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So you think the BP oil spill is old news?

Posted on July 15th, 2013 in ecology,Health,Science by Robert Miller

Fig 1 From Shanna Devine’s article in Washington Spectator, July 1, 2013

Right now a trial is taking place in New Orleans to determine if BP oil has additional liability for the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Shanna Devine, writing in the Washington Spectator, brings to light sobering new human health risks emerging from the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in a fireball,  killing 11 workers, injuring 17 and creating the largest marine oil spill in history; this story is also a shocking revelation about collusion between BP and our own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and represents nothing less than a massive coverup to fool us into believing that the oil spill problem is over, when in fact we have no idea today about the long-term consequences of the oil spill on human health and the environmental condition of the Gulf. But we know enough already to appreciate that BP intends to cleanup future oil spills, just as they did the spill in the Gulf in 2010, using dispersants which will have disastrous consequences for the rest of us, given these new revelations about the toxicity of the chemicals used to “bury BP’s mistakes.”

Mark Hertzgaard, author of an excellent book on climate change, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth which I have commented on in a long polemic on climate change, has written a good summary article in Newsweek/Daily BeastWhat BP Doesn’t Want You to Know About the 2010 Gulf Spill;” that article includes many new revelations about the BP coverup. BP has already admitted they lied to the public and the government about the amount of oil spilled during the 87 days of oil gushing out of the Macondo oil well (estimates of the total oil discharge from the BP well are at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal). Any fines levied against BP as a result of the current trial in New Orleans will be in addition to what has already been assessed against BP for lying to Congress, included 14 felonies to which BP pleaded guilty last year in a legal settlement with the Justice Department that included a $4.5 billion fine, the largest fine ever levied against a corporation in the U.S. In addition, BP still faces lawsuits from states directly affected by the oil spill. As of February 2013, criminal and civil settlements and payments to a trust fund had cost the company $42.2 billion. But the larger question, whether we should be drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, at, particularly at the depths of the Macondo Prospect oil well (more than 5000 ft depth from the surface) will not be addressed.

A year after the press had moved on from the oil spill, in the summer of 2011, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) received a letter from Dr. Michael Robichaux,  a Louisiana physician, who was treating individuals made sick by the oil spill. In his letter, he claimed that “this has been one of the best-kept secrets in my lifetime. I feel it is my duty as both a physician and citizen of our state and nation to alert you to the horrendous health problems I am observing.” Robichaux had been treating individuals exposed to oil spills for many years, but the BP oil spill was unique—he was now treating patients for symptoms that were very different from those which he had treated in the past. He went on to say “the common denominator in these illnesses appears to be the dispersants that were used to ‘hide’ the oil released during the spill.” The dispersant he was referring to was Corexit, hailed by BP and the federal government as the most effective tool to clean up the oil spill. The symptoms he was referring to included respiratory distress, skin rashes, cardiovascular abnormalities, gastrointestinal problems, and short-term memory loss. Long-term issues include cancer, decreased lung function and kidney damage. GAP also teamed up with GAP teamed up with the nonprofit Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and in April 2013, they released a report, “Corexit: Deadly Disopersant in Oil Spill Cleanup which details their findings (if you visit the site, be sure to endorse the letter to the EPA to ban use of Corexit in future spills—right now the EPA and BP feel that Corexit produced wonderful results, because it buried the oil—“out of sight out of mind”). Reporting by Hertzgaard and Devine based their articles on the GAP report. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a highly regarded safety training program for working with hazardous materials in oil cleanup operations, but 100 percent of the Gulf workers interviewed by GAP disclosed that they were denied training as they were told Corexit was completely safe. Thus BP and the EPA went around OSHA standards for worker protection and training. Why? Simply to reduce the public relations disaster for BP, aided by denying cleanup workers safety features such as gas masks because they did not want the public spooked into thinking something serious was going on.

Fig 2 BP plane applying Corexit from air. Many workers were directly sprayed by Corexit and developed toxic reactions to the dispersant. From New Orleans Times-Picayune

Once alerted to the continued human health risks related to the oil spill, GAP worked with whistleblowers to uncover new information. Their own studies found that the extensive use of Corexit “was more destructive to human health and the environment than the oil spill itself.” A study done in 2012 concluded that the use of Corexit added to the oil increased the combined toxicity over that of oil itself  by some 52 times. The strategy behind the use of Corexit was to break up the oil spill before it could reach the beaches. But the net effect of massive Corexit (it is estimated that 1.84 million gallons of Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 were applied, mostly through the air—see figure 2) dispersed the oil into droplets, which sank to the bottom of the Gulf where much of the oil remains today as microscopic oil droplets, with untold future consequences. Thus Corexit didn’t really remove the oil, as the government and BP first suggested, but instead its action was primarily to sink the oil to the bottom of the Gulf at a level where fish spawn and invertebrates dwell. In other words, the Gulf BP oil spill started an experiment in which the Gulf itself has become a giant laboratory experiment, one with very little funding for the research necessary to understand the long-term consequences of such a horrific oil spill. From Mark Hertzgaard’s article, “What’s more, the combination of Corexit and crude oil also caused terrible damage to gulf wildlife and ecosystems, including an unprecedented number of seafood mutations; declines of up to 80 percent in seafood catch; and massive die-offs of the microscopic life-forms at the base of the marine food chain. GAP warns that BP and the U.S. government nevertheless appear poised to repeat the exercise after the next major oil spill: “As a result of Corexit’s perceived success, Corexit … has become the dispersant of choice in the U.S. to ‘clean up’ oil spills.”” This is truly astonishing given the impact that Corexit has had on human health and what little we know about the ecological risks of the dispersant.

