Majia on The BP Gulf Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, producing the largest oil spill in American history. The blow-out occurred 5,000 feet below the surface, complicating efforts to contain the mega-disaster that followed. At least 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped 87 days after the initial explosion.[i] This figure does not include releases of methane and other gasses, which are estimated to have constituted at least a third of the petroleum hydrocarbons released by the well.[ii]
BP sprayed at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic dispersants to break the oil up into small molecules.[iii] Corexit 9527A and 9500A, manufactured by Nalco, were the primary dispersants used.[iv] The EPA asked BP to stop spraying this dispersant after concerns were raised about its toxicity, but the EPA subsequently waived its ban when BP claimed no other dispersant was available in adequate quantity.[v] In point of fact, the EPA actually had limited control over BP’s use of these dispersants, as reported by Wendy Sheppard in Mother Jones
In the case of dispersants, companies must ask the EPA for permission to use specific products—but the only basis for approval is whether those products are effective at breaking up oil. Companies are required to test the short-term toxicity of the dispersant and the oil-dispersant mixture on shrimp and fish, but those results have no bearing on approval, and there's no requirement to assess the long-term impact. In fact, it's the EPA that must prove an "unreasonable risk" if it wants companies to disclose what is in the dispersant—hard to do when the agency, you know, doesn't know what's in it.[vi]
Sheppard quotes Richard Denison, senior scientists with the Environmental Defense Fund, who remarks that "We have a chemical policy that essentially has required very little testing and very little evidence of safety for pretty much all chemicals on the market, and that covers dispersants." The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, grandfathered in 84,000 chemicals whose risks have yet to be tested or disclosed.[vii]
Corexit 9527A and 9500A have acute neurotoxic effects, according to a 1987 report published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health titled “Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity.”[viii] The Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Corexit 9527A states that “excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects," and "repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver." Furthermore, both forms of Corexit are acknowledged in their MSDS to bio-accumulate in marine life.[ix] Marine biologist, Dr. Riki Ott, who had studied the health aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, publicly warned that Corexit is toxic for humans during its application in the Gulf over the summer of 2010.[x] Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and Director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute summarized the dangers of Corexit in a New York Times editorial:
Though all dispersants are potentially dangerous when applied in such volumes, Corexit is particularly toxic. It contains petroleum solvents and a chemical that, when ingested, ruptures red blood cells and causes internal bleeding. It is also bioaccumulative, meaning its concentration intensifies as it moves up the food chain.[xi]
This deliberate cover-up of health risks was discussed in a Democracy Now interview with Environmental Activist Jerry Cope titled "The Crime of the Century: What BP and US Government Don’t Want You to Know" and in another interview with Democracy Now, EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman accused the EPA of deliberately hiding the dangers of the dispersant Corexit, which the EPA authorized BP to spray directly on the submerged oil leak and which the U.S. Coast Guard sprayed from airplanes upon the Gulf’s surface.[xii]
Although warnings abounded about the health dangers of the oil and Corexit, little action was taken to warn and protect residents and tourists in the region. Beach-goers in the Gulf region risked exposure to oil and Corexit at popular beaches the government refused to close. A television station, WKRG in Alabama, conducted independent testing of the oil levels found in sand and water at popular beaches.[xiii] While 11 parts per million of oil is considered toxic, their samples all showed readings in the toxic level, ranging from 16 ppm to 221 ppm. Tragically, one child was playing in water at Orange Beach that registered 221 ppm.
