They still don’t take seafood safety seriously in the Gulf


In more than a quarter century as an environmental lawyer, I’ve learned a lot about the mostly ineffective ways that government regulators do their jobs — and that learning curve definitely accelerated in those first few months after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Time and time again, I — and others in the environmental community here in Louisiana — watched in those early days of the massive BP oil spill as feckless bureaucrats made decision after decision that favored the interests of a wealthy foreign corporation over those of the American people. That included such life or death matters as the needless overuse of the highly toxic dispersant Corexit in an effort to make the spill disappear from public view, or blocking cleanup workers from wearing respirators to avoid the poisonous fumes.

But some of the most galling government actions involved the rush to assure the American public that Gulf seafood was safe to eat, even at the time when much of the 4 million barrels of oil that spilled from the busted BP rig were still not yet corralled. I reported on some of the lax oversight in my recent book, Crude Justice:  How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America. Here’s an excerpt:

The government boasted in late 2010 that it had tested more than 10,000 seafood samples from the Gulf and found no evidence of problems, but the vast majority of those tests were what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “sensory testing.” You and I might call it a smell test, and that’s hardly adequate for finding traces of hydrocarbons that are odorless yet highly toxic. Meanwhile, Paul Orr, who is Marylee’s son and also the unofficial riverkeeper for the Lower Mississippi, gathered samples of shrimp, crab and fin fish from 20 different locations in the Gulf off the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline and conducted tests that instead showed high levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons, even in seafood from areas that had been declared safe for fishing.

Testing by other independent environmentalists from other areas of the Gulf showed high levels of cadmium, a long-lasting carcinogen, while other news accounts quoted Gulf fishermen who were reeling in red snapper with sores and lesions—some the size of a 50-cent piece—the likes of which they had never seen before. The sick snappers shouldn’t have been surprising, since the fish are bottom feeders—eating the shrimp and crabs who live on the sea floor—and independent scientists like Samantha Joye had already shown that oil from the leaking BP rig was coating the bottom of the Gulf. At the same time, crab fishermen were reporting their haul had dropped by 70 percent and the few crabs they did pull up suffered similar lesions and disease.

This should have been a huge national scandal, but the information was all but ignored by the media. So you probably won’t consider it a bombshell when I tell you that a new report this week finds that — some six years after Deepwater Horizon — government agencies are still dropping the ball on seafood safety. Even more ironic, the waste and abuse comes from a new Louisiana state program — paid for by BP’s penalties for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Here’s an excerpt from the AP report:

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for testing to ensure fish caught off Louisiana were safe for consumers instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment, state auditors said, calling the safety program so mismanaged it couldn’t even declare if the catch was fit to eat.

Energy giant BP PLC gave Louisiana millions of dollars for the program aimed at restoring confidence in the state’s multibillion-dollar seafood industry after a massive oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But auditors said they believe hundreds of thousands of dollars were misspent.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found “insufficient sampling of fish for contamination from the oil spill, excessive costs and missing property” in part of the $10.5 million BP-financed seafood safety program overseen by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the years after the spill.

Some of the tricks uncovered by the auditor’s office sounds very familiar:

But auditors took issue with the portion of fish collections based in Venice, at the southeastern tip of boot-shaped Louisiana. About $3 million was spent from December 2010 through August 2014 by the Venice sampling program.

Less than half the tissue samples needed from fish like tuna, mackerel, snapper and grouper were collected, according to the draft report obtained by AP. A biologist wasn’t always present for the sampling, auditors say, and seafood tissue samples sat for days — and sometimes weeks — before being submitted. “Management cannot ensure that the work accomplished was sufficient to provide assurances regarding the safety of Louisiana’s seafood,” the report says.

We’ve seen time and time again — that regulators are more often servants of the industries they regulate than of the general public. This is another glaring example. It’s understood that the Louisiana seafood industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, but the right to eat seafood that won’t make you ill is priceless. And I know a lot of good people who stopped eating Gulf seafood altogether after the BP oil spill. A sad story like this one makes it easy to see why.

Read the AP report on significant problems in Louisiana’s seafood testing program:

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 2015 – 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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