Uncategorized Archive


Lots of Inconvenient Truths — Chemical Illness Epidemic in the Wake of the BP Blowout

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Recently Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer overseeing the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility to "make it right" for people harmed by the British Petroleum oil blowout disaster, told a Louisiana House and Senate committee that he had not seen any claims, or any scientific evidence, linking BP's oil and dispersant release to chemical illnesses. Feinberg also stated that chemical illnesses take years to show up — conveniently well after his tenure with the compensation fund.

Instead of tossing the media a juicy bone, Feinberg tossed a red herring. He is wrong at worst, or intentionally misleading at best, on all points.

The GCCF process makes it difficult for people to be compensated for medical claims or even raise illness claims, while making it easy to release claims and rights to future medical care and benefits for chemical illnesses or other medically-proven illness related to the BP blowout and disaster response.

In fact the GCCF process is so blatantly egregious in terms of protecting corporate liability at the expense of human rights and health that a bill was introduced in the Louisiana state legislature, specifically targeting the BP oil disaster, to declare such "contractual releases are invalid as against public policy" and the release of claims to future medical care and related benefits null and void. In Louisiana. BP lobbyists are reportedly out in force, trying to gut the legislation.

Further, the pro-industry bias in the GCCF process turned thousands of people away. Over 130,000-plus claimants have filed lawsuits, now consolidated in Louisiana federal court under Judge Carl Barbier. According to one of the law firms involved, many of these claimants have indicated concerns about health and desire medical monitoring.

Feinberg's downplay of chemical illnesses and other medical issues stemming from the BP oil disaster — with full knowledge of the parallel court proceedings — shows that he and his boss, BP, have no intention of "making it right" for people in the Gulf.

"Not recognizing that there is a problem — that's the problem," said Joey Yerkes, a former Florida cast net fisherman who became sick from chemical exposure while doing cleanup work during summer 2010. He filed a medical illness claim for compensation through the GCCF in early 2011 despite the obstacles. He had to file all his paperwork for medical claims twice because the GCCF employees could not find his initial paperwork. Joey undertook a rigorous treatment under medical care to detoxify his body — but he exhausted his finances before completing treatment. Now he is forced to wait for the BP-controlled GCCF to pay, while his health steadily deteriorates. It's all he can do, he says, "just to chase my 2-year-old daughter around the park when we play."

Unlike Joey Yerkes, Monette Wynne has not filed medical claims through the GCCF. Her entire family — herself, husband, 4-year-old twins, and 6-year-old child — all tested positive for oil in their blood after spending last summer in their seaside home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Wynne was so upset about her sick family that she and her husband drove to Atlanta, Georgia, and presented the family's test results to seven toxicologists with the federal agency, Center for Disease Control.

"We were told the levels of oil were of no concern," Wynne said. The federal scientists told them their levels of oil in blood were typical of urban dwellers who breathe traffic exhaust. Wynne didn't believe it — her family's blood work shows they have more oil in their blood than most people, and her family is all sick with symptoms like those of Joey Yerkes — symptoms that became widespread in Gulf communities during summer 2010; symptoms that are not going away. Wynne is considering borrowing money to treat her family. She and her husband had exhausted their savings to buy their dream home, a home that is now for sale.

Unfortunately for Joey Yerkes and the Wynne family — and the legions of other Gulf residents and visitors with similar medical issues from summer 2010, British Petroleum is the "responsible party" for its disaster, but BP is actually responsible, by law, to its shareholders, not the injured people in the Gulf. This inherent conflict of interest means Feinberg is nothing more than a well-paid sock puppet for BP. He can be expected to act to minimize liability and financial damages for the "responsible party" by covering up the chemical illness epidemic in the Gulf.

Further, the federal laws and regulations designed to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment from oil and chemical poisoning are so riddled with exemptions that they cannot deliver their promise of protection — as people near oil drilling and hydrologic fracturing ("fracking") operations have discovered. Social documentaries such as Gaslands and Split Estate exposed chemical illnesses and symptoms similar to the Gulf injuries and independent studies documented groundwater contamination, but the federal government still denies there is a problem.

Similarly, the federal government is also in denial about the horrific-and-federally-sanctioned poisoning of the Gulf people and wildlife, despite prior and post knowledge of the extent of contamination and the health impacts of oil and chemicals used to drill or disperse oil.

