Thursday, April 19, 2012

The oil disaster, two years later: seafood, human health in jeopardy

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 1:15 PM

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Two long, essential reads spell out the still burning impact of the BP oil disaster, two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion killed 11 men and sent millions of gallons of oil and chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico for months.

For Al Jazeera, Dahr Jamail looks at crustacean and fish populations in the Gulf and makes disturbing finds — seafood with tumors, lesions and deformities.

A statement to Al Jazeera from Gov. Bobby Jindal's office reads, "Gulf seafood has consistently tested lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health. ... Louisiana seafood continues to go through extensive testing to ensure that seafood is safe for human consumption. More than 3,000 composite samples of seafood, sediment and water have been tested in Louisiana since the start of the spill."

Except those thresholds are far lower than the amounts consumed in Louisiana. The FDA guidelines represent a national average, not a regional one.

In October 2010, the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the results of their seafood tests, finding only a fraction of their samples to be contaminated above average levels. Those levels, however, were adopted in June 2010 in the weeks after the disaster. Scientists argued those federal tests were not sufficient, or accurate.

The risks were downplayed — the National Resource Defense Council confirmed that last year, and university-led research continues to point to impacts in the Gulf-wide food chain.

BP stood firm in a statement to Al Jazeera: "Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is among the most tested in the world, and, according to the FDA and NOAA, it is as safe now as it was before the accident."

And for The Nation, Antonia Juhasz documents the health impacts to communities along the coast, a topic Gambit looked at last year (that we're still updating — more on that later).

The piece addresses the Government Accountability Project's (GAP) investigation into health claims — GAP also found that BP's assertions for chemical safety among internal documents greatly contradicted its public message. A leaked BP manual lists symptoms of exposure, including damage to the nervous system, and that handling highly toxic dispersants necessitates protective gear, which many Vessels of Opportunity workers were told they could not use because of liability concerns.

Last year, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, opened its Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up (GuLF) study, a years-long study looking at the health issues associated with exposure to oil and dispersants in the wake of the BP disaster.

Dr. Dale Sandler, the lead investigator and chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, told Gambit the group is "asking people in our study about their experience: Did they walk into the Gulf, what were they doing, were they standing in water, did they get rashes, did they get chemicals on their skin?" among other survey questions. It wants to develop a protocol for disaster response planning, which doesn't really exist. But the program won't be providing relief, or aid. No federal organization has stepped in to provide health services despite the thousands of complaints.

The Surfrider Foundation released its Sate of the Beach report, confirming those impacts of exposure — it found high concentrations of hydrocarbons along the Gulf, on beaches and in people.

I get weekly updates from Donnie Finley, a Fort Walton Beach fisherman trying desperately to get more attention to his community — a largely ignored working-class black fishing community, struggling to pay its medical bills from what it believes are exposure-related illnesses, and to keep the lights on as its business dries up. He believes the community suffers under environmental racism, just one of the myriad after-effects of the BP oil disaster.

More recently, and unrelated to the Deepwater Horizon incident, Donald Hudson plead guilty in federal court this month for making false statements to the FBI — Hudson falsified an H&P rig’s blowout preventer system tests by reporting that every valve on the choke manifold was successfully pressure tested. From Jan. 1, 2010 until May 27, 2010, Hudson's crew had deliberately not tested a number of valves on the choke manifold because they knew that the valves would leak.

Hudson faces up to five years in prison and a number of fines.

The BP disaster was one of many potential disasters, as Hudson's case shows. The American Petroleum Institute swears it has cleaned up its act over the past two years, and the Obama Administration is taking its word.

Documentary The Big Fix, which debuted in New Orleans last year (review here), has been making bigger splashes in broadcasting the disaster's impacts — it's now available on Netflix.

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