A Year into the Nightmare: Three of the Most Urgent Issues Facing the Gulf Coast


Over the last year – as a plaintiff’s attorney working with spill victims and as a new blogger covering the oil spill – I’ve become intimately familiar with a string of issues that stands in the way of the Gulf Coast realizing a full and relatively swift recovery. And mind you, these are just the issues that are within the realm of our control (there are many, of course, that are not). From acute human health effects to ongoing seafood safety concerns, from record high dolphin deaths to a clumsy “victim compensation” process, we are awash in matters that jeopardize our ability to rebound as quickly as possible – to bounce back in the way we did from Hurricane Katrina, for example.

These are problems and concerns that have been allowed to fester and grow in intensity over the last several months, and if they aren’t addressed with some urgency, we may see a full recovery slip through our fingers – and we could lose aspects of our culture that make us one of the most unique and beloved regions in the United States.

1. Seafood Safety

Few issues are more important, both in terms of the Gulf economy and the “let’s move on” politics of the BP spill. It boils down to this: If you trust the government and oil industry boosters with your life, then you should believe the “all clear” announcement on seafood safety. If you’ve got some doubts, I wouldn’t belly up to the raw bar just yet.

As I’ve posted here before and will post again, some of the smartest, most diligent scientists I’ve ever met have found dangerous levels of toxins in seafood samples. They have taken the samples, they have had them tested by accredited labs and they have analyzed the results – and time and time again, they come up with dangerous toxicity levels in everything from fish to oysters to crabs to shrimp. The numbers don’t lie, folks.

Government officials continue to claim that that they simply can’t find any worrisome contaminant levels. But as many of the fishing boat captains I work with remind me, you can control the test results by knowing where to get your samples. Translation: If you don’t want to find toxins in the seafood, take your samples in areas that were impacted least by the spill. And if that doesn’t bother you, remember that government protocol includes the infamous “sniff test,” where “inspectors” simply smell the seafood to make sure it’s safe. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with that sort of half-baked re-assurance. Many of the toxins we’re talking about aren’t even detectable by smell. Not even a bloodhound on his best day could sniff them out.

Another way the government controls the tests is by basing “acceptable” toxicity thresholds on laughably low consumption levels. According to the government testing structure, the “safe” consumption level for a grown man is four shrimp per week. Who the hell living on the Gulf of Mexico eats only four shrimp per week? Many of us, myself included, eat shrimp several times a month and I can tell you that I eat a lot more than four at a sitting, maybe four-teen but never four. Down on the Gulf, four isn’t a consumption level – hell it ain’t even a shrimp cocktail.

If the government were using real-world consumption levels, officials would have to admit that the toxicity in seafood is a very real health concern. Many of my friends and colleagues are eating less seafood these days, and they’re not feeding it to their children at all.

The well-oiled (sorry) BP spin machine has dropped hundreds of millions of dollars into convincing us that seafood safety concerns are merely a “perception problem.” And many media types living far from the water no doubt agree. But if you take a closer look, you can’t ignore the accounts that are piling up like this one from the St. Petersburg Times: “…over the winter, anglers who had been working the gulf for decades began hauling in red snapper that didn’t look like anything they had seen before. The fish had dark lesions on their skin, some the size of a 50-cent piece. On some of them, the lesions had eaten a hole straight through to the muscle tissue. Many had fins that were rotting away and discolored or even striped skin. Inside, they had enlarged livers, gallbladders, and bile ducts.”

Dark lesions the size of 50-cent pieces? Some eating a hole straight through to muscle tissue? Does that sound like fish you’d feel safe eating or feeding to your kids?

From the St. Pete Times report: “The fish have a bacterial infection and a parasite infection that’s consistent with a compromised immune system,” said Jim Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University, who has been examining them. “There’s no doubt it’s associated with a chronic exposure to a toxin.”

Hmmmmmmm. Do we know of any toxins that the fish could have been exposed to recently?

Listen, red snapper are reef fish, and they feed on smaller marine creatures – like shrimp and crabs – typically found in the sediment on the Gulf floor. So red snapper are likely to bio-accumulate whatever toxins are out there, particularly those that have settled on the bottom. Remember scientist Samantha Joye’s deep-water discovery that oil is coating the Gulf floor? (see: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129782098). it isn’t too difficult to connect the dots here. Officials say the fish with lesions and other problems were caught “…anywhere from 10 to 80 miles offshore between Pensacola and the mouth of the Mississippi River, an area hit hard by last year’s oil spill.”

Apparently officials have ordered toxicology tests, but is it good public policy to prematurely scream “all clear” in the face of strong evidence to the contrary? Or would it be more prudent to conduct sound testing with real-world consumption levels and give the seafood-eating public accurate information to make informed decisions? The government also needs to give direction to the commercial fishing industry, providing access to safe waters and closing those that aren’t.

