Undefeated: The Gulf Coast 6 Months After the Blowout
by Jerry Cope
Few places on our small planet have suffered more repeated disasters in the past decade resulting in loss of life and destruction of property than the United States Gulf Coast. Katrina was bad. For many areas Ivan was worse. The BP blowout resulting from the insatiable greed and hunger for carbon-based fuels reigns supreme -- and they are the true causes of the blowout. It is a challenge of the highest order to attempt to wrap your brain around the size and complexity of what has transpired since April 20, 2010, at the Macondo site in Mississippi Canyon 252. "The Source," as it was quickly designated, altered life on a significant portion of our planet irrevocably. Part of what was lost may be restored in time, but history has shown our species to be more far more efficient at destruction on a large scale than healing the damage. Frequently, the impacts of foolish and ill-advised human activities result in consequences that we are incapable of redressing. This is especially true when we alter the balance in the larger environment in which we live. The unbridled consumption of carbon-based fuels has fundamentally assaulted the delicate balance that has provided a stable life-support system on this planet for the past ten thousand years. This historically unprecedented period of climate stability has allowed us to develop both our civilization and the resulting ability to destroy it all whether by weapons of mass destruction or destabilizing the global ecosystem.
The crucible of the Gulf provides a harrowing example of the insanity we now consider normal. The Macondo site was a highly risky proposition fraught with danger, and there were repeated warnings that the technology and experience to venture into that region in the quest for more oil reserves was dangerously ill-advised. Only BP was brazen enough to proceed in an area where the other large oil corporations, not known for their lack of enthusiasm, felt to be too risky an undertaking. Continuing a tradition by what can be accurately described as a "rogue" corporation, BP forged ahead. From the start, BP continually pushed the safety envelope by cutting corners in order to keep costs at a minimum until finally it all went to hell -- literally. Eleven men lost their lives on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon rig blew. Two days later on April 22, the Fortieth Anniversary of Earth Day, the rig collapsed and sank beneath the waves. It then proceeded to gush an estimated five million barrels of crude oil (189 million gallons) into the Gulf. Tens of millions of people along the Gulf Coast have had their lives adversely impacted, and six months later the catastrophe is far from over.
The response by both BP and the federal government to the blowout made a bad situation exponentially worse. Inexplicably, despite causing the largest environmental disaster in the history of our nation, the government decided to let BP dictate how to deal with the situation. Every responsible federal agency including the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of the Interior (DOI), and National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) was placed at BP's disposal and instructed to cooperate. On the few occasions where an agency director moved to rein BP in, such as Lisa Jackson's attempt to halt the use of the highly toxic Nalco Corexit dispersant, the Obama administration moved decisively to support BP without regard for the health and welfare of the American public or the environmental consequences. The Coast Guard, using C130s, deployed an unprecedented amount of Corexit over the Gulf, at least 1.8 million gallons. BP also deployed Corexit deep underwater at the Source, which had never been done before with entirely unknown impacts. Not a single NATO ally nation allows the use of dispersants (much less Corexit) in response to an oil spill except as a last resort and then exceptions are granted only after formal consideration.
The dispersant moved the oil below the surface and out of sight into the water column below, thereby presenting a more acceptable image for media consumption. Basically an industrial solvent, when combined with the crude oil creates a more potent toxic brew with greater potential for damage to biological organisms. Once the oil has been "dispersed," more accurately described as sunk in smaller balls, it became virtually impossible to collect by traditional cleanup methods such as skimming. The highly toxic Corexit 9527, which has approximately 60% 2-butoxyethanol by volume and is know to bioaccumulate and cause genetic damage, was admitted to being used initially. Authorities claimed those supplies were exhausted by mid-May. On the contrary, containers of 9527 were discovered as late as mid-August. BP and the government also claimed that all dispersant use was terminated in mid-July, aside from a very small amount. This too was not true. Corexit was being deployed on Dauphin Island as late as mid-September, and reports by locals continued though early October. Independent tests along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida continued in August and September to show markers for Corexit in both air and soil samples at dangerously high levels, including inland waterways, estuaries, and lagoons.
The actual loss of marine life due to the blowout will never be known due to a total lack of transparency on the part of BP, its subcontractors, and the government agencies involved. When the oil began moving in toward the coast and shortly after the first pictures of a dead sperm whale made international news, the FAA closed off the airspace over the Gulf to prevent media from acquiring images from planes. Also, marine traffic was severely restricted by the Coast Guard, and no non-essential personnel were allowed on the water near any cleanup operations. No cell phones, cameras or electronic devices were permitted on board any BP contracted boats in the Gulf during that time. Finally, new regulations were put in place that made it a class 3 felony punishable by a $40,000 fine and imprisonment to get closer than 60 feet of any cleanup operation. Cleanup workers were ordered not to talk to anyone about any aspect of the spill or face immediate termination. Surveillance cameras were placed along the beaches to monitor worker contact with media and the public.
The impacts of the spill on the Gulf Coast economy have been devastating. The commercial fishing and tourist industries have suffered unprecedented losses with no end in sight. Even with the FDA lowering seafood safety standards specifically to allow catch from the Gulf into the market, many fisherman who know the fish coming out of the Gulf are contaminated refuse to sell them. For those that do, the price has been depressed to the point that they are lucky to cover fuel and operating expenses. Some of the largest fish brokers on the coast refuse to buy or sell anything caught in the Gulf. They accuse the government of lying and covering up in a continuing effort to downplay the impacts of the spill and shield BP from additional legal liability for damages.
