Wildlife and Marine Biologist Teach Lessons of BP Oil Spill
Awarded the “Noisemaker Award” by MORE Magazine for researching and publicizing the impact of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, marine biologist Dr. Susan Shaw has a lot to say. In a recent talk, Shaw angrily denounced a pattern of deception, disinformation, negligence, and corporate manipulation and control as the oil disaster unfolded. She is particularly critical of the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil, explaining this quick fix has created a multitude of new and dangerous problems. As she looks out at mental health and cultural, social, and economic disarray as well as disease and death brought on by the disaster, she pleads, “heaven’s sake, let us learn from this!”
What she has learned is that, with the use of dispersants that break oil down into particles that sink, BP will earn billions more from their Gulf investment while the toxic chemical creates huge subsea oil plumes that join sea floor sediment and slowly degrade over decades. The sedimented oil, called “oil snow,” is already found in marine life such as crab larvae and finfish. “Exquisitely sensitive” species as varied as green algae, marsh grasses, coral, brown shrimp, cod, and rockfish may have lethal reactions to the mix of oil and dispersant, or to each of these substances alone. She predicts vast areas of dead coral will be found and explains that thousands of fish and sea animals have already died and have sunk to the sea floor, making it impossible to know their exact number.
Ongoing toxicity is expected as the tremendous quantities of oil particles and dispersants are repeatedly re-released by weather, such as hurricanes, and the motion of ships. She and other scientists challenge the contention that seafood from the Gulf is safe to eat, maintaining the sample tested by the government is far too small. Health complaints by residents and cleanup workers include blinding headaches and nerve and skin damage. Pregnant women and infants are at special risk. Long-term consequences are yet to be seen as, once in the body, the toxic chemical affects DNA, which can create complications over the decades and generations.
The problem, declared Shaw, is we have been “poisoned for profit.” The oil, gas, and chemical industries are not sufficiently regulated, and BP economics have trumped health and environmental concerns. “Don’t let corporate culture drive our society,” she pleaded, “Learn, get more informed, and get involved….We can make a change. We must do it.”
Shaw was joined by National Wildlife Federation senior scientist and wildlife biologist Doug Linkley, whose agency’s mission includes protecting wildlife and restoring habitat. He was in the Gulf area before the oil spill, working on rebuilding wetlands after Hurricane Katrina. As outraged as Dr. Shaw, he reported massive obstruction and withholding of information by BP and the government. Not allowed to go up in a regular helicopter to survey the situation, he was forced to finagle a ride with a local sheriff. Local volunteer Gulf surveillance teams working with the media covered the story from docks until National Wildlife rented boats for them.
“The government was definitely not in control,” he said. BP had authority over the water and the beaches; people were fined or arrested for being on the beach. Researchers for the government and for BP were required to sign confidentiality agreements. He tried for months to get information about the fate of some birds. His sense was, “They are hiding everything.”
Linkley continues to work on long-term Gulf coast restoration. The crisis is not over, he warns. Marine life has not recovered from the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill. The BP spill was a mile deep and one thousand miles wide. Dispersant has not been used in such deep water before. He is concerned about the lack of credible information and the public’s tendency to trust the corporations even though they misrepresented the size of the spill and the follow up. He laments our reliance on fossil fuel and the dependence on oil for so many products. Like Shaw, he looks to the people to demand solutions. “When the people lead, their leaders will follow,” he declared.
Perhaps the message is being heard. On December 2, 2010, President Barack Obama’s administration said it was reversing its decision to expand offshore oil drilling in the Gulf and Atlantic coasts because the BP oil spill showed that federal regulation needs to be strengthened. #