If we continue to take an “ignore it and see if it goes away” policy toward seafood contamination, we could very well get into a situation where the seafood industry is tainted for a very long time indeed. Believe me, if people start getting sick from eating contaminated Gulf seafood, or heaven forbid die from it, the industry might not fully recover for a decade or more, if ever.

Try this comment from the Times report, which smacks of suppression of evidence: “Now we’re hiding information because political and economic interests don’t want you to say anything because it would affect economic interests,” said William “Bill” Hogarth, a former federal fisheries official who now oversees the Florida Institute of Oceanography. “But fishermen, they’re seeing fish that are deformed.”

If the government comes around to addressing these seafood issues head-on, before this is all through, we could very well see the re-closing of waters once deemed “all clear” for fishing.

See the St. Pete story here: http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/sick-fish-suggest-oil-spill-still-affecting-gulf/1164042

Read a good seafood testing story here at HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-buchanan/private-seafood-tests-unc_b_820002.html

2. Dolphin Deaths

Dolphins are the rock stars of the marine world. The movie “Flipper” captured America’s heart in the 1960s, and we’ve been hooked on dolphins ever since. We all love them – so it’s no surprise that the public re-focused its attention on the Gulf Coast as dead dolphins began washing ashore in record numbers last year after the oil spill had started to fade from the national stage.

The numbers are staggering, and both independent scientific research and common sense point to the oil spill and dispersants as the cause. Between February 2010 and April 2011, 406 dolphins – many of them babies – were found either stranded or dead offshore. That record-high volume, referred to by NOAA as an “unusual mortality event” (UME), is at least 10 times the norm. Two months ago, as the death rate spiked, Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, had this to say about the plight of the sea mammals: “For some reason, they’ve started aborting or they were dead before they were born. The average is one or two a month. This year we have 17 and February isn’t even over yet.”

The numbers are even more startling when you factor in the dolphins that died out at sea, but were not recovered. Looking at other studies, including a handful conducted after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, researchers came up with a formula that suggests up to 50 times more sea mammals die than are recovered on the beach or offshore. So if we use the the number 406 (i.e., the number of recovered dead dolphins) and multiply that by 50, we get 20,300 dead dolphins. That number – coupled with rising sea turtle deaths – has researchers extremely concerned that there is something very wrong beneath surface of the Gulf.

Marine biologist Ed Cake: “The two models of the turtles and dolphins indicate that something is drastically wrong in the marine environment, that I believe point towards the demise of these vertebrates in the Gulf.” It’s a dire prediction but Mr. Cake’s concerns are well founded.

NOAA officials finally came clean earlier this month, admitting that at least some of the dead dolphins washing ashore are coated in oil from BP’s Macondo well. Here is the breakdown as reported by CNN and others: 15 of the 153 dolphins that have washed ashore since Jan. 1 were visibly oiled. Of the 15, eight tested positive for BP’s oil. Even for a meticulous plaintiff’s attorney, that’s pretty damning evidence.

Visible oil on the carcasses is certainly one concern, another is internal contamination through the food chain. In December of last year, my research team found high levels of toxicity in sea nettles, a common food for dolphins (see link below for test results). Civil engineer Marco Kaltofen: “Many of our tests show conclusively that marine wildlife still harbors petroleum contamination. Our tests are being done using the same methods as NOAA and other government agencies, and often we are using the same laboratories. This type of response data should not be ignored.”

The dolphin case is critical in the grand scheme of things for two reasons: (1) If it is confirmed that the spill killed the dolphins, we will know the impact on marine life is grave and pervasive; and (2) The way the investigation is handled and the way in which the findings are disclosed (or not) will give us a glimpse into how accurate and honest the government’s official damage assessment will ultimately be.

As for the latter, we haven’t gotten off to a good start. The government has instituted a gag order on investigation. From a Reuters report:

The U.S. government is keeping a tight lid on its probe into scores of unexplained dolphin deaths along the Gulf Coast, possibly connected to last year’s BP oil spill, causing tension with some independent marine scientists.

Wildlife biologists contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to document spikes in dolphin mortality and to collect specimens and tissue samples for the agency were quietly ordered late last month to keep their findings confidential.

The gag order was contained in an agency letter informing outside scientists that its review of the dolphin die-off, classified as an “unusual mortality event (UME),” had been folded into a federal criminal investigation launched last summer into the oil spill.

As far as predictions go, I don’t think we’ll ever get a definitive response from the government as to the direct cause of all the dolphin deaths. There will always be wiggle room for BP to escape accountability. We may get an admission or two along the lines of: “Well, this specific dolphin or that specific dolphin probably died from BP’s oil,” but we won’t get any full accountability like the BP spill is the cause of the entire “mortality event.”

And the way the dolphin investigation plays out will be an indication of the way the rest of the government research and damage assessment work will unfold. I hope to see the increased transparency necessary to bring closure to these mortality issues and to hold BP accountable for the damages it’s causing to our marine life.