As Joey pointed out, denial of the problem is the problem. At the root of the issue of oil and chemical poisoning in the Gulf and elsewhere in America lies the problem of corporate constitutional rights — transnational corporations claiming human rights. The challenge for all Americans is to reclaim our democracy and end corporate rule.

Activist and author Riki Ott is attending the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, August 24-28, hosted by the grassroots coalition MoveToAmend. To learn more about what happened in the Gulf, and people and communities are doing to reclaim democracy and end corporate rule, visit www.changingtheendgame.org.

Read original post at The Huffington Post here.

Riki Ott is author of the book

Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage
in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The U.S. Supreme Court Sells Out: A Government of, for, and by the Corporations

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizen United v. Federal Elections Commission case sold America down the river. It opens the floodgates to unfettered — unlimited! – corporate and union spending on candidate elections by overturning state and federal restrictions on electioneering. This will affect all elections: school board, zoning commissions, state and municipal judges, state representatives, congressional delegates, President.

The Supreme Court ruling means Americans can kiss goodbye whatever shred of faith we had left in the electoral process. Forget dissent. Forget debate. Forget reason. Corporate-owned media megaphones will drown out any troublesome voices. Our elected officials will henceforth represent corporations first and people second — bluntly and boldly — if they want to serve in "public" office.

Our ExxonMobil-funded officials will tell us climate change is good for us as they open America for coal and oil leasing. Our Big Pharma- and Big Insurance-backed congressional delegates will tell us you-don't-really-want-a-public-option in health care reform. Our Monsanto-owned officials will give us growth hormones in milk and GMO diets. Goodbye Republic. Goodbye Democratic Process. Hello Corporate America.

Constitutional scholars are calling this is the most tragic assault on our human rights in the 220-plus years of our Republic. How did things come to this?

The expansion of corporate rights began over 200 years ago as the anti-corporate fervor from the American Revolution began to fade. The U.S. Supreme Court blurred the distinction between "natural persons," or real living human beings, and "artificial persons" — corporations — in 1886 when it conferred the 14th Amendment right of "equal protection of the laws" to an artificial person, a railroad corporation in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Since then, the Supreme Court has handed out other human rights to artificial persons (corporations), including the battery of First Amendment rights leading to Citizens United.

There were early attempts to reverse parts, but not all, of the trend to give human rights to corporate persons. Specifically, under First Amendment issues, Congress passed the Tillman Act in 1907 to prohibit corporate expenditures in candidate elections to end an era of big money corruption and usher in campaign finance regulation. However, regulating something allows it to happen to the extent allowed by law and laws can change.

Starting in the 1970s, the Supreme Court began to chisel away our election integrity by granting corporations First Amendment rights including: "commercial speech," as in free speech equals money; "political speech," as in unlimited corporate spending for ads to overturn citizen initiatives; "negative speech," as in the right not to speak and disclose harmful contents of products; and "false speech," as in the right to blatantly lie in advertising under the guise of let the buyer beware. "Robust speech" or unlimited corporate spending on elections is just the next chip to fall from our First Amendment protections. It may be the last chip as there's really nothing left to protect from corporate usurpation.

When I recently asked a class of fifth graders in Santa Barbara who were the "people" referred to in our Constitution, there was a stunned silence. Finally, one boy jabbed his thumb into his chest and said in an exasperated tone, "WE!" Surely our Founders had only this WE in mind when they drafted our Constitution and Bill of Rights. After all, WE had just rebelled against the monarchy and moneyed corporations of the time. When we first set out on the new adventure of our Republic in 1888, corporations were carefully controlled creatures of state legislatures. They had privileges, not rights. But no more. Powerful corporations burst their legal shackles using a backdoor approach through the Supreme Court to amend the real people's Constitution by judicial fiat. Our democracy has been hijacked by corporations through illegitimate usurpation of rights intended for human persons. It makes no sense to fifth graders that fake persons have the same rights as real people - and it shouldn't make sense to the rest of us either. The United States is no longer a government of, for, and by the real people: human rights are being trumped by fake persons - corporate - rights and power. It's time to change the rules. Our Founders knew that the ultimate defenders of the U.S. Constitution were not the government or the court. The ultimate defenders are WE, the real people. It's time to amend our Constitution through the front door approach spelled out in the Constitution. It's time to make what is obvious to fifth graders the law of our land: People rule, not property! WE need to amend the Constitution to affirm that only human beings have constitutional rights, not artificial persons, not corporations.

 
Riki Ott shares her personal story of transformation from scientist to community activist in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). Sign the motion to amend the Constitution to affirm rule by the people, not corporations!

