The BP Disaster

November 1, 2010       Kate Rogers      

Oil has stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, but it’s estimated that 25 percent of the 5 million barrels of oil linger just below the water’s surface, moving with the waves and changing tides.

The Gulf states are slowly beginning anew six months after the worst man-made oil disaster in U.S. history.

Residents have filed claims. Promises were made to them by the well’s owner British Petroleum (BP) and the federal government. But just like the oil lying below the surface, the future for local nonprofits and weary residents has yet to be seen.

Gulf residents are frustrated and concerned that, just like the oil, the physical, psychological and economic issues plaguing the region are out of sight, out of mind for the rest of the country.

President Barack Obama established a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Task Force on October 5, to help “Gulf Coast residents conserve and restore resilient and healthy ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding regions that support the diverse economies, communities, and cultures of the region.”

Annie Ducmanis, project manager for the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health in New York City, said she is hopeful the task force will make good on its potential, but is wary of its execution.

“Will it be just another wonderful plan without the teeth or resources to be implemented?,” Ducmanis asked rhetorically. “Will there be action on the ground? If there is, the communities that are most affected need to have a seat at the table to be a part of the process. But, it’s a step in the right direction.”

The appointment of federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to the role of task force chair was also a smart move, Ducmanis said, because of Jackson’s knowledge of the Gulf. Likewise, Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Baton Rouge, La.-based Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), praised Jackson’s appointment.

“It’s very reassuring that Jackson has been appointed,” Orr said. “She is intimately familiar with the area. There have been a lot of good ideas, but the implementation of the plan is what we have concerns about. It is a source of funding takes a long time before it becomes available.”

The task force has one year to make a final report of recommendations. It’s assumed the money to implement those recommendations will come from the $20 billion trust fund set up by BP after pressure from the Obama administration.

Since the spill started this past April, the Gulf Coast Fund has continued to award emergency grants to local grassroots organizations. Ducmanis said a new round of grants has been awarded nearly every two weeks, and at press time $405,000 had been given to 70 organizations since the spill. The fund has raised more than $650,000 since the spill.

The fund works with groups supporting coastal communities, as well as water keepers from Texas to Florida, to monitor and document the progress in the cleanup effort, Ducmanis said. They have a network of more than 300 people on the ground documenting BP’s cleanup work.

“Our people on the ground are still seeing slicks, tar balls and dispersants,” she said. “They are there every day monitoring and we continue to get the word out, despite what the government and BP are saying.”

BP has spent more than $8 billion on the clean up, containment, relief well drilling, static kill of the well, cementing, grants to Gulf states, claims paid and federal costs, according to Daren Beaudo, BP press officer, based in Houston, Texas. Beaudo responded via email, and declined to be interviewed by telephone. A $20-billion escrow account has also been created to satisfy obligations arising from the spill.

BP capped the well on July 15 after 86 days of oil gushing, and the federal government declared the well “dead” on September 19.

“In recent weeks, due to the lack of free oil, we have been cleaning up tar balls that occasionally wash up on beaches, deep cleansing sands with high-tech machines, and continuing to flush and clean up oil in marshes, mostly in Louisiana,” Beaudo said. “We have removed all of the hard boom from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, and currently have about 1 million feet of hard boom still deployed in Louisiana.”

BP had nearly 48,000 people involved between its own employees, the government and contractors at the peak of the clean-up effort. Today, there are nearly 27,000 people working on the effort, he said.

In recent months the Gulf Coast Fund has teamed up with the Bridge the Gulf Project, a storytelling initiative that seeks to get the truth told in the Gulf and beyond. The fund stays in contact each day via a listserve with more than 350 people sharing updates with grantees and concerned locals.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), also in New York City, has turned an abandoned dentist’s office in Buras, La., into a Gulf Resource Center. The center is staffed by a full-time person and is outfitted with beds, a kitchen, community rooms, computers and Wi-Fi free for anyone to stop by and use. The building was one of the few remaining after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Jessica Lass, senior press secretary for NRDC, said the center has become a refuge for fatigued community members, who have held local meetings there, as well as reporters writing about the ongoing crisis in the area.

“We want to be a haven in the area when there is so much turmoil going on,” Lass said. “How are people going to be compensated for this disaster, that really has no dollar amount on it? This wasn’t entirely addressed after Katrina, and its very overwhelming.”

NRDC has had its own scientists testing both water and air in Buras and Venice, La., she said. The scientists travel with fisherman and shrimpers to document locations where oil is spotted and relay the information to the community at large. They blog about findings on their website.

“The oil slick is not gone,” she said. “We got some renewed interest in the fact that maybe the slick is dissipating and oil is underneath, and we are very concerned about that.”

Commercial fishermen have also been uncertain about fishing in re-opened areas for fear of dredging up oil below the water’s surface. The fact that the water is constantly moving presents even greater challenges, she said.

The EPA held town halls in Louisiana during this past summer, Lass said, to address residents’ concerns about the air quality, revealing that the air in the region has in fact not been safe to breathe.

