Like Sugar Into Tea?

August 4th – 9:56PM(CST)

Destin, FL –  Today’s White House press conference coverage began with guarantees as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs assured that the “government will be here every step of the way”.  Gibbs contributed intermittently throughout the conference and was spoken like a true public relations man.  Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the NOAA, spoke extensively today, providing much of the conference’s true substance and serving largely as the scientific voice of the administration. It was a scary voice. In reference to the amount of oil still in the Gulf and what is happening to it, of her comments included the following:

“There is a negligible amount of oil on the surface”

“There is just very little oil on the surface now”

“The loop current…is not in a position to transport oil…there is no oil for it to pick up”

Get the message? I think she wants us to know that there isn’t much oil out there. I give these without much context, but they largely speak for themselves. Since I forgot to mention it, NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is their leader telling us in vague and redundant terms that there is almost no oil at large in the Gulf and that what remains poses little risk. It doesn’t sound very scientific, certainly not very thorough. The choice statement I heard her make, however, was one that I also, by chance, read late last evening in the New York Times from writer Justin Gillis. Both compared the dissolution of oil and dispersant into the Gulf’s waters to sugar being poured into tea or coffee. It’s a pleasant comparison, for sure, and it conjures such a nice image in your head, doesn’t it?

Now think about the millions of gallons of crude oil and toxic chemicals that were dumped into one of our nation's most vibrant and resource-laden ecosystems. Does it seem like a fitting comparison one might make? It's borderline insulting, in fact, to me, it's far beyond that border. So much so that I've spoken personally with the author of that article about the injustice it serves the people of this region. I don't know who came up with it first, but they are one crafty individual. I worked as an intern at the Times last summer and I felt absolutely honored to do so. And so it pains me especially to see this coming from such a credible and historic institution, but if we can't look to sources like them for true journalism, then where?

When asked about the use of chemical dispersants, National Incident Commander Thad Allen explained how the use of Corexit was a move largely motivated by a lack of other feasible options. Allen continued on to explain that “preexisting protocol” was followed and the tactics employed were “not illegal”. The “preexisting protocol” that he mentioned was a reference to that established during the Exxon Valdez cleanup, over twenty years ago. Riki Ott spoke yesterday about the lack of information the people of Cordova had at the time and the price they paid because of it. For the price that the communities of Prince William Sound paid in human life and environmental health, a great wealth of knowledge was imparted upon those wise enough to look for it. While this spill has many unique factors, a great deal can be taken from what happened 21 years ago. But that doesn’t mean doing just what was done before, it means looking at what was done and using that experience and the scientific research and advances that have occurred since to devise improved techniques. How can Unified Command employ many of the same tactics as were used in Alaska and not expect similar outcomes? Specifically, what has been done to protect the cleanup workers who are most at risk for adverse health effects. It was those men and women who suffered and died in Alaska, and who continue to suffer and die as result of the negligence and lack of precaution involved in that cleanup effort. And yet, we still see workers on top of the oil, without masks, many wearing only rubber boots and a half-worn jumpsuit.  Most painters and construction crews utilize better protection than this.

Is there a difference in this spill? Are the chemicals that evaporated (at such significant rates, according to the recent federal report) not harmful to ingest? What about what's in the water and on the materials they handle? No one is looking out for the well being of these individuals, some of whom are working at low wages, some were hired off of unemployment. They are people fighting to stay afloat and support themselves and their families. They are the charter fisherman that could no longer fish but still had to provide for his children. They are high school graduate who planned to follow in his family's tradition and shrimp, or fish, or farm oysters but can't. They represent themselves and BP has worked as hard as possible to keep it that way, without providing any reasonable means of protection.

The petroleum-based and dispersant chemicals contaminating the Gulf are highly toxic substances that are dangerous to ingest even at the microscopic levels of parts per million. In the case of some of these chemicals, levels as low as 40 or 50 ppm can pose a threat to life, marine or other. White House Press Secretary stated today, as has been the line in the past, that the dispersants are “no more toxic than oil”, a scary statement, made even more shocking by its extremely vague nature. Gibbs went on to say that “a hypothesis that [dispersants] plus oil might increase the toxicity, that was found not to be true”. To me, that just doesn’t pass the basic common sense test. Crude oil contains a highly toxic combination of chemical compounds in itself, but injecting additional toxic compounds can only make that combination even worse. I don’t know how these tests were done so I don’t want to speculate any further, but I do doubt their credibility. There is no doubt, however, that what has been put in the Gulf in the last three and a half months will have significant effects on the health of many that live and work in the Gulf. How significant these effects are remains to be seen, let’s hope that the example seen in Prince William Sound isn’t a good indicator.

Another concern voiced by a member of the press in attendance was in regards to the effects of the microscopic toxic particles (the sugar to their tea, so to speak) in the water on the Gulf’s food chain. Dr. Lubchenco posited a scenario,“lets say”, she said “for example that a fish is eating some of those smaller creatures that have oil in them, that fish will degrade the oil and process it naturally” Unfortunately that doesn’t account for what effects that processing will have on these fish, some of which are spawning and growing in these toxin-polluted waters. And what about the people that eat those fish. Considering that about a third of the closed federal waters east of the Mississippi River were recently reopened to fishing, one would expect that to be a serious concern. Not Dr. Lubchenco, “So it’s not a situation where we need to be concerned” she concluded. What year is it again? Where are we? This kind of negligence is a slap in the face to every citizen of this region and this nation, not to mention every individual who ever dedicated their life’s work to science and the scientific process.  Is this the change we were promised?

-Nicholas Stone Schearer

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