 
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

A Letter to the Governor of Alaska

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Governor Parnell
Office of the Governor
Juneau, AK

Governor Parnell,

The recent Pathfinder accident at Bligh Reef calls into question Alaska's ability to deliver on its promise of "environmentally responsible" oil and gas development. Especially for people in Prince William Sound, this promise is meaningless unless it includes transportation, and response and restoration after the inevitable spills.

There is an opportunity for this state to demonstrate that it will act fairly and responsibly to protect its residents from oil spill impacts when the law fails to do so. Specifically, I am writing to ask you to forgive debt owed to the state, or any state banks such as CFAB, on all Prince William Sound herring seine and gillnet permits that were impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill–or, at a minimum, to identify and work with the hardship cases to prevent further forced bankruptcies, home or business losses, or even more suicides over spill-related debt and stress.

Let me explain why I am asking you as governor to prevent further financial and emotional harm from this spill. Recall when the Prince William Sound seiners blockaded Valdez Narrows in August 1993, fishermen made three demands: 1) ecosystem studies to determine what was ailing the Sound; 2) no fines for civil disobedience; and 3) forgiveness of debt on fishing permit loans. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pledged to fulfill the first two demands - and did. Then Governor Hickel pledged to fulfill the last demand, but the state's banks later refused to make good on the governor's promise.

Federal Judge Russel Holland ruled that Exxon didn't have to pay for devalued fishing permits as long as losses weren't realized through sales. Of course, the losses were realized by the banks, which passed the ballooning debt on permits that couldn't be fished, or where the fisheries no longer supported permit payments, off to their clients. Individuals were left to bear the losses alone - and the losses mounted each year as debts went unpaid.

Salmon seine permits tumbled in PWS from the pre-spill record high prices of $300,000 to a low of around $12,000 when the pink salmon population collapsed in the mid 1990s from delayed oil spill impacts. Since then, pink salmon recovered, and the permit prices are roughly one-third of their pre-spill value, selling, and trending upward in value.

In contrast, herring seine permits also tumbled in PWS from the pre-spill record high prices of $300,000 to a low of around $10,000 after PWS herring stocks collapsed also likely from delayed oil spill impacts. (The high mortality of eggs and young fish in 1989 were realized in 1993 as poor recruitment and high mortality of adults.) Herring stocks have not recovered and the fisheries are closed indefinitely. Herring seine and gillnet permits are not selling and trending downward in value but upward in debt from unpaid loans.

The mandatory class action against Exxon was largely over last fall when Exxon was ordered to pay the outstanding interest on the greatly reduced punitive award. The full costs of Exxon's spill have finally hit home and it falls most heavily on fishermen who owned the once-prized PWS herring seine permits and other herring permits.

In some cases, the individual's long-tem debt on their herring permit exceeds their entire punitive award. Instead of assisting in such hardship cases, the state is exacerbating the problem. Not only has the state seized punitive awards to pay outstanding debts, it is also demanding more payments in cases where the debt exceeds the individual's award - and the state has left nothing for individuals to pay federal taxes owed on the award amounts.

This community may suffer a fresh wave of bankruptcies, foreclosures, and maybe even suicides from insurmountable spill debt. But there is a chance to minimize this trauma.

Governor, you could make good on the pledge of a former governor. You could forgive debt on all PWS herring permits - or you could forgive debt on the hardship cases and return to hardship individuals a portion of the seized punitive award to satisfy the individual's income taxes on the award.

There is urgency to this request: Scientists do not anticipate herring stocks to recover sufficiently to support fisheries in the foreseeable future. We can assume any outstanding debts on unfishable herring permits will only continue to accrue interest - and impact individual lives.

Governor, fishermen didn't spill the oil that caused this financial hardship. Why should fishermen be held accountable for assuming the financial risk of transporting oil? Surely protecting innocent residents from unforeseen oil spill impacts, such as the outrageous debt on unfishable and worthless permits, counts as "responsible oil and gas development." It's time for you to get creative and make good on a past promise from one of your predecessors.

Sincerely,

Riki Ott, PhD
Cordova, Alaska

cc: Alaska Congressional Delegation (Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Begich, Rep. Young)
Former Governor Walter Hickel
Alaska state legislators (Sen. Albert Kookesh, Rep. Bill Thompson)
Cordova Mayor Tim Joyce

Cordova District Fishermen United
United Fishermen of Alaska

 
This letter was originally published on the Huffington Post.

