The lecture was part of a series of lectures held by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Although most speakers are Cornell faculty, Ott came to Cornell after Virginia Winkler ’14, read Ott’s book, Not One Drop, and sent Ott an email. After reading the e-mail and learning Winkler was a student at Cornell, Ott requested to come to Cornell to give the lecture.
Ott used the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 in the Prince William Sound of Alaska as evidence to what she believed would likely occur to the Gulf ecoysystem. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup finished, the government claimed all was back to normal; however local scientists worried about the ecosystem collapsing in the future.
Four years later the ecosystem indeed collapsed as the populations of fish such as Pink Salmon and Pacific Ferring dropped precipitously and the bird populations soon followed. Even to this day, the Pacific Herring population in the area has yet to recover.
In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed based on scientific knowledge at the time and since then, much research has been conducted on the toxicity of oil. Ott stated the studies found that “oil is much more toxic than we thought, about a thousand times so,” she said.
Yet, “the science has shifted, but the public policy has not, so right now, our federal laws are inadequate to protect worker safety, public health, and the environment from oil,” she said
Ott claims OSHA has a loophole such that is fails to recognize chemical illness as a legitimate health problem and as a result, many health problems caused by the dispersed oil and the dispersant used are not being treated. This has left people with respiratory and visceral problems that physicians cannot seem to cure.
Ott showed a video of work she did with graduate students close to the Exxon Valdez oil spill site 17 years after the spill. The students dug a small hole in the beach and filled it with sea water. Oil soon rose to the surface of the hole. After the lecture, Winkler said that “it’s amazing how the oil is still there.” Because the same methods were used to clean up the BP disaster as in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Ott suggested that decades from now, the beaches on the Gulf coast still might not be safe for tourists.
Winkler said the anecdote that was most shocking to her was when Ott went to a site which she was told had a pile of dolphin carcasses and found nothing. Ott claimed the military had taken the carcasses out to sea away from the oil disaster area. She was shocked at “what lengths the companies and government have been going to hide what is going on.”
Ott hopes that the BP disaster will be “like a Pandora’s box” and will change the public perception surrounding the short and long-term impact of oil in the environment and our society. She added that “just because the political machinery is all balled up doesn’t mean people can’t do anything.”