Residents along the Gulf Coast wish they could forget how last year’s oil spill tore the fabric of local life by destroying jobs, harming health and reducing seafood consumption. But as the one-year anniversary of BP’s well explosion nears on April 20, scientists and coastal advocates continue to assess the spill’s ongoing effects. The coast is suffering and the cleanup is hardly over, speakers said in seminars in New Orleans last month.
A “Truth-Out Forum for the Gulf” was held at First Unitarian Universalist Church on March 19, followed by a “Science of the Spill” seminar on March 30 at Tulane University Law School.
Marine biologist Riki Ott, a fisherwoman affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, began her March 19 talk at First Unitarian by saying that BP oil is still in our midst. She said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that 75 percent of an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that gushed from BP’s well from April 22 to July 15, 2010 was gone in early August, and she referred to a Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget chart released on Aug. 4.
But, Ott said, “that chart and that statement have been discredited. The ocean is still full of oil. It’s redistributing, and according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other data bases, the oil is in the atmosphere above the Gulf.”
She added “this means some of the oil is showing up in rain and being carried inland by things like tornadoes.”
Scott Smullen, NOAA spokesman in Washington, DC, said last week that his agency’s Aug. 4 oil budget, developed with the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, was updated with scientific and technical documentation on Nov. 23, and was a tool to help responders understand what had become of oil that gushed from BP’s well. The August 4 budget showed 33 percent of oil released during the BP spill was captured or mitigated by Unified Command operations that included burning, skimming, chemical dispersion and direct recovery from the wellhead, he said. Another 25 percent of that oil naturally evaporated or dissolved and another 16 percent was dispersed naturally into microscopic droplets. A remaining 26 percent stayed on or just below the surface as residue and weathered tarballs, or had washed ashore, or was collected from the shore or was buried in sand and sediments.
Smullen said that oil has degraded in the months since last summer and it’s difficult to gauge how much of it remains in the Gulf today. “The response remains active in areas where there is still actionable oil on or near the shorelines, and the damage assessment process-of which NOAA is a part-continues to evaluate the full impact of the spill,” he said.
Ott said the public has been told that many beaches are clean, but noted that they aren’t as pristine as they look. “Winds blow away the lighter sand, but sand containing tar and dispersant remains,” she said.
Ott continued, saying “Rip Kirby, a Florida State University graduate student and a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, gave a group of us a demonstration on March 16 in Waveland, Miss, using a florescent light at night that showed the supposedly clean beach full of oil and dispersant.”
Ott, using U.S. Census numbers and government tourism data, estimates that four million to five million people – including residents from Louisiana to Florida and visitors to the Gulf – have been exposed to dangerous levels of oil and dispersants since last spring. Her estimate is conservative, she said, because she believes that oil byproducts traveled much further inland than the coast.
“Oil is in peoples’ blood and it can get parked in human fat,” Ott said. “It can park or stay in the body unless steps are taken to remove it.” She said human ailments on the coast associated with the spill include respiratory problems, bad headaches, brain fog, bad skin rashes, peeling hands and feet, blood in urine and diarrhea.
“The mainstream medical community and the insurance companies don’t officially recognize chemical illnesses, however,” Ott said. “So doctors on the coast, I believe, have misdiagnosed these ailments as heat stroke, food poisoning, strep throat, scabies and the like.”
She said “I know of people, diagnosed with heat stroke or food poisoning and other ailments in the Gulf, who are still suffering nine months later and are on their fourth or fifth round of antibiotics.” And she noted that after the Exxon Valdez spill, workers were told they had “Valdez crud,” and more than twenty years later, many continued to suffer from it.
Ott said “Gulf cleanup workers in the water and on beaches should have been given respirators because the air was full of dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds-benzene, toluene, xylene and others. But BP told employees and contractors their jobs would be changed or terminated if they wore respirators.” Workers wearing respirators would have been evidence that something was wrong with the air so BP and the Unified Command didn’t provide them, she said, and added that “the federal government didn’t want to create a panic.”
Curtis Thomas, Louisiana-based spokesman for BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said “in regards to BP moving or firing workers over respirator use, I know we offered to move some workers to other sites if they thought they were feeling effects associated with beach cleaning.”
Thomas provided a policy statement on respirator use for responders, posted by the Unified Area Command on the restorethegulf.gov website on July 1, 2010, that said “respirators will be provided to response workers engaged in source-control activities and for vessels involved in burning crude oil” as part of a comprehensive, respiratory-protection program. “Respirators only need to be worn when air-monitoring results indicate an elevated level of air contaminants, or when professional judgment determines there is potential exposure, or when workers are reporting health effects or symptoms.”
The site also said “an employer may permit respiratory protection to be worn voluntarily by employees, provided it will not in itself create a hazard. At this time, where air monitoring does not indicate a need, respirator use is voluntary and not recommended.”
Meanwhile, dispersants have been used near populated areas, Ott said. “I was told it was illegal to use dispersants three miles from the shore or in less than 10 meters of water. Then I found out there are exceptions to this rule-that dispersants can be used on a case-by-case basis, approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and each state.” Gulf states filed pre-approval letters, authorizing dispersant use, she said.
Ott continued “so it isn’t illegal at all. Dispersants have been widely sprayed along the Gulf coastline and, as far as I know, still are.”
Ott also discussed recent dolphin deaths. “Mammals try to rid their systems of crude oil and other harmful chemicals, and one way for females to do that is to store crude oil in fetuses,” she said. “If the stored levels are too high, the female aborts the baby. This could be why dead baby dolphins and fetuses are showing up in such large numbers on Gulf beaches.”