More Oil? Cheap Gas? Now is the Time to Make Tough Choices

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Cordova, Alaska. When President Obama said, during a speech on environment and climate change, “America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet,” people across the country grew hopeful that we were, at last, charting a course away from fossil fuels. And we certainly can. But it will require some unprecedented action from Congress, and from you, to give our new president support to make this change. That’s because the reality is that, right now, Americans are being held hostage to dwindling resources and climate meltdown exactly because of the hostile regimes of Big Oil and Big Coal.

This month, we’ve been given an opportunity to start changing that. The U.S. Department of Interior is asking Americans if we want to drill for oil and gas in our coastal oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Arctic. We can either take this opportunity to voice an opinion – or ignore it. But ignoring it would be a big mistake because the Obama Administration and Congress would then make the decision without ample citizen input. And that could be a disaster, because – even in a time of clear and present danger precipitated by burning fossil fuels – Congress has failed to reach consensus and give us a comprehensive vision of our energy future.

The reason is simple: too many politicians owe allegiance to Big Oil and Big Coal instead of the American people. Further, armies of corporate lobbyists deep in Big Oil’s pockets work to block efforts to – God forbid! – reduce our dependency on oil. For every member of Congress, there are now four climate lobbyists, working feverishly to block or water down any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Citizens are understandably confused about the options before us. Polls are skewed to influence public opinion and confuse our understanding of the dangers involved in offshore drilling by not honestly stating issues. For example, public hysteria in favor of drilling was primed by the loaded question: Do we need to drill America’s coastal seas for oil so we will have lower gas prices at the pump? Yet the facts remain that permission to drill offshore would not provide gas consumers with immediate financial relief.

People would have clamored to get off oil had the issues been honestly stated. Perhaps we should ask: Do we need to drill America’s coastal seas for oil to further enrich Big Oil? To further reduce our chances of reversing and surviving climate meltdown? To give more children asthma or to have more adults die premature deaths from illnesses related to breathing ultrafine particles – soot and oil emissions – ubiquitous in urban air from school buses, cars, and coal- or oil-fired power plants? (USNews.com, TerryTamminen.com)

With our nation in the throes of economic crisis, it’s easy to think that any business is good for the economy. Offshore oil drilling, tar sands, oil shales, whatever: bring it on. Anything sounds good as long as it has a positive economic return.

But more of the same will not work. Burning fossil fuels is what got us into this mess of climate meltdown, if you agree with thousands of non-industry funded scientists. Even if you don’t agree, it is better to err on the side of caution, especially with so much at stake.

So who is pushing for more drilling? Who is leading America into this evolutionary dead end of increased reliance of even dirtier coal and oils? Big Oil and Big Coal, of course.

Einstein observed, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” It is no surprise that oil corporations see America’s future as more of the same – crude oil and coal or, as conventional oil becomes increasingly scarce, then the energy- and ecologically intensive tar sands and oil shales.

One of the most hostile regimes to sustaining life and the planet is ExxonMobil, the so-called T. rex of the hydrocarbon age (after CEO Rex Tillerson). According to Exxon’s magical thinking, the world is awash in oil, climate meltdown is a natural geologic cycle, and there is no need for alternative energy. “We’re not in that business,” Tillerson stated at the company’s 2007 annual meeting.

T. rex is one of the largest corporate predators on the planet. Driven by corporate tunnel vision and profits, Exxon operates more single-hull tankers than the other top nine oil companies combined , ignoring risk to the world’s oceans. It is the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S., ignoring risk to U.S. security. It is one of the (if not the) largest sponsor of propaganda from climate critics, ignoring risk of climate meltdown. And much of its untapped reserves, waiting to be developed, are unconventional “dirty” gas and oil such as the Canadian tar sands that will produce, when burned, three to five times more greenhouse gases than conventional crude.

If Exxon is not in the business of alternative energy, it should step aside for those who are – but that is not the nature of a hostile regime. It won’t step aside until forced to do so. Why should it? T. rex is the largest and most profitable oil company in business – at the planet’s expense.

Change starts with us, the American people, and we have a perfect opportunity now for radical reform on many levels. Obama cannot free America from the tyranny of Big Oil and Big Coal without lots of support from the people. Let’s not fool ourselves. Now is the time for tough choices.

“Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare,” states a Japanese proverb. First and foremost, America needs a national energy plan that achieves the people’s vision of a sustainable future – passing a living and livable planet to future generations. Asking the public to comment on a plan to produce more oil is getting the cart before the horse.

