By Taffy Lee Williams
From the website of BP's cleanup company:
Plant Performance Services has been proud to support the Gulf Coast cleanup and recovery efforts in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident. Since May 2010, P2S has provided beach cleanup services, warehousing and logistics management, and wildlife observers as part of the response and recovery program. Effective Sunday, September 19, P2S's beach cleanup work has come to an end.1
Can this be true? Just five months after the biggest oil spill in our nation's history, the perpetrators are pulling out? Local fishermen whose livelihoods were swept away by the spreading plumes of spilled oil were hired by BP to work in cleanup crews, and promised that work until not a trace of oil remained. Now, incredulously, BP would have us believe the gulf is cleaned up, despite data and physical evidence to the contrary.
September 23, 2010. "There is still oil covering Louisiana wetlands. Thousands of birds and fish have lost their nesting grounds, the effects on the ecosystem of almost 2 million gallons of Corexit dispersant and 5 million barrels of spilled oil are still unknown, and there are still vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico that is [sic] unsafe for fishing. But as far as BP is concerned, they are done with their clean up of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.2
The BP disaster has exposed the insidious and epidemic collusion between big business – in this case the oil industry – and the US government to essentially nullify the laws that impede their profits and progress. In order to save time, BP skipped certification of the blowout preventer, which was found to have design flaws, leaks in the hydraulic system and even a dead battery. A litany of deep sea equipment failures and faulty wiring plagued the rig, and conflicting pressure test results indicated poor pipe integrity. BP failed both to redirect the flow of flammable gases and remove drilling fluids necessary for accurate readings.3 Where was oversight in the face of so many problems on the rig, and in light of BP's dismal safety record? (BP has been fined by OSHA 760 times!) Now, despite the resulting ecological nightmare in the gulf, fearing little government interference, BP is choosing to simply walk away. With so much at stake, the future health of the gulf and all its residents who must deal with the remaining 4 million barrels of oil dispersed through the region, the abandonment should be treated as one of the highest level crimes against the American people.
September 20, 2010: At least 200 beach cleanup workers in NW Florida are without a job. P2S contract employees showed up for work yesterday morning and found out BP has dismissed them.... Workers were told they had already gone and BP needs to cut back. Cleanup employees say tar balls are sitting just an inch or so below the surface and the wind brings it to the top of the sand.4
Where is the Coast Guard? Where are our elected officials? Where is the White House in the face of this outrage? Even as BP packs its bags, it is maintaining an easy control, and the cover-up continues. Federal officials recently stopped a reporter looking for oil on Florida beaches from digging on the beach. At the Gulf Islands National Seashore, WEAR ABC3 reporter Dan Thomas had dug less than a foot into the sand and found blotches of crude. Federal authorities told him he was not allowed to dig below 6 inches.5 Anonymous clean-up workers are also reporting that BP has dumped clean sand over oiled beaches, and stating now that they are "oil free" the cleanup is over.
One of the spill's more blatant government-industry collusion blunders was the NOAA announcement in early August that 75% of the oil spilled was "gone", either skimmed away, evaporated, burned off, or broken down naturally. The assertion was quickly blasted by scientists from the University of Georgia and around the world. Coast Guard commander Thad Allen, who later stepped down from his post, stumbled through his explanation of the government's math even as he was hit with studies that showed in fact the reverse was true: 75% of the oil was and is still out there, below the surface, on the ocean bottom, in droplets and plumes throughout the water column, sopping through the marshlands, under the newly applied white sand on the beaches, in the atmosphere, on the canyons' floors, inside and on the bodies of the plankton, fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals of the gulf.... continuing to devastate the region and what was once the source of 25% of the nation's seafood.
