Hard to believe how quickly we forget. The BP Gulf Oil spill that was presumed to be the fossil fuel industry’s Chernobyl is now, for most of us, little more than a dim memory, less than a year later.
To prove it, we have the report this week, of BP’s 4th quarter earnings which show a profit of $4.4 billion for the quarter. The company did report a $3.7 billion loss for the year, after taking a $40.9 billion dollar charge to cover expenses associated with the spill. In fact, they even paid a small dividend to their shareholders, to thank them for being such good sports and hanging in there.
How did this happen and what is going on in the Gulf now and why should we care?
How it happened was a lot of fancy footwork on the part of BP including keeping journalists away from damaged areas, blanking press queries, schmoozing the public with a barrage of “feel good” ads and making plans to move on and get past the spill. And their strategy of using dispersants to sink the oil to the bottom where it would be “out of sight out of mind” also seems to have worked incredibly well. This seems to have done an excellent job of sinking any concerns about long term health, safety or environmental implications of the spill, along with the oil, down to the bottom of the Gulf. And the American public, with its notoriously short attention span, has moved on to other, more pressing matters. But the story may not yet be over. Those concerns may yet rise again. New studies raise questions about the spill’s impact on residents and safety of the seafood in the gulf and the marshes along the gulf coast.
While reports show that BP has done a good job of cleaning up the gulf and its beaches, many of the back bays and estuaries where dolphins and other sea life live and breed are being ignored.
As for those dispersants, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in MA, have begun to study their impact. Preliminary findings indicate that the dispersants did not degrade as had been initially predicted. Instead the more than 800,000 gallons of dispersant appear to be lingering in the deep water where their impact on wildlife or on the safety of seafood for that matter have yet to be understood. Concentrations measured in the water to date are well below those considered toxic, but further study will be needed to assess how these toxins move through the food chain where they are likely to become more concentrated as small fish eat plankton and big fish eat the smaller fish.
Meanwhile, although the FDA declared that seafood from the Gulf is safe, the New Orleans environmental law firm of Stuart Smith, citing a state-of-the-art laboratory analysis, says that the FDA testing was too narrowly focused on carcinogens and did not examine a broader spectrum of toxic hydrocarbon components that can be associated with liver damage.
Alaskan Marine Toxicologist Riki Ott, who has written two books about her experience after the Exxon Valdez spill has spent months along the Gulf Coast, doing her own investigation of the health impacts of both the spill and the vast amounts of dispersants that were used to address it. She has found numerous cases of people becoming very ill and several who have died from contact with these chemicals. She claims that there is a massive government cover-up (video) aimed at minimizing the economic impact of the spill.
Meanwhile a website called the BP Oil Spill Journalism Toolbox writes, “Earlier this month, McClatchy reported that records released by the state of Louisiana showed that BP wasn’t recording most worker complaints of illness after exposure to oil. While Louisiana records described least 74 oil spill workers complaining of becoming sick, BP’s own official record-keeping noted just two such incidents.”
In a more recent piece in Huffington Post, Ott describes how BP’s Gulf Coast Claims office has been systematically denying claims of many small businesses and individuals, a tactic that had been used effectively by Exxon up in Alaska. In fact a district court judge in New Orleans just ruled that Ken Feinberg, who had been jointly appointed by the White House and BP to oversee the $20 billion BP compensation fund, was not sufficiently independent of BP and demanded that full disclosure and transparency be made available to all claimants from now on.
What concerns me, perhaps most of all about this, is the fact that it is now being made to seem as if the impact of the spill was not that serious, which has the potential to leave the impression upon millions of Americans that spilling 4.4 million barrels of crude oil into pristine waters is really not that big of a deal, so why should we even bother to regulate these companies?
What seemed at the time to be a tremendous opportunity to advance the environmental protection agenda, including climate change, has now been all but completely squandered, which is even further punctuated, I think by this week’s news that the fine imposed upon BP, was really just a blip on their earnings radar which was quickly absorbed. It makes me wonder, was it even enough to serve as a deterrent for future decision-making in this inherently risky business?
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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