By the spring of 2011, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and various universities were concluding that the Corexit actually increased the toxicity of the oil while failing to actually eliminate it. Accordingly, Dr. Susan Laramore, an assistant professor at Florida’s Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, claimed that her research results were “backwards of what the oil companies are reporting."[xiv] Furthermore, researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts concluded in January of 2011 that 800,000 gallons of Corexit applied underwater at the well-head did nothing to break up the oil and polluted the ecosystem, persisting far longer than expected.[xv]
The dispersants did accomplish one significant goal for BP and the U.S. government. They “hid” surface slicks, allowing BP to claim victory over the spill. Indeed, the Obama administration and a team led by the Interior Department and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration claimed that the oil had largely disappeared by August, 2010.[xvi] Many scientists publicly disputed this claim, including UGA marine scientist Charles Hopkinson: “One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into the water is gone and therefore harmless . . . the oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade.”[xvii] Likewise, Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University, told the a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in August of 2010 that the administration’s findings were misleading, particularly with respect to unrealistically optimistic government forecasts of the oil’s projected rate for biodegrading.[xviii] Dr. Joye, along with marine researchers from the University of Georgia and the Georgia Sea Grant program, publicly challenged the government’s overly-optimistic approximation of the oil remaining in the gulf in August, claiming that as much as 79% of the oil remained, threatening fisheries and marine life.[xix]
By December of 2010, enough evidence had accumulated to support these scientists’ challenges to the government’s claims. Marine scientists found strong evidence of BP oil on the seafloor, as reported by The Wall Street Journal in December of 2010, and concluded that the dispersants likely caused the oil to sink: “Layers of residue up to several centimeters thick from what they suspect is BP oil. The material appears in spots across several thousand square miles of seafloor…in many of those spots, they said, worms and other marine life that craw along the sediment appear dead.”[xx] Oil substance was continuing to wash ashore the Louisiana coast in the spring and summer of 2011 and massive animal deaths were reported during the same period, including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and various fish.[xxi] Oil found on dead dolphins, for example, was definitely linked to the BP spill by scientists.[xxii] In the spring of 2011, reports of began surfacing of sick fish in the Gulf, the levels of which were alarming scientists, as noted by Richard Synder, Director of the West Florida Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation: "It's a huge red flag…It seems abnormal, and anything we see out of the ordinary we'll try to investigate."[xxiii]
Evidence of the biological toll of the gulf oil spill was not restricted to marine life. People living along the Gulf coast and working in the clean-up have fallen ill as well. In April, the state of Louisiana had 417 reported cases of illnesses linked to exposure to the gulf oil and Corexit.[xxiv] [xxv][xxvi]
I have been in the Gulf since May 3 and have witnessed the outbreak of a public-health epidemic as the oil and dispersant came ashore. Every day now, former workers, Gulf coast residents, and visitors share similar stories with me of respiratory problems, central nervous system problems, chemical sensitivities, or bad skin rashes after exposure to air or water in the Gulf -- predictable illnesses from chemical exposure, all of which were avoidable given adequate warning and protection.
Stories of illnesses persist despite assurances from four federal agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Coast Guard -- that no levels of oil or dispersant measured in Gulf water or air were found to be unsafe.
But government officials have no credibility in communities across the Gulf because the official story does not match the reality of what people are seeing and smelling. The community stories that string together across the Gulf coast paint a picture quite different from what BP, its contractors, and our government report.[xxvii]
A Louisiana chemist and MacArthur Fellow, Wilma Subra, tested the blood of spill workers and fisherman working with the Gulf cleanup and found volatile solvents and high levels of benzene, at levels up to 36 times that of the general population.[xxviii]
The contamination of gulf seafood is a public safety risk not limited to gulf residents since the seafood is exported to other states. The government conspired to hide the scope of the disaster by engaging in token sampling and testing of seafood contamination. Taste and smell testing were initially the only means used to evaluate petroleum concentrations in seafood. For months, the government required no test for Corexit in the seafood. Lax testing for safety was designed to guarantee the seafood industry against collapse, even when public health was at issue. Hugh Kaufman, a whistleblower and senior policy analyst at the EPA, went on the record condoning the laxity and insufficient sampling of seafood:
