The slow drip-drip-drip of oil assaulting the Gulf


The Gulf of Mexico is under attack from oil spills. And the millions of gallons of leftover crude from 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster is just a part of it. With hundreds of oil-and-gas related operations, from offshore rigs to refineries, cluttering the Gulf’s waters and lining its shores, the steady drumbeat of medium, small and even seemingly very small leaks and other mishaps really adds up.

How much? According to one estimate by the watchdog group SkyTruth, which uses satellite technology to investigate the oil spills that get reported to the feds’ National Response Center , the amount of oil that gets spilled in a typical year (i.e., one without a gusher like the BP spill of four years ago) could be as high as 2.5 million gallons. That’s a lot of oil that’s poisoning our marine life and gunking up our coastal wetlands, which are supposed to be nature’s protective barrier against devastating hurricanes — and neither Big Oil nor its protectors in government want you to know about that.

The reason we do know as much as we do about who’s spilling oil in the Gulf is because of intrepid citizen volunteers. This week, the New Orleans-based website The Lens had an outstanding look at the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and the good work that they do, Here’s an excerpt:

In the last three years, after 200 surveys by air, boat and foot, Henderson has made hundreds of oil pollution reports as part of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium. In what has developed into an almost 24/7 effort, members use private boats, planes and even satellite imagery to spot and evaluate insults to Louisiana’s coastal environment — all at no cost to taxpayers.

Their effort would be noteworthy solely for its altruistic nature. But what may be more remarkable is that they are the only ones doing this work.

No state or federal agency has cops regularly walking this beat. Instead, state and federal governments, which collect billions in royalties from the permit holders each year, rely on companies to turn themselves in for violating environmental law or the terms of their permits.

“We don’t have people whose job it is to go out looking for spills; we rely on people to report things,” said Gregory Langley, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which says its mission is to protect public health, safety and welfare “while considering sound policies regarding employment and economic development.”

The article notes that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, does have a team of about a dozen inspectors, but with so many oil-and-gas facilities along the Gulf Coast, it’s difficult for those agents to visit any one site more than once every three years. And look, there’s no doubt that more staffing and resources would help, and that ridiculous levels of Tea Party-imposed government austerity are part of the problem. But the real issue here is one of temperament. Most government agencies are far too cozy with the industry, and there’s a revolving door of employees shuttling between the two for big paydays.

The regulators just don’t have the passion for protecting our coastline that some private citizens have. Since the BP spill in 2010, my law firm has worked closely with independent experts — chemists, toxicologists and physicians who were able to document the pollution and the illnesses that government agencies wanted to ignore. I’ve also written here many times about our colleague Bonny Schumaker from Wings of Care, who has flown to the places where BP and the feds didn’t want you to see, in order to track and monitor ongoing leaks in the Macondo field.

These people are heroes — sacrificing hours upon hours of their personal time because of their passion for the right of citizens to know the truth. It’s a travesty that we can’t get that same level of concern from our elected government. But remember, these whistleblowers can only do so much; they can identify the spills, but only government can punish the wrongdoers. They need to start acting now, before the slow drip drip drip destroys our beloved Gulf.

Read more about the volunteers patrolling the Gulf from the Lens: 

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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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