Corexit is a mixture of many different organic constituents and solvents: Wikipedia has a good site on Corexit [from that site]

  • “Earthjustice and Toxipedia Consulting Services conducted the first analysis of the 57 chemicals found in Corexit formulas 9500 and 9527 in the summer of 2011. Results showed the dispersant could contain cancer-causing agents, hazardous toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.[40] The analysis found “5 chemicals are associated with cancer; 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes to burns; 33 are linked to eye irritation; 11 are or are suspected of being potential respiratory toxins or irritants; 10 are suspected kidney toxins; 8 are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms; and 5 are suspected to have a moderate acute toxicity to fish”.”
  • “Chemist Wilma Subra expressed her concern about the danger of the Corexit-crude mixture, telling GAP investigators, “The short-term health symptoms include acute respiratory problems, skin rashes, cardiovascular impacts, gastrointestinal impacts, and short-term loss of memory….long-term impacts include cancer, decreased lung function, liver damage, and kidney damage.””

One of the major ingredients of Corexit is 2-butoxyethanol,  a chemical that has been associated with major health risks, including cancer, abnormal fetal development and male infertility. Indeed, the federally required Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) created by the manufacturer of Corexit (NALCO) describes the potential hazard for Corexit as “High,” and includes such dangers as hemolysis (lysis of red blood cells), kidney and liver toxicity. The MSDS sheet specifically states that “Where concentrations in the air may  exceed the limits given in this section, the use of a half face filter mask or air supplied re breathing apparatus is recommended.” But when cleanup workers tried to wear suitable gas masks they were prevented from doing so by officials of BP and when two workers blew the whistle on supervisors who were responsible for imposing a ban on respirators, they were fired. BP officials felt that the appearance of workers with respirators would be bad public relations for BP’s corporate image.

Early in the cleanup operation, BP contacted the manufacturer of Corexit and asked them to stop shipping the safety information manuals, so that workers would not have access to that information which clearly called for appropriate masks for working in an environment made unsafe by high levels of Corexit.

While BP and government agencies initially claimed that Corexit had eliminated 70 percent of the oil, this claim was quickly withdrawn when scientists discovered massive oil plumes underneath the water surface. It is now clear that government approval of dispersants used in oil spills was not based on assessments of its toxicity. Sinking the oil may have had short-term benefits for the commercial interests of the Florida beach community,  but the continued presence of oil on the bottom of the Gulf may pose long-term dangers to human health as well as the long-term economy and ecology of the gulf.

One group organized to fight environmental issues in the Gulf is the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) which worked with GAP to expose health risks that BP did not want to see elevated in the public eye. Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, took on his own agency and publicly warned that the dispersant was a risk to public health. Kaufman stated “EPA is now taking the position that they really don’t know how dangerous it is, even though if you read the label, it tells you how dangerous it is.” “It’s very dangerous, and it’s an economic protector of BP, not an environmental protector of the public.

[Devine]: “As recently as May 2013, BP still contended: “Based on extensive monitoring conducted by BP and the federal agencies, BP is not aware of any data showing worker or public exposures to dispersants at levels that would pose a health or safety concern.”  In fact BP’s own testing detected 2-butoxyethanol in more than 20 percent of offshore workers at levels two times greater than federal worker-saftey standards. The same chemical was linked to severe health problems for workers in the Exxon Valdez cleanup, ranging from respiratory and nervous system damage to neurological problems.” Indeed the symptoms suffered by cleanup workers is very similar to the toxic symptoms soldiers complained of at the end of Gulf war one.

[Hertzgaard]: “The financial implications are enormous. The trial now under way in New Orleans is wrestling with whether BP was guilty of “negligence” or “gross negligence” for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. If found guilty of “negligence,” BP would be fined, under the Clean Water Act, $1,100 for each barrel of oil that leaked. But if found guilty of “gross negligence”—which a cover-up would seem to imply—BP would be fined $4,300 per barrel, almost four times as much, for a total of $17.5 billion. That large a fine, combined with an additional $34 billion that the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida are seeking, could have a powerful effect on BP’s economic health.” Let’s hope so.

