The drip, drip, drip of Big Oil on La.’s fragile environment


More than six years ago, this blog was created largely in response to one gigantic and catastrophic event: The massive BP oil spill in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. That tragedy has had dozens of story lines — from the toxic dispersant that made so many clean-up workers ill, to the deaths of sea creatures from dolphins to endangered turtles, to the destruction of Louisiana’s precious wetlands. Since then, I’ve branched out to cover a host of other environmental issues, but a lot of the events covered here have also been major spills or accidents such as the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan or the deadly oil-train wreck in Quebec.

But when it comes to the use of fossil fuels and their impact on the environment, the big spills and accidents are only part of the story. Increasingly, I’ve been writing about the less visible — yet planet altering — effect of greenhouse-gas pollution as it creates global warming. But even then, there’s more to tell. The truth is there are a lot of smaller accidents — lesser oil spills, releases of dangerous air pollution — which are caused by our need to produce, transport, and consume fossil fuels. And a lot of this slow drip, if you will, of environmental damage doesn’t rise to the level where it receives coverage in the news media.

Recently, a coalition of Louisiana’s leading environmental groups launched a study to look at these low-profile, under-reported spills that, nonetheless, threaten the water we drink and the air that we breathe. What they found was rather alarming:

Earlier this month, an alliance of environmental groups released data they collected over a three-week period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 6 documenting oil industry accidents in Louisiana. They counted a total of 94 accidents — more than 30 a week. These included both land and offshore spills from pipelines, platforms, tanks, vessels and other facilities.

“We’ve known for a long time that the oil industry has an accident problem, but since many accidents are offshore and out of site, they get away with it,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a pollution watchdog group that worked with 350 Louisiana, and Vanishing Earth to compile and release the data. “This sampling … shows that the industry has a problem.”

The analysis was based on numbers from the Coast Guard’s National Response Center, the federal point of contact for reporting all oil spills and other pollution discharges into the environment. The oil industry is required by law to report its accidents, and the public can also contact the agency if they witness spills.

So far this year in Louisiana, 1,514 spills have been reported. That compares to 2,307 in all of 2015.

“Every time we fly out over the Gulf, we find something that needs to be reported to the National Response Center,” said Jonathan Henderson, founding president of Vanishing Earth, a Louisiana-based organization that uses aerial photography to monitor the Gulf’s environment. “The public deserves to know just how much contamination of our precious natural resources is occurring everyday.”

The risks to the public from these routine accidents and spills are many. As the environmentalists noted, some oil-industry accidents sicken, contaminate or even kill workers in some very hazardous occupations. Out in the Gulf, it’s a struggle to document the impact of so many smaller spills, not to mention chronic leaks like the Taylor Energy site — an ongoing oil slick that’s been polluting the waters off Louisiana for roughly a decade.

This is why more and more environmentalists are looking at America’s addiction to fossil fuels and saying, Keep It In the Ground. For Louisiana, that means stopping the program of offshore leases that keeps pushing Big Oil into deeper waters far our in the Gulf, raising the alarming risk of another Deepwater Horizon-style accident. Such a move would start to turn off the slow drip of ecological destruction.

Read more about the report on fossil-fuel accidents in Louisiana from Louisiana Weekly:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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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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