All action, then, must be compatible with that vision. We should request moratoria on dirty oil and gas – tar sands, oil shales, and sour gas. We should reinstate the ban on offshore drilling. Weaning ourselves off other people’s oil and not further encouraging this Last Century industry in our country should coincide with starting energy conservation programs and growing green energy businesses that make the best use of resources at hand in each region.

At a minimum, drilling in coastal seas should be banned in areas where oil companies have no or limited ability to clean up spills – the entire Arctic Ocean – and in areas with resources more valuable than oil – such as commercial fishing (Bristol Bay, Alaska) or tourism and recreation (Atlantic and Pacific coasts). Further, every single new oil and gas program should have a mandated citizen oversight council, modeled after the successful ones in Alaska instituted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Human rights and community values need to trump corporate profits. Every American who is old enough to write should be commenting on what you want for energy resources and development in America’s Outer Continental Shelf. Let the Obama Administration and Congress know what you want in our energy future—and what you don’t want.

Send written comments electronically at www.mms.gov/5-year/2010-2015DPPComments.htm, or by mail to Ms. Renee Orr, Chief, Leasing Division, Mineral Management Service, MS 4010, 318 Elden Street, Herndon, VA 20170-4817. Copy your congressional delegation.

Exxon-Valdez spill survivor, author, and scientist Riki Ott shares insights on making human values count over corporate profits in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008) and on her website: UltimateCivics.com.

The Human Cost of Bush's Arctic Policy

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Wainwright, Alaska. "We'll have to give you an Eskimo name if you like our food!" Kenneth "Kenny" Tagarook teased as he sliced another piece of frozen raw caribou meat for me with his ulu - a hand-sized, flat piece of metal with a small handle opposite the sharp, curved edge.

Kenny and his wife Ann are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo"). They are hosting me and Kenny's cousin Rosemary Ahtuangaruak during our visit in Wainwright. The village of 520 mostly Inupiat people lies along Alaska's North Slope over 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

The site was settled by Kenny's ancestors over 100 years ago as Olgoonik, an Inupiaq name for "where the land slopes to the sea." The landmark bluff overlooking the Chukchi Sea is nearly indistinguishable now as the sea ice is packed in successive ridges that press firmly against the shore. Earlier, the biting cold (-39 with wind chill) had shortened our walk along the bluff.

"Did you try the bearded seal?" Rosemary asked. I picked up a marble-sized bit of dark brown meat, dried and frozen. Rich opaque oil coated my fingers. The seal meat was dense and delicious. "I love our food," said Rosemary, her black eyes sparkling and her mouth full.

The food is part of the culture and the culture is why Rosemary and I are visiting Wainwright and other Inupiat villages along the Arctic Ocean. Wainwright has been spared the oil and gas development - and cultural impacts - of villages to the east near Prudhoe Bay.

But that may soon change. Forty million acres of the Chukchi Sea may soon be leased to oil and gas development along with another 33 million acres of the neighboring Beaufort Sea. Together, these lease sales open the entire Arctic Ocean to oil and gas development.

The Chukchi Sea teems with sea life. In spring and fall, bowhead and beluga whales migrate along the coast. The vast ocean is a rich feeding area for gray, humpback, and fin whales, walrus and ringed, bearded, and spotted seals. Millions of migratory birds from across the U.S., central and South America, and even Antarctica rear their young in the brief Arctic summer. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas support 20 percent of the world's polar bears.

The Inupiat people lovingly refer to the ocean as "our garden." But there are problems in the "garden" in the Beaufort Sea to the east.

Rosemary lives in Nuiqsut ("new-WICK-sit"), a village over 600 miles to the east of Wainwright and near Prudhoe Bay. The ever-expanding oilfields with their associated airplane and helicopter traffic, airports, roads, pipelines, gravel mines, noise, and flares have altered the landscape and the ways the animals use the land. Seismic tests push migratory caribou farther south, away from Nuiqsut, and migratory bowhead whales further north, out to sea. Causeways and gravel islands divert migratory fish away from the coast. Loss of traditional foods means loss of a way of life - and loss of a human right to protect a culture.

Kenny and Ann worry about what is happening in Nuiqsut at the northern end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline - and what happened in Prince William Sound at the southern end of the pipeline. Oil from the Exxon Valdez is still buried on the beaches of the Sound and most of the wildlife injured by the spill 20 years ago still has not fully recovered.

