NEW ORLEANS – Some independent scientists, who have been looking into oil spill contamination in the Gulf of Mexico, said they have received some unsettling phone calls from the federal government.
The calls came from attorneys, on behalf of the National Oil Spill Commission. The scientists said their questions seemed designed to cast doubts on their findings.
As the oil spill unfolded, scientists from research institutions around the country descended on the Gulf to witness what ended up becoming an unprecedented environmental event. Two of those scientists included Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist, and Marco Kaltofen, a scientist and head of Boston Chemical Data in Massachusetts.
“Right now, the Gulf is basically a big experimental laboratory,” Sawyer said.
Both were hired by a New Orleans-based law firm to collect and analyze samples of water, sand and sea life that had been affected by the oil spill.
“What has been most important to us is to make sure that we have independent data, that is gathered from along the coast, where our clients reside,” said attorney Stuart Smith, of the Smith Stag Law Firm, which hired Sawyer and Kaltofen.
The scientists looked at samples from off the coast of several Gulf states, including Louisiana. They said, so far, their findings are troubling.
“We’ve found an alarming pattern of hydrocarbons maintained in the water column, at levels that are hazardous to the marine environment,” Sawyer said.
“If we’re finding so much more of the toxic part of oil in the water column, the obvious question is what’s happening to the seafood?” Kaltofen said.
In the seafood, they found the presence of potentially toxic hydrocarbons, at levels above the norm. Even though they had yet to issue a report drawing any conclusions, they began posting their data online.
Then, they received phone calls.
“We were contacted by the national commission on the BP oil spill,” Kaltofen said.
President Barack Obama created the commission to look into the oil spill, hold hearings and eventually make recommendations based on their findings. Yet, the two scientists said the phones calls were unsettling.
“I explained the work, but there seemed to be a grave concern as to why we were finding contamination,” Sawyer said. “It was sort of a loaded question – and then the questions were geared towards sampling permits.”
The question: did they have the proper permits to do their sampling? The scientists said they did.
“The second thing we were asked is, ‘Do we believe that our data shows that the federal data is wrong?'” Kaltofen said. “The last thing, of course, is the National Commission impugned my reputation and said that they were trying to determine if we were sampling illegally.”
Kaltofen said the commission attorney told him they were responding to, “a constituent complaint from a food distributor.”
However, a spokesperson for the oil spill commission said that wasn’t the case – that the scientists were contacted because the commission was impressed with their work.
In a statement to Eyewitness News, Commission Press Secretary Dave Cohen said one of the scientists, Sawyer, was “…One of many experts with whom we were having discussions to gain insights and possibly serve as expert panelists before the commission…. We deeply regret if any question we may have asked created a misunderstanding.”
Yet, that wasn’t the impression the conversation left with either one of the scientists, one of whom retained a lawyer.
“If we don’t get the data out to people, how will they decide if it’s safe?” Kaltofen said.
On Thursday afternoon, Congressman Joseph Cao, R-Louisiana, sent out a statement, calling for a Congressional investigation into the matter.
“The public has a right to know whether or not the water and our seafood are safe based on the best data available,” Cao said. “I’m concerned the Administration is not taking this issue as seriously as it should be. So I have decided to call for an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on which I sit.”