622.


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