Here’s the Reuters report on the government hampering the investigation: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/16/us-dolphin-strandings-idUSTRE73F2XW20110416

See my previous post on sea nettle contamination here: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/gulf-sea-nettles-%E2%80%93-a-common-food-for-dolphins-%E2%80%93-showed-high-levels-of-crude-oil-contamination-in-december-2010-sampling

3. Human Health Effects

According to Gulf Coast doctor Michael Robichaux, the BP oil spill “is the biggest public health crisis from a chemical poisoning in the history of this country. We are going to have thousands of people who are extremely sick, and if they aren’t treated, a large number of them are going to die.”

Despite the urgency of the situation, human health effects continue to be ignored in formal official fashion by the federal government. Donald Boesch, member of Obama’s Oil Spill Commission, sums up the fed response: “We were charged with being evidence-driven, and the fact is we’ve asked for and sought out evidence that the oil spill is the proximate cause of these health problems, and we just haven’t found it.” Well, clearly Mr. Boesch hasn’t been looking very hard, but the early tamp down has left some Americans skeptical, including members of the mainstream media.

I’d like to invite anyone who has doubts about the spill’s health impacts to come down to the Gulf Coast, and I will take them on an eye-opening tour of doctors offices and health clinics. And we could even take a dip in the Gulf if they’re brave enough. Listen, all kidding aside, from cleanup workers to charter boat fishing captains to people simply living in coastal communities, we are seeing a big spike in the number of Gulf Coast residents with serious health problems associated with the BP oil spill and the dispersants applied to it in unprecedented amounts. So-called “controlled burns” of the oil also released contaminants into the Gulf air.

Pathways of exposure to the contaminants are comprehensive, including inhalation, ingestion, skin and eye contact. The primary health impacts we’re seeing are central nervous system depression, upper-respiratory infections, hypertension, debilitating chest pain, incapacitating headaches, cardiovascular damage, recurring sore throat, severe upper-sinus inflammation, high fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

Researchers have found disturbing toxic blood trends that support the suggestion from Dr. Robichaux that the number of sick is growing and they need to be treated now. Internationally recognized chemist Dr. Wilma Subra has tested the blood of Gulf Coast cleanup workers and residents and has found toxic chemicals present at levels 10 times higher than the national average.

“Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene and Hexane are volatile organic chemicals that are present in the BP crude oil,” Subra said. “We are finding these in excess of the 95th percentile, which is the average for the entire nation. Sometimes we’re finding amounts five to 10 times in excess of the 95th percentile.” Ten times the national average is a level that should concern everybody, particularly our elected officials in Washington.

Veteran toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer, a leading member of my research team, warned early on in the spill that there were serious risks for both cleanup workers and coastal residents with respect to skin contact and inhalation of volatile emissions. Dr. Sawyer based those warnings – which largely fell on deaf ears – on published human epidemiological, peer-reviewed studies from Spain, Shetland, Pakistan, Wales, Alaska and Japan. According to Sawyer, those studies show “consistent and statistically-significant findings among coastal residents and cleanup workers exposed to crude oil and volatile emissions” (see http://www.cdasystems/com/documents/oilstudies.htm). Not surprisingly, the adverse health effects in the peer-reviewed studies mirror the symptoms we are seeing in Gulf residents.

My guess is we’ll see the feds begin to take a more urgent look at the spill’s health impacts in the coming months as more people become seriously ill. I should note that the EPA is, in fact, conducting a study of some 55,000 cleanup workers, but it will take years to complete and federal officials have already said they may not be able to tie the illnesses directly to the spill or dispersants, or to assess responsibility. Having said that, there are just too many people getting too sick for the spill’s health impacts to be ignored in the near term. Gulf Coasters are starting to compare current health problems to those in Alaska following the Exxon spill, and the dots are finally being connected. It’s a heavy lift – this is an area of huge liability for BP (possibly billions at stake) and the rest of Big Oil, and certainly the federal government has a hand in delaying help.

Does that seem in any way paranoid? If so, go ask the 9/11 responders if the government might lie about health conditions just to get through a short-term political situation. This is very likely one of the great scandals of our time, and culturally it’s a ticking time bomb that will explode sometime in the next year.

Here’s some good local coverage on health effects: http://www.houmatoday.com/article/20110322/ARTICLES/110329852/1211?Title=Local-doctor-stresses-spill-8217-s-health-impact

In closing, I would say that none of these matters will be resolved without attention from the national media. I’ve said it before, nothing gets politicians more focused than good old-fashion press coverage. I hope to see the national media stay dedicated to seeing this disaster to its end – not just parachute in for the anniversary reviews. This is going to be a long battle, and the national media has a very significant role to play if the Gulf Coast and its weary residents are to see a full and swift recovery.

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • I made a blog at myspace backed by more than 35 MB of scientific reports. looks like the effects of accumulative damage are showing now – pls check mspacedotcom/lasselorentzen´s blog for info. i will happily mail those fact sheaths to anyone willing to listen. – dolphins die – their babies die – or are malformed – guess who´s next in the food chain? the 1/3 of the us population unaware and eating seafood from that region

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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