Dead dolphins and their babies and fetuses were found on Gulf beaches recently in numbers well above what’s typical in the first quarter of the year. NOAA Fisheries Service data, however, show a sharp rise in Gulf dolphin deaths in March of last year, before the BP oil spill.
Ott noted that South Louisiana residents Cherri Foytlins and fisherman Drew Landry are on a month-long walk from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., and are scheduled to arrive on April 13. They hope to speak with President Obama and congressmen about health care for Gulf residents suffering from exposure to oil and dispersants.
On March 30, Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, spoke at the Tulane panel and said results from a July-Oct. 2010 survey of 950 residents in four coastal parishes were released on March 3 and showed 48 percent had reported a spike in at least one health symptom in the weeks after the BP spill began. Those surveys were conducted by the Brigade, Tulane and Patagonia Clothing Company. Frequently reported symptoms were sinus, eye and skin irritations and coughs, consistent with chemical exposure, Rolfes said.
After analyzing the results, the Brigade recommended that access to health care providers with chemical-exposure expertise be expanded along the Gulf.
Also speaking at Tulane on March 30 was Paul Orr of Lower Mississippi River Keeper in Baton Rogue. Tissue samples that his group collected from oysters, shrimp, crabs and fish in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes were contaminated with Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons and Polynuclear Aromatic Hydro car bons associated with the BP oil. “In my opinion, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration said everything is fine too soon,” when the agency declared that most Gulf seafood was safe to eat in early August, Orr said.
Tulane biologist and ecology professor Caz Taylor, speaking on March 30 at the Tulane forum, said researchers are trying to find out what caused the formation of orange droplets found last summer in blue crab larvae along the Gulf. She said “it’s still too early ecologically to know what the spill’s impacts are.”
Also at the Tulane seminar, Alex Kolker, a scientist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium or LUMCON in Cocodrie, said oil was trapped in the first 5 to 20 meters of marsh in northern Barataria Bay wetlands last June. But in what was the most upbeat report at the seminar, he said by July 17 of last year, sprouts or shoots of grass appeared in the oiled marsh because the roots had survived. He is conducting research on new marsh-grass growth with a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.
At the First Unitarian Church seminar on March 19, Joel Waltzer, law partner with Waltzer & Wiygul in New Orleans, said “by misrepresenting the severity of the spill, BP retained control of the response. If it had been cast as a ‘spill of national significance’ from the beginning, by law the federal government would have taken control. As it was, the U.S. Coast Guard waited until late May to lead the spill response.” He conceded that the Coast Guard was the appropriate agency to take the reins.
Waltzer said “the Gulf Coast Claims Facility said you can either sue or present a claim to GCCF. Framing your choice as an ‘either-or’ presents a false choice. You can, and should, do both. GCCF has freely paid over 100,000 final claims, but you must sign away your rights.”
He continued “at the same time, GCCF has only paid a handful of interim claims for spill losses since November.” That creates unbelievable financial pressure on struggling victims to settle, he said.
When asked for a reaction last week, GCCF administrator Ken Feinberg said “if a claimant decides to accept a final payment, as 115,000 claimants have done, the claimant can receive payment and sign away the right to litigate. A claimant who doesn’t want to make that choice can come back for interim payments every quarter and not relinquish the right to litigate.” He said 5,000 claimants have opted for interim payments to date.
Feinberg also said “any claimant who believes the Gulf’s recovery will take longer than two years should not take a final payment, but should take interim payments and continue reporting quarterly to the GCCF until the Gulf has recovered.”
Waltzer said “Feinberg says he’s being generous, but in fact does much less. GCCF values your final claim on the premise that the Gulf will recover in two years. The science indicates Louisiana will take much, much longer to recover.”
Waltzer asked “will BP allow claimants to reopen their final claims if GCCF is wrong about the two-year recovery? Doubtful.” He said that, given the uncertainties, no claim should be considered final. And he said, “payment of interim claims is BP’s ‘must do’ under the Oil Pollution Act” of 1990, passed by the U.S. Congress.
Waltzer continued, saying that the public needs to be vigilant about settlements by BP and Transocean with government entities. “These are big-buck, natural-resource claims,” he said. “States and parishes all have dogs in the hunt for this BP money.” One southeast Louisiana, coastal parish hopes to use BP funds to build a road on a beach that already retreats forty feet a year, though the money is meant to be used for coastal restoration, he said. “We need to make sure the money is spent saving our coast.”
Waltzer also said “federal officials say 80 percent to 90 percent of Gulf beaches are clean now, but that it could take five years to clean up other beaches, like those around Grand Isle. One federal report calls the oil around Grand Isle ‘recalcitrant to weathering and microbial degradation.’ We have no idea when that oil will finally break down.”
Scientists and coastal advocates said last week that, with the spill barely behind us, they encourage participation in local Earth Day events to stay informed and to learn about educational and volunteer activities.
Ott and California-based environmentalist John Francis will co-host nationally broadcast webinars about the Gulf disaster, hydraulic fracking, and the costs of U.S. dependence on oil and gas to communities from April 17 to 21. Those teach-ins will coincide with the April 20 memorial of the BP disaster and the approach of Earth Day on April 22. Ott will host live seminars on April 18 at Orange Beach, Ala.; April 19 at Fort Walton, Fla.; April 20 at Loyola University in New Orleans; and April 21 in Lucedale, Miss.
The Gulf Restoration Network, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, local radio stations and several companies will sponsor the 2011 New Orleans Earth Day Festival and Green Business Expo on April 17 at Bayou St. John. A speakers’ tent at the festival will host discussions on “Solutions to the Spill.”