Human Health Is the Real Oil Spill Issue


As the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe moves into Week Four, a new unsettling milestone has been set: The United States Senate has convened hearings way, way before operators of the drilling rig or the U.S. government have a handle on stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The hearings are convened under the title of “Economic and Environmental Impacts of the Recent Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. ”Discovering what went wrong and what the spill means to the nation’s offshore drilling policies is still unanswerable.

However, I’m raising another red flag: This crisis isn’t anywhere near over and many of us who call Louisiana home remain more concerned with immediate and long-term threats to human health, the increasing risk to the public, and unnecessary loss of life. All along, my question has been this: why is British Petroleum not releasing all the facts related to a worst-case scenario so government officials and others can properly protect human health?

It seems to me we are at the “worst case scenario.” Those of us who are familiar with the oil industry already suspect we’re not being told everything the responsible parties know about possible health effects of this spill. In particular, British Petroleum, which leased the platform and has consistently talked about accepting responsibility while in the same breath limiting the disclosure of information, has not released air-quality models or other information that would help government officials and others prepare for a worst-case scenario, including potential adverse health impacts. The oil industry has a tragic and oft-documented history of knowing about health concerns well before they become public. Now, that lack of transparency is even more dangerous and unacceptable. One small example is British Petroleum’s refusal to release the streaming video from the undersea robots and submarines. These videos would undoubtedly help independent experts evaluate the flow rate and the condition of the well equipment, and make informed decisions moving forward regarding spill mitigation, environmental impact and health risks.

What is BP hiding? Since there has never been an environmental catastrophe quite like this one, we naturally search for comparisons, looking at the Exxon Valdez disaster or even likening this to the nuclear industry’s Chernobyl. But those were, basically, solitary events. The British Petroleum spill is a process, a catastrophe on the installment plan, and it’s so very far from over that its impact is virtually without limit for the coast of Texas to the very tip of Florida and beyond. State health officials admit that there are a lot of “unknowns.” Certainly they are correct, and it’s good that the Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring air quality. So far, no significant problems have developed. However, you could smell the oil in downtown New Orleans on Thursday, April 29, and authorities advised those who are sensitive to remain indoors, in air-conditioning. New Orleans has had several Ozone alert days as well; incidents rarely noted due to the city’s strong gulf breezes. Some reported headaches and nausea.

But we do know that crude oil emits volatile organic compounds that react with nitrous oxides, producing ozone. We know some of our friends and family are dusting off those post-Katrina plans and exiting the area. I advised my brother who has a four-month-old baby to make contingency plans to leave if, as expected, they can’t stop the leak and there is a significant decrease in air quality along the effected coastal areas. Pregnant women should do the same. While British Petroleum officials may be saying some of the right things, we can perhaps learn more from their actions. When the oil company realized it needed local fishermen to help protect the shoreline, the first step wasn’t to get “all hands on deck.” Instead, it was to gin up legal release forms to prevent any future lawsuits and to shift responsibility for hazardous-material safety to the fishermen. The fishermen, who have no choice but to go to work for the company that has likely destroyed their lives and communities in order to put food on the table, were being asked to sacrifice their basic rights and their health.

As attorneys for the Louisiana’s United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, my team immediately asked the courts to make BP stop these tactics, and the court immediately ordered the company to enter into consent judgments to prevent this abuse. Still, BP’s actions speak volumes. Does it not help prove that the only way to ensure transparency and immediate action is to address potential human health issues in a setting similar to the one being used this week to address economics and the environment? BP will move quickly to protect its own at our expense, if we let them. And that is unacceptable.

Stuart H. Smith is a Louisiana native and environmental attorney representing the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

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