The horrific ramifications of the Gulf oil spill

Two years after the BP oil spill, deformed fish point to lasting environmental and health consequences

Published April 20, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on AlterNet.

Almost two full years after the BP oil spill, a panel of experts gathered at the 17th annual Tulane Environmental Law Summit, to present the continuing impacts of the BP Oil Spill. That spill began with the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling unit used by BP 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven men lost their lives. The resulting spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico stands as the largest oil spill in U.S. history and the second largest environmental disaster in this country to date besides the nearly decade-long Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Scientists at the summit presented recent photographs of shrimp with no eyes and fish with cancerous tumors born long after the gulf was declared "safe" for fishing.

AlterNetIt turns out that testing water and fish flesh under the surface oil after the spill was not very telling about long-term impacts as oil and water don't mix and the chronic, toxic impacts were delayed until long after BP was put in charge of the "cleanup." When BP sprayed chemical dispersants containing a slew of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, the oil didn't magically disappear. It sank into the sediment. Disturbingly, the allowable levels set by the government for the toxins in our seafood are based on health impacts for a 176-pound adult eating less than two medium shrimp a day. The testing is for one chemical out of a crude oil mixture containing thousands of chemicals. No synergistic effects are considered. This in no way protects children, fetuses, people who weigh less than 176 pounds or anyone who eats seafood on a daily basis like the folks here on the Gulf Coast.

Dr. Andrew Whitehead, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University, who is studying the BP spill and has reviewed much of the scientific studies of the Exxon Valdez spill, explained that stock declines of species may take several years to develop as reproduction is impacted in successive generations and across species. The Exxon Valdez spill is now known to be responsible for the decline of many species, including marine mammals, marine birds, and fishes such as pink salmon and herring. Though we have a take on the immediate acute impacts of the BP spill on animals caught in the oil, the chronic ultimate impacts of the BP spill are still unknown. But we do know that the killifish, the most abundant forage fish for the bigger fish in Gulf Coast marshes, are being affected. Fish from oiled marshes show signs of direct toxicity and reproductive impairment. Dr. Whitehead's experiments involving exposures to oiled sediments, done in collaboration with colleague Dr. Fernando Galvez, show that killifish embryos are taking longer to develop or don't hatch at all. They are being born with malformed hearts and hearts that may not function properly when they mature. And as the impacts from the spill on the fish bioaccumulate and propagate across generations, liability is harder to prove without good and strategic scientific study that sadly is harder to fund.

But some impacts are being felt now, especially for sediment dwelling seafood. Current reports from fisherman up and down the coast are startling. The oyster harvest for 2010 was the worst in more than four decades and oystermen continue to report catches down as much as 75 percent. Crab catches are in steep decline. Brown shrimp production is down two-thirds. And the white shrimp season was even worse, leading to descriptions of "worst in memory" and "nonexistent." This from the region that before the spill provided 40 percent of the nation's seafood.

Dr. Patricia Williams, Ph.D., Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology, Associate Professor, Coordinator of Toxicology Research Laboratories, Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of New Orleans, spoke at the summit about what she sees as a failure to properly assess the impact of the spill on seafood and on human health. She said:

In 1996, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledged that direct measurement of tissue for PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) concentrations generally does not provide a useful indicator of exposure of fish to PAHs from petroleum spills. Regardless, an extremely expensive seafood testing program was launched using this method. Testing included only 13 PAH parent compounds out of 200 PAHs present in crude oil. PAHs act on each other resulting in greater toxicity than expected from a single PAH (synergism). The synergistic nature of the PAHs were ignored in interpretation of the results. Additionally, the Levels of Concern were calculated for a 176 pound individual. This does not address toddlers and children or the developing fetus and placental transfer. The public was not warned of these deficiencies in the seafood testing program.

Dr. Williams explained that "PAHs are endocrine disruptors that interfere with the normal blood-borne hormones (e.g., estrogen and testosterone) that are responsible for the regulation of reproductive and developmental processes. Only very low amounts of chemicals are needed to disrupt the normal endocrine balance of both humans and animals. Evidence of reproduction imbalance is seen in the second generation of white shrimp in the 2011 harvest. Shrimp were harvested with defective eye stalks, pleopods, and pereiopods. Such anatomical defects are occurring in the markedly reduced white shrimp population in the Gulf and warn of endocrine dysfunction that could result in the loss of the species."

Furthermore, "The heavy metals known to be present in crude oil are being ignored in the testing of seafood. Metal toxicity can produce neurobehavioral abnormalities in sea life such as: alterations in avoidance or attraction responses; critical swimming speed; changes in social interactions (e.g. aggression), reproduction, feeding, and predator avoidance; food foraging with reduced feeding ability; loss or orientation in swimming and changes in schooling behavior. Heavy metal testing in BP Oil clean-up workers has documented increased arsenic levels in 24 hour urine specimens."

Finally, Dr. Williams warned that "The future chronic health effects from consumption of contaminated seafood and biomagnification along the food chain are yet to be realized in both sea life and humans. Chronic effects may take years to present and may elude an analysis of their causal origins. "

On the second day of the summit, a settlement between private plaintiffs and BP was announced in the press. This settlement does not resolve the government cases, either civil or criminal, against the responsible parties. But the settlement of the private case raises the question whether the government prosecutions will be resolved without a trial and without jail time for executives ultimately responsible for the deaths of 11 workers and severe and ongoing environmental and economic impacts on the region. The summit attendees were abuzz with speculation about what will happen in the federal and State of Louisiana cases.