In the meantime, scientists are hoping to study how the sperm whale population living in a canyon near the drill site is coping, assuming they survive, as an indicator of the future of all creatures in the Gulf of Mexico. There is concern that the hydrocarbons and pollution will damage their DNA, making reproduction impossible. One toxicologist compared whales in the water to people on land:
"They're people in the Gulf, if you will," said John Wise, director of the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health at the University of Southern Maine. "They're mammals, we're mammals. So they represent us. The way it affects them is the way it could affect us.... The thing that I worry most about is, what is this pollution doing to their DNA?" Wise said. "If it damages their DNA...they're not going to be able to reproduce. Now you're really decimating the population at a pace that you can't recover very well."6
University of Southern Florida researchers have already found DNA mutations in the fish from the spill area.
They discovered plumes of dispersed oil at the bottom of an undersea canyon about 40 miles off the Florida panhandle. It was found to be toxic to microscopic sea organisms, causing mutations to their DNA. If this plankton at the base of the marine food chain is contaminated, it could affect the whole ecosystem of the Gulf.7
USF microbiologist John Paul calls plankton the "canaries in the coal mine."
"The oil is out of sight as far as the surface is concerned and there are no tar balls on the beaches and the birds are not getting coated in oil but the story isn't over. The problem with mutant DNA is that it can be passed on and we don't know how this will affect fish or other marine life," he says, adding that the effects could last for decades.8
A NOAA study concluded that if just three of the Gulf's sperm whales were killed unnaturally, the long-term survival of the population of even over 1,000 whales would be jeopardized.
The loss of a handful of whales each year can impact a population of hundreds, because sperm whales – especially females – require a very long time to reach sexual maturity. Females then give birth to just three or four calves during their entire lifetimes.
"They're like humans. Most of the human population is not going to have six kids at once and do that every year," Godard-Codding said.
"As soon as we get to the level of three deaths caused by human interaction – and this would include the oil spill – that would jeopardize that particular sperm whale population."9
With respect to whales, we know that 40% of the orcas in Prince William Sound were lost after the Exxon Valdez disaster, and two decades later, the population has not yet recovered. Marine biologists in Alaska are predicting that killer whale population will likely go extinct in a few decades since so many females were lost and they still haven't caught up. This prediction does not bode well for the survivors of the 28 long-lived cetacean species in the Gulf of Mexico who surely must be suffering – inhaling hydrocarbon-laden surface air, scavenging through oiled and ailing prey and surviving in the oil-stricken world that was once their viable home.10
NOAA's marine mammal stranding coordinator Teri Rowles has said,
"Deep-diving whales, like sperm whales living away from the shore" – and thus closer to the main body of the oil slick – "certainly have been exposed," she added. "Finding dead or affected whales will be difficult, however, because the animals spend most of their time underwater, and their bodies do not often wash ashore."11
People who once depended on the Gulf's rich ecosystem for their living and who witnessed the devastation first hand know that the disaster is far from over. They must now recover physically and economically from the ill effects of this massive crude spill, to rebuild coastline businesses wasted by the prolific plumes of oil and dispersant-tainted waters. Witness the physical trauma, and apply this experience to what marine mammals and other wildlife are having to endure in this account from an anonymous BP cleanup worker. She describes how she and her husband were sprayed directly with dispersant:
At night, there were airplanes above us, without lights, and they were spraying heavily... A good bit of us trawlers, the fishing boats, thought the boats were on fire... We kept smelling burnt wire, we didn't realize it was the smell of arsenic. It's the chemicals that were being sprayed that left that smell. ...
