Valdez Spill: Three Times Bigger Than We Thought?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 10:20 AM EDT

We've watched the size of the Gulf catastrophe balloon over the past few weeks, from BP's early claim of 1,000 barrels per day to the government flow rate team's latest estimate that as much as 60,000 barrels could be spewing into the Gulf every day. Throughout the disaster, it's been repeatedly compared to the 10.8-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill, the last major oil catastrophe in the US. But was the 1989 Valdez spill actually three times bigger than the figure often repeated in the press?

Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and fisherman in Alaska at the time of the Exxon disaster, says that the 10.8 million gallon number the media has cited for the past two decades is likely dramatically less than was actually spilled. She told NPR's "On The Media" this week that the actual figure was probably more like 30 to 35 million gallons, according to independent surveyors. But the media has simply parroted Exxon's estimates:

RIKI OTT: Right off the bat, day one, uh, when I was in Cordova flying over to Valdez, we heard that there was a low-end estimate of 10.4 million gallons and a high end estimate of 38 million gallons. And the next day it was nudged up to 10.8 million gallons, and the media just captured that number. Already, 10.8 million gallons was horrific. It was the biggest oil spill in our nation's history. It was big enough for the media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that the media simply ignored the high end estimate, or Exxon stopped repeating it?

RIKI OTT: Exxon never said it in a press conference. Just when the media started to ask questions, where did that 10.8 million gallons come from, has it been independently verified, Frank Iarossi, the owner of Exxon Shipping, at a press conference said, alcohol may be involved. And I kid you not, I witnessed the entire international media just switch tracks, and that was how we got 10.8 million gallons, rounded up to 11.

A couple years later, when I saw the movie Wag the Dog, I saw that scene where the president was just about to get nailed, and a plant in the audience says, well, what about the bombs in Albania? And the whole media switched to bombs in Albania. And I rose up out of my seat, and I said, that is how we got 11 million gallons. And my two friends each grabbed a wrist and pulled me back down into my chair. And I just swore that I would never forget 38 million gallons.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re essentially saying that the media have the attention span of a puppy. In other words, they ask a question and then uh the uh Exxon Valdez managers go, look, a squirrel, and then they're off and running and they forgot what they asked.

RIKI OTT: That’s pretty much exactly what happened.

This is important in light of the Gulf spill. If we believed BP's early estimate that only 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, worth of oil was leaking every day, that would mean that about 2.6 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf since the disaster began two months ago. If we believe the latest high-end figure from the federal government's spill team, that figure could be closer to 160 million gallons.