Twenty years without traditional foods is unthinkable to Inupiat people like Kenny and Ann, yet Wainwright is slated to become the next Nuiqsut - an industrial complex - and oil spills come oil development.

Large-scale industrial development is simply not compatible with large-scale wilderness and the Inupiat culture. We can have one or the other, but not both in the same place. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently indicated that the offshore oil-drilling plan left by the Bush administration will likely be scrapped. The plan opens the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts for drilling, Salazar observed.

Let us not forget that it also opens the entire Arctic coast to drilling.

Salazar said, "There are places that are appropriate for exploration and development and there are place that are not."

Surely the Arctic Ocean is a place where oil and gas development are not appropriate. Exxon managed to recover only 3 to 11 percent of the 11 to 38 million gallons of oil that spilled in Prince William Sound. The Arctic Ocean is an even less forgiving environment with its four months of darkness, sea ice, bitter temperatures, and storms. There is no proven technology to clean up or recover spilled oil in broken ice. None. Dispersants don't work in cold water with Prudhoe Bay crude.

What is at stake is a culture that has survived for over ten thousand years in one of the harshest environments on the planet. The culture has survived because the people could live off the land and sea. Take away the food and the people will vanish from the land.

Why should the Inupiat way of life be sacrificed for our oil dependency? The Arctic should be off limits to oil and gas development.

Spill survivor and author Riki Ott shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery nationwide and in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). Ott is a former "fisherma'am" and now a full-time community activist, committed to making human values count over corporate profits.

 

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Onshore and Offshore: The Human Cost of Oil Drilling

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Wainwright, Alaska. Rebecca "Ricky" Ekak, a tenth grader at Alak High School in Wainwright, implored her teacher, "Please, can we learn more about this? What they said went into me." Ricky and her classmates are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo").

Wainwright is one of eight Inupiat villages at the top of the world or at least the top of America. The largest and most northern village — and probably the only one on most U.S. maps — is Barrow with 4,000 people. All of the villages are well above the Arctic Circle. Five sit on the wind-swept coast of the Arctic Ocean.

I am visiting the villages with Earl Kingik, an Elder from Point Hope, which lies 500 miles west of Barrow, and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the former mayor of Nuiqsut, which lies 130 miles southeast of Barrow and 12 miles inland.

Earl is a whaling captain, a revered position that translates into community leader. He opens our meetings in his first language, Inupiaq. Then he effortlessly switches to English to explain that we have come as volunteers on this 1,000-plus mile circuit to warn the communities of a threat to their way of life and culture.

Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush opened the vast bulk of the North Slope — 23 million acres onshore and 73 million acres offshore — to oil and gas lease sales and development. What started as a paper shuffle in Washington, DC, is now arriving in the villages as promises of "environmentally-sound development," borne by oilmen and federal officials.

Rosemary and I live in communities that have experienced first-hand the impacts from broken promises. Rosemary's village of Nuiqsut ("new-WICK-sit") is 60 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, where oil and gas development has occurred for over 40 years. As the oilfields expanded, Nuiqsut felt the pressure like the slow relentless squeeze of an anaconda.

"The first oil well was over 60 miles from the village," she explains to our audiences. "That wasn't so bad. But then they wanted another well. They came to our village and told us one well would mean a 12-acre gravel pad, no road, 200 people to build the well, and 20 airplane and helicopter flights a month during our hunting season."

Her black eyes snap but her voice remains even as she says, "That's not what we got. We got 400 acres of gravel pads, miles of pipelines, 12 miles of roads, a large runway, two helicopter pads, 1,200 people, and 1,900 flights in six weeks during the caribou migration."

When she mimics the noise from the seismic testing — BOOM! BOOM! — the children all jump. The caribou changed their migratory route to avoid the commotion of development. Before the seismic tests and pipelines, 97 of 103 households in her village harvested caribou; after, only three.

Before the seismic tests in the ocean, village hunters — the whalers — harvested whales within 2 miles of the island; after, the whales moved 20 miles or more offshore. Twenty miles is too far from the village to safely harvest whales. When storms blew up, the whalers would have to stop hunting as small boats can easily swamp.

Rosemary's voice breaks only when she shares her personal story. The place where her oldest son, his father, and his grandfather harvested their first caribou is now a gravel mine. Her oldest son was nine when the caribou herds last migrated through the village. He is now twenty-four.