They say it perfectly clear: the purpose of the test they developed is to make the public confident, not whether the seafood was safe or not…They selected the one compound that doesn’t bio-accumulate, as opposed to testing for the toxic ingredients that have a low safety threshold and do build up in tissue. They are not looking for those…They want to be able to tell the public the seafood is safe. But if you are going to test seafood to see if it’s safe or not, you want to test for the ingredients of Corexit that have a low safety threshold and do bio-accumulate in tissue….However, if you want the public to think everything is fine, then you do what they said in their press release they are doing, which is to look for an ingredient with a high safety threshold that doesn’t build up in tissue….They told you they are doing a cover up, how they are doing the cover up, and notwithstanding that, they still have some positive results for chemicals."[xxix]
Kaufman was not alone in his concerns. Chemist Bob Naman of Analytical Testing Lab took issue with the government’s 500 ppm threshold for safety. Naman argued that this figure is probably 100 times too high for safety, pointing out that the EPA prohibits levels over 15 ppm in drainage water from sites containing salvaged cars.[xxx]
The evidence discussed so far suggests a deliberate cover-up of the scope of the disaster and the extent of contamination. BP’s control over funding of research on the spill allowed alternative data and interpretations to be suppressed, as documented by a Linda Hooper-Bui, a professor of entomology at Louisiana State University.[xxxi] Whistleblowers have spoken out about outright censorship of research data by federal authorities. For instance, University of South Florida and University of Southern Mississippi oceanographers were reportedly told by the NOAA and Coast Guard officials to stop “speculating” when they reported on underwater oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico containing BP oil. University of South Florida chemical oceanographer, David Hollander, publicly challenged official assertions that oil was gone: "What we learned completely changes the idea of what an oil spill is. It has gone from a two-dimensional disaster to a three-dimensional catastrophe."[xxxii] Estimates from the true scope of the contamination ranged from 44,000 square miles of ocean to 80,000.[xxxiii]
In April of 2011, The Guardian published emails obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act documenting how BP officials sought to control scientists and their research on the oil spill.[xxxiv] Furthermore, the emails revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confronted the White House on August 4 2010 and demanded it issue a correction to its claim that the “vast majority” of oil was gone from the gulf. Documents also indicated that Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, and Bob Perciasepe, deputy director, had objected to the White House estimates. Together, these documents demonstrate that the White House acted deliberately to deceive the public about the effectiveness of the clean-up and suppressed agency dissent over the cover-up.[xxxv]
Punitive damages were at issue in the research over the scope of the spill’s effects. BP would be required to pay for the oil spilled and the marine animals killed. BP was also responsible for some compensation to the fisherman whose livelihoods had been disrupted. However, all allegations had to be proven and BP and the government conspired to hide the scope of the disaster in a variety of ways. The use of Corexit to “hide” the oil was perhaps the most extreme example of duplicity in this regard. Second, BP allegedly sought out and destroyed dead marine animals including dolphins in whales without tallying the death toll.[xxxvi] Third, the U.S. Presidential Commission 2011 report on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill “reduces the likelihood that BP PLC will be found guilty of gross negligence, legal experts and industry analysts said.”[xxxvii]
A decision against a ruling of gross negligence would be difficult to understand given BP’s safety record. Even the mainstream press has acknowledged openly that BP’s corporate culture has promoted deal-making over safety[xxxviii] Government regulators were understaffed and many were corrupted by a revolving door, close ties and gifts even when regulators knew BP relied on cheaper wells with fewer safety mechanisms.[xxxix]BP’s Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in N. America, has for years been critiqued for its aging infrastructure, its lengthy backlogs of needed maintenance work, numerous worker safety risks, and poor work conditions.[xl] In the Gulf of Mexico, BP relied on a well design described as “risky” by Congressional investigations in over one third of its deepwater wells and, additionally, failed to use a blow-out preventer.[xli]
[xlv]BP argued that victims of last year's Gulf oil spill should be denied any future claims on losses because the areas affected by the spill oil had recovered and the economy was improving.[xlvi]
[i] Robert Lee Hotz “Oil Still in Gulf Study Estimates,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, August 17): A5.