In Louisiana, petroleum is king. This state is the third largest producer of petroleum in America, Louisiana is responsible for more than one-quarter of the nation's natural gas production, and Louisiana is the third leading refiner of petroleum in the country. In addition, the state makes over 600 petroleum products making it the second in the nation in primary production of petrochemicals. The 20-mile stretch on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge known as "The Cancer Corridor" pumps out one-quarter of the chemicals made in America. Louisiana leads the United States in release of toxic chemicals into the environment. The seven-parish industrial corridor has the highest density of petrochemical industries in the nation and possibly the world.

All this money in petroleum has a huge impact on politics in Louisiana, just as it does on a national and international level. It's probably impossible to get elected to any Louisiana office without courting petroleum dollars and making campaign promises to that industry. A visit to the petroleum friendly website for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources reveals the following section titled "Legacy Liability Reform."

This "Legacy Liability Reform" is less likely to ensure any protection for Louisiana's resources or its citizens than it is to assure petroleum companies that Louisiana and its resources are theirs for the taking. The reform is code for "don't worry about liability because immunity for really bad stuff is all part of the deal for investing in Louisiana." Oh, by the way, the Louisiana courts have been very protective historically of petroleum interests as well.

From the 1950s on, drilling for oil and gas on federal lands and waters has produced the second largest source of revenue for the federal government besides taxes. This has led to a rather cozy relationship between the federal government and those corporations that extract petroleum here. Let us not forget that since the inception of the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to emphasize what it should be doing) has been involved in numerous scandals. For example, in 1990, MMS employees were linked to prostitution, and in 2008 the Department of Interior's inspector general reported that MMS employees were engaged in both drug use and sexual activity with employees from the very energy firms they were to be regulating. This wasn't just the foxes guarding the chicken coop, but the foxes actually in bed doing lines of coke with the chickens.

Clint Guidry, president, Louisiana Shrimp Association, spoke at the summit about the political ramifications of the spill and the unlikelihood of real justice coming from the government case. Mr. Guidry had worked for BP earlier in his career like so many Louisiana men have. He knows intimately both the oil industry and the fishing industry. When the spill happened, Louisiana shrimping was devastated. First, Guidry lobbied for jobs for all the shrimpers when the fisheries closed. Then he fought for job site safety for the workers and community residents impacted by the cleanup. Guidry's role became that of witness to the harms on fisherman response workers when they began to suffer from being exposed to aerial application of the chemical dispersant and being downwind from burn sites of the surface oil. For instance, on May 26 seven shrimpers from the offshore response crew were admitted to West Jefferson Hospital with chemical poisoning. Two days later, after Obama's May 27 visit to Grand Isle where he was photographed picking up tar balls, two more shrimpers were airlifted to West Jefferson Hospital for emergency medical treatment, also for chemical poisoning. Guidry met with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and with other government representatives from the local to the federal including Secretaries Napolitano and Salazar and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Mr. Guidry still has the following unresolved questions:

  1. Why did we allow people who caused the oil spill to be in charge of the cleanup? Everything they did was to limit liability, not to protect the environment, the resources or the people.
  2. How could the government announce on Aug. 5, 2010, that suddenly 75 percent of the oil had disappeared? Corporations run this country and they operate under the Golden Rule: Who holds the gold makes the rule.
  3. According to statements made by Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, BP is choosing the direction of the environmental damage assessment. Shouldn't the Oil Spill Recovery fund be administered independently so it could fund real scientists like Dr. Whitehead?
  4. Oil companies are good at covering up spills and sinking the oil with additional chemicals, but they are no good at cleaning up spills. If we are allowing these companies to drill in the Gulf, shouldn't they be required to have the technology to prevent disasters and to clean them up? They don't.
  5. Even after the largest loss of life and oil, no laws have been changed. Eleven men are dead but I don't believe anybody will go to jail. The government is the keeper of the record of the criminal investigation and if they settle the case, the public will never see that information. If the record is not made public in a trial, how do we learn from this spill?
  6. I'm a third generation fisherman. We were the first environmentalists because if you don't take care of the environment, it doesn't take care of you. I love wildlife. The spill has devastated wildlife. What price do you put on a dead dolphin?
  7. The head of Minerals Management Service at the time of the BP disaster came from big oil. She was fired by Obama and MMS was split up but no one else was fired. Is that enough house cleaning? Can these people keep us safe when they have failed in the past?

As the federal government and affected states including Louisiana move toward trial or settlement, we should all be asking these questions.

How will the government cases be resolved? Potential penalties of more than $17 billion for environmental violations remain on the books for BP. Peter Lehner, executive director of Natural Resources Defense Counsel writes in his blog, "How the remainder of the case pans out says a lot about the future of energy in this country. Will the government allow BP, and the rest of the oil industry, to continue business as usual with nothing more than a slap on the wrist? Or will the company be put on trial and held accountable for its actions? Will the penalties be severe enough to make the oil industry clean up its act? BP reported profits of $21.7 billion in 2011, nearly 3 times the estimated cost of its settlement with private parties in the Gulf."

And one question looms even larger than the spill, the resulting legal cases or even BP profits: How can we establish a separation between the oil industry and our government?

By Lisa Kaas Boyle

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