Subsistence — harvesting, sharing, and celebrating wild foods — is the primary means of survival in all of the villages. As Earl says, "The ocean is our garden." Everyone understands that loss of traditional foods and loss of the opportunity to harvest the food means loss of their way of life. Loss of resources fits the United Nations definition of cultural genocide.

There are also health problems in Nuiqsut associated with the oil development. Rosemary is a former community health aide practitioner. She was the first to sound the alarm about the skyrocketing cases of asthma as the oil wells marched ever closer to Nuiqsut. The closest wells with their flaring gases and air pollution are now within four miles of — and almost surround — the village.

The refrain we hear from the other villages is: "We don't want to happen here what happened in Nuiqsut!" But unless other Americans act to intervene, the Inupiat culture will almost surely be assimilated.

Millions of Americans are protesting the Bush administration's headlong rush to open coastal seas of California, Virginia, Florida, and other Lower 48 states to oil and gas development. These well-meaning citizens don't realize that a coastal moratorium in the Lower 48 only means more pressure to develop in Alaska.

Why don't we all learn more about Bush's U.S. Arctic Policy along with Inupiat children like Ricky? If the Alaska story "went into you," maybe you could help protect our coasts along with yours.

The U.S. Interior Department is accepting comments on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (Arctic Ocean) Oil & Gas Lease Sales until March 16, 2009. We are all in this together.

Originally published on AlterNet.

Crimes at the Top of the World: The Human Cost of Oil

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Wainwright, Alaska. Rebecca "Ricky" Ekak, a tenth grader at Alak High School in Wainwright, implored her teacher, "Please, can we learn more about this? What they said went into me." Ricky and her classmates are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo").

Wainwright is one of eight Inupiat villages at the top of the world or at least the top of America. The largest and most northern village—and probably the only one on most U.S. maps—is Barrow with 4,000 people. All of the villages are well above the Arctic Circle. Five sit on the wind-swept coast of the Arctic Ocean.

I am visiting the villages with Earl Kingik, an Elder from Point Hope, which lies 500 miles west of Barrow, and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the former mayor of Nuiqsut, which lies 130 miles southeast of Barrow and 12 miles inland.

Earl is a whaling captain, a revered position that translates into community leader. He opens our meetings in his first language, Inupiaq. Then he effortlessly switches to English to explain that we have come as volunteers on this 1,000-plus mile circuit to warn the communities of a threat to their way of life and culture.

Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush opened the vast bulk of the North Slope—23 million acres onshore and 73 million acres offshore—to oil and gas lease sales and development. What started as a paper shuffle in Washington, DC, is now arriving in the villages as promises of "environmentally-sound development," borne by oilmen and federal officials.

Rosemary and I live in communities that have experienced first-hand the impacts from broken promises. Rosemary's village of Nuiqsut ("new-WICK-sit") is 60 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, where oil and gas development has occurred for over 40 years. As the oilfields expanded, Nuiqsut felt the pressure like the slow relentless squeeze of an anaconda.

"The first oil well was over 60 miles from the village," she explains to our audiences. "That wasn't so bad. But then they wanted another well. They came to our village and told us one well would mean a 12-acre gravel pad, no road, 200 people to build the well, and 20 airplane and helicopter flights a month during our hunting season."

Her black eyes snap but her voice remains even as she says, "That's not what we got. We got 400 acres of gravel pads, miles of pipelines, 12 miles of roads, a large runway, two helicopter pads, 1,200 people, and 1,900 flights in six weeks during the caribou migration."

When she mimics the noise from the seismic testing—BOOM! BOOM!—the children all jump. The caribou changed their migratory route to avoid the commotion of development. Before the seismic tests and pipelines, 97 of 103 households in her village harvested caribou; after, only three.

Before the seismic tests in the ocean, village hunters—the whalers—harvested whales within 2 miles of the island; after, the whales moved 20 miles or more offshore. Twenty miles is too far from the village to safely harvest whales. When storms blew up, the whalers would have to stop hunting as small boats can easily swamp.

Rosemary's voice breaks only when she shares her personal story. The place where her oldest son, his father, and his grandfather harvested their first caribou is now a gravel mine. Her oldest son was nine when the caribou herds last migrated through the village. He is now twenty-four.

Subsistence—harvesting, sharing, and celebrating wild foods—is the primary means of survival in all of the villages. As Earl says, "The ocean is our garden." Everyone understands that loss of traditional foods and loss of the opportunity to harvest the food means loss of their way of life. Loss of resources fits the United Nations definition of cultural genocide.