[ii] Siobhan Hughes and Robert Lee Hotz “Oil-Cleanup Estimates Draw New Fire,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, August 8): p. A3.
[iii] Dahr Jamail “BP anniversary: Toxicity, Suffering and Death,” Al Jazeera (2011, April 19): http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/04/20114161153981347.htmlDahr, Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe? Experts, Fishermen, and Residents Disagree with Federal Agencies’ Claims that the Gulf and its Seafood Are Safe,” Al Jazeera (2010, November 5): http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.
[v] Kate Spinner “Did BP's oil-dissolving chemical make the spill worse?” Herald Tribune (2011, May 30): http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20110530/ARTICLE/110539976/-1/news?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar.
[vii] “Swimming in Chemicals: An Excerpt from 'Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products,” PBS (2008, March 21): http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/412/Exposed-Toxic-Chemistry.html.
[viii] Cited in Tom Philpott “Chemical Dispersants Being Used in Gulf Clean-Up Are Potentially Toxic,” Grist (2010, May 6): http://www.grist.org/article/2010-05-06-use-of-toxic-chemical-dispersants-to-fight-the-oil-spill-a-murky.
[ix] Philpott “Chemical Dispersants Being,” http://www.grist.org/article/2010-05-06-use-of-toxic-chemical-dispersants-to-fight-the-oil-spill-a-murky.
[x] Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe,” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.
[xii] Democracy Now “EPA Whistleblower Accuses Agency of Covering Up Effects of Dispersant in BP Oil Spill Cleanup [with Hugh Kaufman],” Democracy Now (2010, July 20): http://www.democracynow.org/2010/7/20/epa_whistleblower_accuses_agency_of_coveringDemocracy Now “Environmental Activist Jerry Cope on The Crime of the Century: What BP and US Government Don’t Want You to Know" Democracy Now (2010, August 4): http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/4/environmental_activist_jerry_cope_on_the.
[xiii] See Jessica Taloney “News Five Investigates: Oil Hiding in the Sand,” WKRG (2010, July 29): http://www.wkrg.com/gulf_oil_spill/article/news-five-investigates-testing-the-water-round-2/909282/Aug-02-2010_9-38-pm/ and Jessica Taloney “News 5 Investigates: Testing the Water,” WKRG (2010, July 16): http://www.wkrg.com/gulf_oil_spill/article/news-5-investigates-testing-the-water/906545/Jul-18-2010_7-40-pm
[xiv] Cited in Spinner “Did BP's oil-dissolving,” http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20110530/ARTICLE/110539976/-1/news?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar.
[xv] Cited in Spinner “Did BP's oil-dissolving,” http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20110530/ARTICLE/110539976/-1/news?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar.
[xvi] Hughes Hotz “Oil-Cleanup Estimates Draw New Fire,” p. A3.
[xvii] Robert Lee Hotz “Oil Still in Gulf Study Estimates,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, August 17): A5.
[xviii] Hughes and Hotz “Oil-Cleanup,” A3.
[xix] Hughes and Hotz “Oil-Cleanup,” A3.
[xx] Jeffrey Ball “Strong Evidence Emerges of BP Oil on Seafloor,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, December 9): A20.
[xxi] Washington’s Blog “Photos Show Oil at BP’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf Spill Site,” Naked Capitalism (2011, August 21): http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/08/guest-post-photos-show-oil-at-bps-deepwater-horizon-gulf-spill-site.html and Leigh Coleman “Government Tightens Lid on Dolphin Death Probe,” Reuters (2011, March 25): http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/25/us-dolphins-gulf-idUSTRE72O3JO20110325.
[xxii] Leigh Coleman “Oil On Dead Dolphins In Gulf Linked To BP Spill, Scientists Say,” Reuters (2011, April 7): http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/07/us-oilspill-dolphins-idUSTRE7367OP20110407.