Our lungs filled up with fluid, and we had to get up because we can't breathe... terrible, terrible headaches, skin lesions. I want to live to see my granddaughter... People, we really need help... Any claim, any illness, they won't even take calls... BP will not give any information out. We were denied a copy of our own incident report... This is beyond the wages now, we just want medical help. (September 30, 2010)12
Injured parties may ultimately find reparation through the court system. But does BP have its hand in the courtroom pie as well? Six of the twelve judges assigned to the New Orleans federal district court recused themselves from spill-damage lawsuits due to personal relationships with the companies involved or their attorneys, or with oil investments. In fact, US District Court Judge Carl Barbier was appointed to oversee the oil-spill related lawsuits only after he sold his investments in the disaster's companies in June, 2010. Through his record of investments, Barbier has been oil industry-friendly. Relinquishing his holdings only for the sake of the BP case does not reassure those seeking unbiased, clean judicial response.13
In fact, Edward Sherman, who teaches class-action and complex litigation at Tulane University, recently said it might be difficult to find federal judges in Louisiana free of potential conflicts of interest.14
On September 16, the hearings began. Judge Barbier, who is handling 400 spill-related cases, said BP will face thousands of lawsuits and thousands of plaintiffs. BP may succeed in delaying litigation even as the three companies, Transocean Ltd., Halliburton and BP, continue to blame each other for the accident. While whales and fish, birds and turtles can't walk into a courtroom and testify to their misery, several suits have been filed on their behalf. The Center for Biological Diversity filed seven lawsuits including the biggest clean water litigation in history. The Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Environment America have also sued for Clean Water Act violations, for BP's failure to remove the oil and measure the flow of the plume.
"Remove does not mean hiding oil beneath the sea surface or leaving it to naturally decay," Joel Waltzer, an attorney representing the groups, said in a news release. "Remove means take away. If BP can remove oil from miles beneath the earth, under 5,000 feet of water, it can remove oil plumes from the gulf."15
Michael Jasny, a sort-of legal whale-man for the NRDC, recently said,
One policy that must be changed is the government's astonishing disregard of its own wildlife laws. Each year the Interior Department approves hundreds of drilling plans and exploration permits for the northern Gulf without taking step one to comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. These laws are important because they require the government and industry to take every practicable measure to reduce harm to wildlife. In the Mississippi Canyon, this could well have meant capping the sperm whales' exposure to seismic blasting and taking additional precautions against the risk of an oil spill in their nursery.16
The NRDC has filed numerous lawsuits aimed at restoring wildlife law in the region, including challenging the government's "free-wheeling approach to seismic surveys" required to locate oil.17
To search for deep deposits of oil, industry trolls the ocean with high-powered airguns that, for weeks and months on end, regularly pound the water with sound louder than virtually any other man-made source save explosives. These surveys have a vast environmental footprint, disrupting feeding, breeding, and communication of some endangered species over literally hundreds of thousands of square miles. For the Gulf's sperm whales, they mean less food: even moderate levels of airgun noise appear to seriously compromise the whales' ability to forage.18
The ticking time bomb: over 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells remain hidden in hard rock beneath the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, but no agency or company is monitoring whether they are leaking or not. The oldest of these neglected wells dates from the late 1940's, making it likely that seals and infrastructure are already deteriorating.
Investigators have found that 3,500 of these non-functioning wells have been designated "temporarily abandoned." If a well receives this status, owners are required to provide plans to reuse or permanently plug the well, a rule that is habitually ignored. In fact there are over 1,000 wells that have been in an unfinished condition for over 10 years. Approximately 75% of abandoned wells have been in that condition for over a year. More bad news:
BP's Deepwater Horizon rig was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment when it blew April 20, leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation's history. BP alone has abandoned about 600 wells in the Gulf, according to government data.19
BP faces tens of billions of dollars in liabilities, has spent $11 billion on response, and $20 billion for a victim's compensation fund. It expects to sell $30 billion in assets to cover the spill costs. But even this is "chump change" to a company that earned $66 million in profits per day during the first quarter of 2010.
It's difficult to see what incentives there are for BP to operate in a safer and more environmentally conscious manner when the consequences for causing even such a catastrophic crisis as this one are so negligent.20
Public condemnation of the disaster and the government's cooperation with BP is widespread and deservedly harsh. BP may ultimately escape any meaningful punitive measures for its lawlessness, and is unlikely to be deterred in future activities. Even the oiling of hundreds of miles of beaches, the creation of oil-heavy dead zones, and the demise of the gulf coast's fisheries and wildlife may not deter BP's pattern of negligence. This disaster in the gulf is an assault against the American people. Environmental Correspondent Julia Witty, in Mother Jones writes:
Far offshore, far from sight, far beyond the typical royalty-paying boundaries, BP and its partners have transformed themselves into modern-day pirates, operating beyond law or conscience. Their reckless quest has endangered and perhaps condemned not just the Gulf Coast, but the largest, richest, most pristine, most biologically important, and last completely unprotected ecosystem left on Earth: the deep ocean.21
BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has "thoroughly disinterred" how environmental and safety regulations are swept aside and routinely ignored.22 Despite the scope of this disaster, BP now brazenly walks, apparently without government intervention. If neither the moral imperative or financial incentives, nor the might of the US government can compel BP to finish its cleanup work in the gulf, what hope is there for any measurable expedient recovery?
