We all remember the TV images of diligent cleanup workers in Alaska wiping the black sludge from the Exxon Valdez off the shores of the Prince William Sound. Who would have guessed that the well-intentioned workers were unknowingly being poisoned by Exxon? Those of us who are acutely aware of monopoly capital’s contradictions might have guessed that irreparable damage was being inflicted not only on the marine life, but also on the workers being paid to clean up Exxon’s disaster.
Many recognized the oil cleanup as the PR charade it was, and remained skeptical of rapid recovery announcements that poured out of the Exxon “science” circus. Maybe our skepticism had something to do with the historic legacy of corporate “accidents” — planned for and insured under capitalist accounting — that have inflicted numerous injuries on workers and the environment. Maybe we’re all too familiar with the slick stunts of green-washing campaigns. For me, seeing firsthand the oil residues seep out of Alaskan shores fifteen years after the spill confirmed my fears that long-term damage to the marine ecosystem had indeed occurred. However, new research released in Dr. Riki Ott‘s recent book Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill*reveals that long-term ecological damage was not the only consequence of the Exxon oil spill. Exxon knowingly poisoned its workers in the process of “remediation.”
If hand-wiping oil off rocks lacked media appeal, blasting the rocks with high-powered hot-water washes surely caught the camera’s attention. Dr. Ott reveals that Exxon’s pressurized hot water wash created oil mists and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) aerosols, resulting in chemical poisoning of workers who inhaled them. Did Exxon and VECO (the primary cleanup contractor) know about these health effects? Ott reports:
The oil industry was well aware of the health hazards of inhalation of various fractions of crude oil and its refined products before the [Exxon Valdez] spill. . . . Exxon had developed an extensive library on health effects from inhalation of oil vapors, mists, and aerosol — and proper protection for company employees.
Did Exxon tell the workers about the risk of oil mist and PAH inhalation? Did it offer trainings or protective gear? Did this behemoth of global oil compensate workers for resulting medical injuries? The answer to each question is a damning No. Perhaps the need to maintain an environmentally friendly public image (and thus market shares) convinced Exxon management to violate workers’ right-to-know provisions about the health effects of oil exposure, as well as exposure to solvents used in the cleanup.
By the end of 1989, Exxon had employed over 11,000 cleanup workers, 45% of whom worked directly on the oiled beaches. According to Exxon’s clinical data, 6,722 of those workers reported Upper Respiratory Infections — a symptom of chemical poisoning from inhalation of oil mists. For many workers, these symptoms persisted and worsened over the next decade. In addition, cleanup solvents contained health hazards known to cause respiratory damage and central nervous system disorder; chronic liver, kidney, and blood disorders; immune suppression; and acute skin disorders. Toxicologists discovered high levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in cleanup workers’ blood samples, similar to levels found in people working in oilfields in the Gulf War. Follow-up medical surveys conducted by Yale Medical School’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health document chronic symptoms of chemical sensitivities for exposed Exxon cleanup workers. To this day, some Exxon cleanup workers suffer from headaches, nausea, seizures, and cancer. Yet, only one worker has successfully litigated against Exxon for health compensation, all other cases have been dismissed on technicalities. Unbelievably, Exxon claimed a near-zero work related illness rate to the Alaska Department of Labor.
Exxon closed down its cleanup operations in 1992, after barraging the public with PR messages that Prince William Sound had rapidly recovered. But what about the oil that I saw collected from Alaska beaches last year? The Auke Bay Laboratory (NOAA) estimates that 56 tons of residual oil from the Exxon Valdez spill persists in the Prince William Sound’s intertidal zones. Over the past decade, researchers have found that acute and chronic effects from oil exposure to marine life can occur at much lower levels than previously expected. In 1989, the immediate wildlife deaths from exposure were only half the problem. Now, researchers have found long-term ecosystem disruption in the Prince William Sound due in part to oil-contaminated plankton, the base of the marine food web. The long-term effects of cleanup workers’ chemical poisoning are mirrored in persistent effects to the marine ecosystem.
And what are the long-term effects to Exxon and VECO? VECO grossed over $800 million for the cleanup alone. The cleanup profits allowed VECO to purchase The Anchorage Times (Alaska’s second largest newspaper) immediately after the spill, and VECO obligingly continued to green-wash Exxon’s crimes for years after the event. Exxon recouped half of the cleanup expenses through insurance and tax write-offs, and later entered into a successful merger with Mobil.
Industrial disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill are not unforeseen events that occur because of bad luck, or in this case a drunken sailor. They are anticipated risks accepted and planned for within the competitive logic of corporate monopoly enterprise. Management understands the dire consequences of such events to workers and nature. Yet the true cost of lost human and ecological health never registers in the overall balance sheet of capitalist accumulation. In fact, such events often lead to increased profits for owners and shareholders. As long as worker health and environmental protection are primarily determined by profit-hungry firms and not public-interest governance, we will be left echoing Dr. Ott’s sentiments: “The question is not if the next big spill will happen, but when.”
* The data in Dr. Ott’s book informs this essay.
Becky Clausen is a doctoral student studying Environmental Sociology at the University of Oregon.