It is no better for the resort areas that were famous for their pristine white sandy beaches. Despite an aggressive PR campaign throughout the summer funded by BP, which included national ads and star-studded concerts including no less than beachcomber Jimmy Buffet (who subsequently was ridiculed by locals for ignoring the toxic conditions to turn a buck) and with presidential visits encouraging people to come on down to vacation, play and eat seafood (which was contaminated); the summer of 2010 never happened. The million dollar condos towering over the Alabama Coast remained vacant, and the beaches were all but deserted. Crews worked round the clock to remove oil from the surface of the sand while just inches beneath layers of crude remained a toxic health hazard to any child digging in the sand to create a sand castle. Families played in the surf and contracted skin lesions and sores which have frequently developed into MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) like bacterial infections which are highly resistant to some antiobiotics. The origins of the microbes causing these horrific diseases are under investigation, and some have been identified as being bioengineered. It is unknown how many Americans bought into the media campaign and vacationed on the Gulf this summer believing it safe only to become sickened by exposure to toxic VOCs resulting from the blowout. Federal, state, and local officials continually downplayed the health threats posed by the spill thus endangering thousands of families in trying to maintain tourist revenue and further shield BP from liability for adverse economic impacts.
The health impacts on residents are without question the most serious consequence which continues to be ignored by mainstream media and government agencies. The typical symptoms resulting from chemical exposure to toxic VOC's have been seen in large numbers especially in Southern Louisiana and Alabama. Severe respiratory issues culminating in chemically-induced pneumonia, which I personally experienced on my first trip to the coast, are common. All too frequently, local physicians misdiagnose the symptoms as strep throat, staph infection, or flu and prescribe conventional antibiotics (in many cases repeatedly) and steroids, which are generally ineffective. With the assistance of outside experts such as Exxon/Valdez survivor Dr. Riki Ott and Dr. Wilma Subra, medical information has been provided though a series of community meetings and publications to both the medical community and the general population. A number of local grassroots NGO's have stepped up to the plate to assist those in need of health care led by the Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Coast Justice, Guardians Of the Gulf, Coastal Heritage Society of LA, and Project Gulf Impact. Experts in Toxicology and Occupation medicine from across the country such as Sciencecorps.org have been providing critically needed information and advice to both physicians and individuals.
As with virtually all aspects of the blowout, the government's response to the large numbers of people sickened has been to downplay, ignore, or deny any problem exists. Neither BP nor the government has any intention of being held responsible for the long-term medical monitoring of people exposed to toxic VOC's, as similar experiences in the past have led to tragic (and expensive) results. In many cases the serious health impacts of chemical exposure may not manifest for years. In the case of someone who was on vacation for a week or two in the summer of 2010, the connection might never be made to the source at all.
Americans who live on the Gulf Coast have a proud tradition and unique culture. Many families can trace their lineage back to the days when Jean Lafitte pirated the Gulf waters. Their roots go long and deep like the old magnolia trees that stand majestically over the lush landscape and have withstood the fiercest storms nature can unleash. To be sure, large numbers of people have evacuated the coastal regions and continue to do so daily. Chances are if you go down to Costa Rica this fall you will find a growing community of American ex-pats with Southern drawls and a particular passion for college football and seafood. For some, the BP blowout was simply the last straw. Others have relocated on the advice of their doctors for health reasons, they need to remove themselves from the toxic environment. Many more have left for economic reasons, having lost their jobs and homes. Longstanding businesses have closed their doors and state and local governments are wrestling with the likely prospect of lost taxes and budgetary shortfalls which may last for years. Yet the majority are determined to rebuild their communities and ensure that future generations will enjoy the beauty and wonder of the place they know as home. They remain undefeated.
The Mabus report, America's Gulf Coast: A Long Term Recovery Plan, offers a framework for beginning to address the myriad critical issues facing the Gulf in the wake of the BP disaster. One major problem is time. With each passing day, the long-term impacts on the coastal ecology worsen and threaten to follow the same patterns established in previous spill zones where 40 years after the cleanup operations were declared complete crude still remains prevalent along the shores and in the water. Repeated assurances of transparency going forward seem empty given the track record to date. Real transparency will be of paramount importance if true restoration is to be effected. The process must be open to public scrutiny, and corporate and political interests must be held accountable to the greater good and the American people. Great damage was caused by the spill to the people's property and interests. To be truly effective, the Recovery Plan must include Regional Citizen Advisory Councils in the decision making process. The proposed structure as it stands calls for a 20 member panel consisting of ten BP representatives and ten members appointed by Gulf state politicians -- a formula that will not ensure that the public interests are protected.
Even as President Obama rescinded the moratorium on offshore drilling
in the Gulf, the European Union announced that it will be aggressively
tightening regulations on drilling in its coastal waters. Regardless of
regulation and oversight, the only ways to be certain there are no more
incidents like the Deepwater Horizon are to reduce the demand for carbon
fuels, become more energy efficient and conservative, and fully
transition to renewable clean energy sources. To speed the shift, the
true costs of all carbon-based energy such as those caused by the recent
BP disaster, need to be internalized and reflected in their prices and
subsidies to the petroleum and carbon-based-fuel industries must be
eliminated. We must act now, for our generation, our children, and all
life on this planet. Business as usual is not a viable option.