“They said the air pollution levels are normal for this time of year in the area, but it’s not safe for humans to breathe,” she said. “It’s a chronic problem of pollution in general. It’s from the oil and drilling initiatives and the oil refineries down here. It’s been going on for decades. How did people not check this beforehand?”

NRDC has been fundraising since the spill via its Web site, Lass said, and at press time had received more than $130,000, all of which went to the Gulf Coast Fund.

Although the fear of oil washing up on shore is minimal, the remaining oil in water columns is destroying surviving fish, their eggs and crustaceans. Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said the organization has been taking water quality samples since the spill and are working on a legislative and administrative level to increase oversight and regulation.

“The public perception is that this is all gone and over,” Sarthou said. “The fact is that everything is not done. Even if the federal government was correct in saying that 75 percent of the oil and dispersant were gone, that 25 percent is still a significant amount.”

Sarthou said the remaining oil poses a threat to this region for years to come, citing oil being found in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez spill nearly 20 years later.

“Despite scientific presumptions, this oil won’t break down,” she said. “In terms of the environmental impacts to fish, marine species, wetlands and sediments, the worst is not over. The public just thinks everything is ok everything is not ok.”

Small gains have been made for local fishermen in Louisiana due to efforts of LEAN in Baton Rouge. LEAN aided fishermen in a lawsuit to nullify and strike “the offensive language in the British Petroleum volunteer fishermen charter contract.” When fishermen signed up to help in the cleanup effort, BP was having them sign agreements that “seriously compromised the existing and future rights and potential legal claims of these volunteers,” according to Stuart Smith, attorney for the fishermen. The fishermen won the suit this past June.

The stipulations in the contract included the volunteers waive their first amendment rights about their participation in the clean up efforts of the disaster until BP “approved” what they would say. BP wanted a “free ride” on volunteers’ insurance policies; and BP also wanted 30 days’ notice before any volunteer could pursue legal claims against them, without exceptions for emergencies.

LEAN’s Orr said the decision was a major win for fishermen in Louisiana, however there is still much more work to be done. Local fishermen who had already lost their livelihood were being duped into signing away what few rights remained when enlisting with BP to volunteer, she alleges.

“It is next to impossible for fishermen to read a contract like that under stress,” Orr said. “They were basically signing their lives away, and wouldn’t be able to tell anything they saw.” LEAN provided gloves and respirators to fishermen who were not given equipment upon signing up to volunteer. To date, Orr said more than $10,000 of equipment has been provided to fishermen. At press time, LEAN had raised $122,000 for the recovery effort, she said.

The organization has been increasingly concerned about the toxic combination of crude oil and dispersant, and Orr said LEAN has been sampling in the Mississippi River Delta, Oyster Bay in Louisiana, and the Lower Atchafalaya Bay Area.

Blue crab samples in the Atchafalaya Bay contained a dangerously high 8.815 mg/kg of hydrocarbons, for example, according to LEAN’s reports.

“When we took samples, there was no visible smell or sight of oil,” Orr said. “We were astonished there were levels like that. You can’t eat a crab like that, with those levels of hydrocarbons.”

The organization has been discussing seafood safety with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAHH), and continuing to sample biota including mussels, crab, shrimp and fish. LEAN is in the process of creating a sampling plan for up to the next five years focusing on Louisiana, Orr said.

“I am really disturbed and I think the country is divided in its thought process,” she said. “If you live away from the Gulf, you think everything is alright. If you live here, you know it’s not alright.”

Ducmanis said fishermen and their families are extremely concerned at waters being opened up because they don’t want to eat or sell the fish available to them. To file claims with BP, Ducmanis said the fishermen have to fish and prove they have tried to regain their livelihood, or they lose standing for requesting damages. Those who were hired by BP made somewhat of a living during the cleanup, and a vast majority have since been let go and are back to square one, she said.

Beaudo said that all business and individual claims have been transitioned to the independent oversight of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) in Dublin, Ohio. Prior to the switch, BP had paid interim claims for $399 million, he said.

“Regarding what occurred the night of April 20, our view is that the accident should never have happened, and it took many significant things going wrong that caused it to happen,” Beaudo said. “There are many, many lessons for BP and the industry.”

At press time, there were nearly 95,000 claims filed with the GCCF, 47,901 of which had been approved and paid $914.75 million, according to the GCCF website.

“They are facing major challenges with BP wrapping up their cleanup process,” Ducmanis said. “The drumbeat is that the disaster is over and the oil is gone. The people in the region can see day-to-day it’s still present and the oil is still coming in. It’s not over.”

The claims process will be a long and disheartening journey for those who have lost their livelihood in the wake of the spill, Lass said. Even though some have been compensated for their loss, no long-term solutions have been put in place for the people struggling to make a living.

“Being compensated, that doesn’t make a new job for someone, or make their health concerns go away,” Lass said. “The situation isn’t solved because oil isn’t gushing out anymore.” NPT