[xxiii] Kimberly Blair “Sick fish in Gulf are Alarming Scientists: Unusual Number a 'Huge Red Flag' to Scientists, Fishermen,” Pensacola News Journal (2011, May 7): http://www.pnj.com/article/20110508/NEWS01/105080328/Sick-fish-Gulf-alarming-scientists?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE
[xxiv] Agence France Presse “Mystery Illness Plague Louisiana Oil Spill Crews: The State of Louisiana Has Reported 415 Cases of Health Problems Linked to the Spill,” Alternet (2011, April 17): http://www.alternet.org/environment/150637/mystery_illnesses_plague_louisiana_oil_spill_crews/
[xxv] Stephen Bradberry “A Developing Health Crisis Across the Gulf Coast,” Common Dreams (2011, April 20): http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/04/20-10
[xxvi] Riki Ott “Seafood Safety and Politics Don’t Mix,” The Huffington Press (2010, August 11): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/riki-ott/seafood-safety-and-politi_b_678813.html
[xxvii] Ott “Seafood Safety,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/riki-ott/seafood-safety-and-politi_b_678813.html
[xxviii] Presse “Mystery Illness,” http://www.alternet.org/environment/150637/mystery_illnesses_plague_louisiana_oil_spill_crews/
[xxix] Cited in Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe?” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.
[xxx] Cited in Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe?” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.
[xxxi] Linda Hooper-Bui “A Gulf Science Blackout,” The New York Times (2010, August 24): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/opinion/25hooper-Bui.html?_r=1&th&emc=th
[xxxii] Cited in Stephen Lendman “America’s Gulf: A Toxic Crime Scene,” OpEdNews.Com (2010, August 11): http://www.opednews.com/articles/America-s-Gulf-A-Toxic-Cr-by-Stephen-Lendman-100811-796.html
[xxxiii] Lendman “America’s Gulf: A Toxic Crime Scene,” http://www.opednews.com/articles/America-s-Gulf-A-Toxic-Cr-by-Stephen-Lendman-100811-796.html
[xxxiv] Suzanne Goldenberg “Emails expose BP's attempts to control research into impact of Gulf oil spill,” The Guardian (2011, April 15): http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/15/bp-control-science-gulf-oil-spill.
[xxxv] See also Tom Dickinson “The Spill, The Scandal and the President,” The Rolling Stone (2010, June 8): http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-spill-the-scandal-and-the-president-20100608.
[xxxvi] Jeff Goodell “The Poisoning. It's the Biggest Environmental Disaster in American History — and BP is Making it Worse,” The Rolling Stone (2010, July 21): http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-poisoning-20100721
[xxxviii] Guy Chazan “BP’s Safety Drive Faces Rough Road,” The Wall Street Journal (2011, February 1): A1, A11.
[xl] Chazan “BP’s Safety Drive Faces Rough Road,” A1, A11.
[xli] Russell Gold and Tom McGinty (2010, June 19-20). “BP Relied on Cheaper Wells,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, June 19-20): A1, A5.
[xlii] Ed Markey “One Year After the BP Oil Spill, Dangers Remain,” Grist (2011, April 20): http://www.grist.org/oil/2011-04-20-one-year-after-the-bp-oil-spill-drilling-is-no-safer.
[xliii] Marian Wang “A Year After Gulf Tragedy, Offshore Oil Companies Still Shielded by Liability Limits,” ProPublica (2011, April 19): http://www.propublica.org/blog/item/a-year-after-gulf-tragedy-offshore-oil-companies-still-shielded-by-liabilit
[xliv] Jon Swaine and Robert Winnett “BP chief Tony Hayward Sold Shares Weeks Before Oil Spill,” The Telegraph (2010, June 5): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/7804922/BP-chief-Tony-Hayward-sold-shares-weeks-before-oil-spill.html
[xlv] “Louisiana: Coast Guard Investigates Origin of Oil Slick in Gulf of Mexico,” The New York Times (2011, June 8): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/us/09brfs-COASTGUARDIN_BRF.html?_r=1.
[xlvi] “BP Pressing to Head Off Future Claims From Oil Spill," The Arizona Republic (2011, July 9): 2.