Packing It Up: Federal Government Sounds “All Clear” on Beach Cleanup


Another federal report from the team that brought us such hits as the “5,000 barrels a day spill flow” and the “vast majority of the oil is gone!” was released Friday (Feb. 11), just in time for the weekend news cycle and with the discredited agencies’ starring roles carefully hidden amid the fine print.

The study’s participants even included BP, but the role of Big Oil wasn’t made clear.

This latest effort offers a case study in high-level spin. Called the “Summary Report for Fate and Effects of Remnant Oil in the Beach Environment,” and released Friday (beware major press announcements on Fridays, the D.C. crowd calls it “taking out the trash” because it’s hard to get sources and check things out over the weekend). It appears to give the all-clear for beaches, and it certainly sounds authoritative.

The Times-Picayune coverage is fairly representative, reporting that “federal officials released a report Friday that suggests cleanup operations have removed as much oil as is practical from most shorelines in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana…further cleanup in many areas, the report argues, will do more harm to the environment than leaving the remaining oil in place.”

Of course, that is an ongoing talking point for the BP crowd as they try to skate around the fact that they are not going to finish cleaning up our beaches. And the Times-Picayune and others identify this bit of offal as being drafted by the “federal science advisory team studying the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf.”

As we say in New Orleans: Who dat?

Well, the team’s identity didn’t make it into much of the news coverage but, of course, the participants have been pulled from the vastly discredited group of usual suspects: NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the former Minerals Management Agency now re-branded as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, EPA – and, of course, BP itself.

That’s right. The “science” panel making the decision on how much beach cleanup is needed is almost entirely federal – rather than the local and region folks who are on the ground – and included BP. We will never know the real decision-makers here: These reports always contain credible-sounding agencies just to pad the resume a bit.

Look, using federal agencies to mask the real danger has worked for seafood: Control the tests so you don’t raise messy questions, then control the consumption levels so you avoid any pesky standards. So you “assume” four shrimp is the weekly consumption level, and that the subject is a 180-pound man, and you sound the “all clear.” Change that to a real-world consumption level for a Gulf family and a 45-pound child and the toxicity level increases significantly, as you might imagine.

Now the federal government and BP are giving the “all clear” for our beaches. They’re trying to keep the promises they made – or at least fooling people into believing the promises are being kept – about having the beaches ready for Spring Break. If you can’t actually “make it right” on the beach, you better get busy at least “saying it’s right” in the formal reporting process.

Are the beaches really safe? Well, we get this from the actual report: “Calculated human health effects from short and long-term exposures from remnant oil are below established EPA benchmarks for concern.” Ah, that’s what they call a “non-denial, denial” in D.C.

Two of the major issues that the report fails to address are wind-blown dust containing oil toxins and, more important, child contact with oil-contaminated sand. This entire report leaves the independent scientists I work with once again raising significant questions, just like non-government officials have challenged these types of findings before (remember when “Team Mission Accomplished” denied the plumes or the tar mats or…again, the examples are many).

According to Marco Kaltofen, a civil engineer on my research team, the report cites oil contamination as potentially dangerous to young sea turtles and some shore birds, but implies it is okay for our children.

“This study declares that beaches have been successfully cleaned,” Kaltofen says. “This is not reality-based, as beachfront residents, property owners, and visitors can all see that beaches may appear oil-free one day, and then be re-oiled the following day. A beach cleanup is not a success until oil stops washing up. Period. And unfortunately, we don’t have any idea when the oil and tar will stop washing up on our shores.”

Another member of my team, veteran toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer, describes the dangers (in more technical terms) associated with an incomplete cleanup: “If the benzo[b]fluoranthene and chrysene are present at anywhere near the levels previously detected in original beach samples, then a highly significant dermal absorption and incidental soil-and-dust ingestion hazard would be present since this would now fall into a chronic residential exposure dose calculation as opposed to an occasional visit to the beach.”

As for the tar mats that the report admits still exist just offshore in certain locations, Dr. Sawyer says this: “With respect to marine reproduction (oysters, shrimp, crabs and other fisheries) subject to ‘tar mat’ exposures and suspended TPH within the water column, our previous analyses of sea water and sediment for TPH aliphatics in the C17-C34 range reveal levels above that reported to impair marine reproduction.”

Clearly, there is still work to be done before our beaches are safe. This latest report is simply an attempt to provide cover for BP and the government to move beyond an increasingly difficult and expensive situation.

Read the Press-Register story here:

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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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