Written with as much feeling as rigor and investigative enterprise, these books are required reading for anyone affected by either Valdez or the current Gulf spill. I reviewed the more recent of the two, Not One Drop (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), last year for Energy Bulletin. Here I review the earlier but equally important Sound Truth, a pioneering piece of scholarship that forces us to rethink our notions about how toxic oil and the chemicals used to clean it up really are.
Oil is much more toxic than scientists used to think—that is Ott's consistent refrain throughout the book. According to the old understanding of oil toxicity, impacts from oil spills should be entirely short-term. Since for the most part oil is non-water-soluble, scientists reasoned that it must not be that harmful to aquatic life and that whatever harm it does cause happens early on as the oil is shedding its highly volatile compounds. Thus, the old thinking goes, any oil that doesn't weather away completely after a certain amount of time is harmless, even if it remains visible in the environment for years after a spill. But studies done in the years since Valdez have shown these notions to be sadly mistaken. Oil actually becomes more, not less, harmful the longer it remains in the environment, because the weathering process exposes increasingly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—which Ott says "may well be the DDT of the 21st century."