Rikki Ott, a marine toxicologist who worked extensively on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, bemoans the government's complicity in BP's criminal actions.
Here in the United States, the spiller-in-charge wages a very different war. It's a war to minimize the spiller's legal liabilities, which means it's a war against the truth, the injured people, and the environment. Each decision the spiller makes is filtered through the lens of accounting rather than accountability. BP's every act is motivated by its desire to reduce its legal and financial liabilities – as was Exxon's after the spill in Alaska. This is not a moral judgment, it's just a point of fact. It's how things work in a system where corporations have one legal reason for being: to make money.23
1. Plant Performance Services. http://www.p2sworld.com/BP_Oil_Spill_Cleanup.html
2. BP abandons oils spill cleanup, shuts down hotline. Tampa Bay Examiner. http://www.examiner.com/gulf-oil-spill-in-tampa-bay/bp-abandons-oils-spill-cleanup-efforts-shuts-down-hotline
3. Gulf Oil Rig Plagued by problems, Probe Finds. CBS News. May 12, 2010. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/05/12/national/main6476337.shtml
5. Building sand castles on Florida beaches is illegal, feds tell oil-hunting reporter. http://www.infowars.com/building-sand-castles-on-floridas-beaches-is-illegal-feds-tell-oil-hunting-reporter
6. Toxicologist studying whales in Gulf MOST worried about DNA damage.... Florida Oil Spill Law. http://www.floridaoilspilllaw.com/toxicologist-in-gulf-most-worried-about-dna-damage-to-whales-they%E2%80%99re-mammals-we%E2%80%99re-mammals-they-represent-us
7. USF research included in TV special on Gulf spill. Tampa Bay Online. http://www2.tbo.com/content/2010/sep/27/271417/usf-research-included-in-gulf-oil-spill-tv-special/news-metro/
9. Oil Spill to Wipe Out Gulf's Sperm Whales? National Geographic Daily News. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100521-science-environment-gulf-mexico-oil-spill-sperm-whales/
12. Interview with an anonymous BP cleanup worker. GRC (South Carolina). September 30, 2010. http://www.floridaoilspilllaw.com/bp-workers-sprayed-dispersant-night-plane-lights-skin-lesions-fluid-lings-medical-video/comment-page-1#comment-17845
13. BP Will Face ‘Thousands' of Spill Cases, Judge Says. Bloomberg News. September 16, 2010. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-16/bp-spill-victims-clash-at-first-new-orleans-hearing-on-combined-cases.html
15. Environmental Groups Sue BP Under Clean Water Act. Circle of Blue Waternews. June 7, 2010. http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2010/world/north-america/environmental-groups-sue-bp-under-clean-water-act/
16. Jasny, Michael. Brave New World. Marine Mammals, the Gulf Disaster and Beyond. American Cetacean Society. Spyhopper, September, 2010.
19. 27,000 Abandoned Gulf Oil Wells May Be Leaking. CBS News. July 7, 2010. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/07/07/national/main6653016.shtml
20. BP's Profits Far Outweigh The Cost of Cleaning Up Gulf Oil Spill. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/27/bps-profits-far-outweigh_n_591992.html
21. Witty, Julia. The BP Cover-Up. Mother Jones. September/October 2010. http://motherjones.com/environment/2010/09/bp-ocean-cover-up
23. Ott, Rikki. Hide and Leak. Earth Island Journal. Autumn, 2010.
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