BP’s shameful behavior in their Gulf cleanup operation and their flat denial of the harm that has been done to fisheries and worker’s health, gives us additional insight if we needed any, on how corporate behavior is given free rein to trample on basic issues of health and ecological safety in the interest of high profiteering. Although BP has been punished with large fines, the company is still worth $ 132 billion by recent accounts and appears ready and able to meet any additional fines and still make a tidy profit. In my opinion, a corporation such as BP that runs roughshod over rules for safety and human health has no business being in the Gulf extracting oil at dangerously deep levels (BP has been banned from future oil leases in the Gulf, though it isn’t clear how long this will last). But, do we have examples of better behavior in other companies in the petroleum business? I doubt it. What has emerged from this experience is that the next time a significant oil spill occurs in the Gulf or anywhere else where a public interest is well-defined, Corexit will be used extensively as needed, because BP has deemed it to be safe and no one else has stepped up to the plate to say otherwise. EPA must put a stop to the use of Corexit in future oil spills. That would seem to be the minimum needed to protect public health. We will not know the long-term impact of this oil spill on the sensitive ecological environment of the Gulf for many years and we probably will never be able to attribute any single study to the BP oil spill of 2010. And, while Corexit is likely to be used in the next American oil spill, it will not be used on any spill in U.K. territory, because it has been banned by the British government.



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What firefighters in the West defend

Posted on July 6th, 2013 in ecology,Environment,Health by Robert Miller

Home destruction near Yarnell, Arizona. This fire killed 19 experienced firefighters (From Washington Post)

For decades, home development in the American West has been expanding into regions which increasingly face risk from forest fires, often with unexpected ferocity. Climate change has raised the threat level for many of these homes. It is no secret that firefighters in the West today increasingly protect homes at risk of fire destruction. The nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were protecting homes when strong wind gusts changed the fire conditions into a death trap. Though this fire is not contained as yet, it has already destroyed some 200 homes. Is it really worth risking lives to protect homes that should never have been built there in the first place?

The NYT has an article today based on a study recently released by CoreLogic that concludes 740,000 homes in 13 western states lie within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) with an increased risk of destruction by fire. These at-risk homes have a value of $136 billion. Increasingly the serenity of a richly forested gravel road leading to a secluded cabin or primary residence is replaced by a smoke-filled hazy summer skyline of a nearby forest fire that forces residents to abandon their homes in search of a safer environment. Part of the fire risk is man-made because fire prevention methods have allowed a richer undergrowth which adds to the combustible biomass underneath the taller trees. Natural fires have been a feature of forest fires from the beginning of time, typically ignited by lightening storms, which generated fires that did not reach the canopy of the taller trees, because not enough underbrush combustible biomass was available. Indeed, it is the tree-ring data from the surviving trees that that provides the best evidence favoring the normal “cleansing action” of forest fires. But with the more combustible undergrowth, forest fires often consume the canopy trees and destroy the entire forest, making recovery from the fire greatly prolonged and very likely the forest will never return to its pre-fire state.

Many residents of vulnerable homes in the West blame the Federal Government for poor forest management policies during the era of “Smoky the Bear.” However, there is objection to even listing the vulnerable home sites because the residents fear increased insurance costs and regulation. Despite evidence to the contrary, Westerners often maintain a sense of rugged libertarianism, even though they come from states that receive more money from the Federal Government than they contribute in the form of Federal taxes. It is doubtful that anything other than huge insurance costs will prevent continued encroachment at the Wildland Urban Interface.


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Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” finally discovered

Posted on December 4th, 2012 in Culture,Economy,Health by Robert Miller

Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen”

In his 1976 run for the Presidency, Ronald Reagan warned us about a “Welfare Queen” that had “eighty names and thirty addresses” and “drives a Cadillac.” “She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names,” and “her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” But since he pronounced this “Welfare Queen” no reporter has been has been able to locate her. Now, reporters Thom Hartmann and Sam Sacks writing in Truthout have discovered her whereabouts. She lives in Bentonville, Arkansas and goes by the name of Walmart. She is the single largest employer and reported higher income in 2011 than any other company in America. But because she pays such low wages to her employees, they require state and federal subsistence payments to make a go of it in America. A typical Walmart worker earns 31% less than someone working for another large retail company and requires 39% more in public assistance. Because of these low wages and lack of benefits,  Walmart employees require Federal assistance that amounts to $2.6 billion each year, including $ 1 billion in healthcare costs. Walmart employees get government help in the form of food stamps, housing assistance, healthcare and school-lunch programs for children. What Walmart doesn’t cover for the needs of her employees goes directly into their profit margin as the American taxpayer contributes directly to Walmart’s bottom line.

The Walmart employee costs to the Federal government are about to go up: according to an article in the Huffington Post Walmart is about to get even more Federal help, by further restricting  healthcare coverage for employees. Beginning in January, 2013 Walmart will begin denying healthcare coverage to employees working less than 30 hours per week. The scheduling will be determined by managers at each store, though the company has refused to reveal how many workers will lose coverage under the new policy.

Thirty-five years of searching for Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” couldn’t produce a tangible example, but all the time reporters were looking for a person, not a company. When reporters finally figured out that Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” is in fact a large corporation, it makes perfect sense that all the while people had been turning over the wrong rocks! We need to help Walmart employees for a labor union and organize workers to demand wages that don’t force their employees to seek public assistance. Every employee in America needs the right to live a life with dignity.


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