There are also health problems in Nuiqsut associated with the oil development. Rosemary is a former community health aide practitioner. She was the first to sound the alarm about the skyrocketing cases of asthma as the oil wells marched ever closer to Nuiqsut. The closest wells with their flaring gases and air pollution are now within four miles of—and almost surround—the village.

The refrain we hear from the other villages is: "We don't want to happen here what happened in Nuiqsut!" But unless other Americans act to intervene, the Inupiat culture will almost surely be assimilated.

Millions of Americans are protesting the Bush administration's headlong rush to open coastal seas of California, Virginia, Florida, and other Lower 48 states to oil and gas development. These well-meaning citizens don't realize that a coastal moratorium in the Lower 48 only means more pressure to develop in Alaska.

Why don't we all learn more about Bush's U.S. Arctic Policy along with Inupiat children like Ricky? If the Alaska story "went into you," maybe you could help protect our coasts along with yours.

The U.S. Interior Department is accepting comments on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (Arctic Ocean) Oil & Gas Lease Sales until March 16, 2009. We are all in this together.

Up Huffington's Ante: Pledge to be Unreasonable

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Arianna Huffington is calling for people to step up to Barack Obama's call to service by having each of us make our own personal commitment to working for the public good.

We as Americans got into our current mess because too many of us shirked our basic responsibilities as people living in a "free" country. Eleanor Roosevelt said the price of liberty is constant vigilance. She didn't mean vigilance by proxy.

Vigilance can't be delegated, but that's exactly what we tried to do. We the People left our liberty in the hands of elected officials while we went off to enjoy our personal lives and pursue our individual forms of happiness. Meanwhile, for the price of getting into - and staying in - office, our elected officials chose to compromise our trust.

Our democracy is founded on the premise that "We, the People" are the ultimate check and balance of our three branches of government. But we didn't demand that our government push back when corporate leaders ran wild with greed. Corporations have been given too many privileges under tax laws, protections under bankruptcy and liability laws, and public dollars for research that lead to patents and private profits - and now we are rewarding their greed and mistakes with bailouts from our public treasury.

But corporations pressed for even more power. For the past 120 plus years, the Supreme Court has granted "corporate persons" the rights of natural persons in addition to their rights as businesses. By acquiring both sets of rights, corporations have gained the ability to consolidate fantastic wealth, power, and privilege. Corporations use their power to influence elections by campaign contributions, law-making by lobbying, judicial decisions by junk science and junkets, regulatory behavior through pressure, and public attitudes through massive media campaigns.

This usurpation of rights intended for people by "corporate persons" has led to laws supporting unlimited growth - the sole corporate value of profit - at the expense of quality of life, strong communities, and the future of the planet (from a human perspective) through climate destabilization.

Our current mess can therefore be summed up in two words: democracy crisis. This is what Obama will inherit. Everything else is a derivative. Think we've voted in change? Think again.

I've just spent a couple days visiting congressional staff and elected officials. I shared concerns about the myth of "clean" coal in the wake of now two coal ash spills. I shared concerns about empty promises for environmentally sound oil development in America's coastal seas as I handed out jars of rocks still coated with Exxon Valdez oil nearly 20 years after the spill. I asked for Congress to give the people back the tool of unlimited corporate liability so that we could hold corporations accountable to laws protecting consumers, health, and the environment. The Supreme Court took that tool away in its recent decision in the Exxon Valdez case.

In all of the offices I visited, I was told we had to be "reasonable." Congress can only pass "reasonable legislation." Reasonable to whom, I wondered? Our elected officials are still bowing to pressure from corporate lobbyists who mold lawmakers, judges, law enforcers, and public perception to service their bottomless greed. Nothing has changed: our democracy is still broken.

Nothing can change until we strip corporations of personhood. Luckily, real change starts with us.

George Bernard Shaw said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I can identify with everything except the gender.

It is time for each and every one of us to be unreasonable. Real progress depends on it.

I urge us all to take up Obama's challenge and Huffington's call for personal commitment. But let's up the ante: Pledge to be unreasonable.

Pledge to engage - with your neighbors, at your workplace, school, or church. Pledge to put the planet and future generations first when making everyday decisions. Figure out what you need to do differently tomorrow - and do it. And if the elected officials don't listen to us, let's fill our streets with protest and song. Let's teach our children democracy means caring for each other and working together. It means making our officials represent US. We can't stop until they do.

Ed. Note: See Riki's Facebook Group for more: One Million Strong for the Separation of Corporation and State.