Gulf Coast health crisis in aftermath of BP oil blowout underscored at Keystone XL protest


President Obama, after heeding the people’s call to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline until environmental and public health concerns are thoroughly vetted, must apply the same standards in the Gulf, where the government has yet to fully assess and respond to damage from the BP oil spill. For dozens of Gulf Coast residents who traveled by bus to participate in the pipeline protest at the White House on November 6, it was an opportunity to remind the administration of the public health risks posed by hastily approved oil exploration plans.

Guest contributor Shanna Devine coordinates the Know Your Rights Campaign at the Government Accountability Project.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline protest was a historic gathering, as thousands of concerned citizens – including Gulf residents affected by the BP oil spill – circled the White House and called on President Obama to put the breaks on plans to build a 17,000 mile pipeline from Canada into the Gulf. Days later, the administration called for a new environmental and safety review of the pipeline before it is approved. President Obama must apply equal leadership in the Gulf, where BP and the US government have yet to address the growing health crisis in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon had no business being in business prior to the April 2010 explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers, given the rig’s track record of safety violations, in an environment that discouraged workers from reporting safety abuses. Reported by the New York Times, “A confidential survey of workers on the Deepwater Horizon in the weeks before the oil rig exploded showed that many of them were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems.”  Adding insult to death, after numerous failed attempts to plug the well, it became painfully clear that BP, the oil industry and the administration were ill-equipped to respond to a leak 5,000 feet below sea level.

We are only now realizing just how unprepared we are to address the public health crisis that is sweeping across the Gulf in the wake of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Depicted by Antonia Juhasz in Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the  Gulf Oil Spill, “Life on the Gulf is dependent on the water, and the water has been poisoned.” Nearly two million gallons of crude oil and a reported 1.8 million gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit were released into Gulf waters in the summer of 2010. Further, 40% of the dispersant was applied through novel use. Depicted by Juhasz, “For the first time anywhere, and without any testing as to its effect, dispersant was applied subsurface at the wellhead in what amounted to be a massive science experiment on the people and ecosystems of the gulf.”

Underscoring this concern, over 150 organizations – ranging from Sierra Club and Greenpeace USA to the Louisiana Shrimp Association and United Commercial Fisherman of America – sent a letter to EPA Administrator Jackson and Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius in May 2011:

There is no understanding of what this toxic cocktail has done and will continue to do to the health of those living on the Gulf coast. Though the oil discharged for 87 days, communities are still reporting continued dispersant spraying, watching oil continue to wash up on our shores, and seeing devastating impacts on our marine life. One year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the people of the Gulf coast are still in need of proper diagnosis, treatment, and medical monitoring.

Kindra Arnesen, a Louisiana resident, wife of a fisherman and alarmed mother, can attest directly to the current state of the Gulf – having witnessed a dearth of seafood and multiplying health problems since the spill. Speaking with CSW and the Know Your Rights Campaign at the Keystone XL Pipeline protest, in front of the White House:

The health problems described by Ms. Arnesen correlate with health impacts  associated with exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil and dispersants.

recent report by Save Our Gulf Waterkeepers warns,

[We] continue to receive health complaints from Gulf Coast residents fourteen months after the well was capped. Residents who live and work on the water, particularly people in fishing communities and first responders to the BP oil disaster, are falling ill. At the time of writing, Gulf Coast communities remain without adequate diagnosis or treatment for these health concerns.

Despite extensive reports of a growing public health crisis in the Gulf, it has received little national attention. Following the Keystone XL Protest, gulf residents protested outside of BP claims czar Kenneth Feinberg’s downtown office to raise awareness around the lack of redress for health related claims.

Feinberg protest (Photo: Shanna Devine)

Feinberg, tasked with administering BP’s $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Fund (GCCF) – designed to “provide a faster and more fair way to pay damage claims for individuals and businesses harmed by the Gulf Oil Spill” – is a veteran of working with economically strained and sick populations, having overseen the Agent Orange and 9/11 claims funds. So why has he been under public scrutiny for management of the fund? For one, he has yet to process a single health claim filed with the GCCF.

Despite widespread public critique that the GCCF has received for backlogs, inconsistent processing and inadequate payments, Feinberg got off remarkably easy at a recent House Natural Recourses hearing to examine the effectiveness of the fund. Unable to ignore the blight of gulf shrimp since the spill, Gulf Representatives urged Feinberg to expedite shrimpers’ claims for economic losses. However, the issue of health received no mention throughout the hearing. Raising the greatest red-flag, Feinberg himself warned “it is problematic for one individual to have this much authority with so little oversight” – referring to his free reign to administer the GCCF, which to date has not received oversight from BP or the administration.

During a radio interview at the protest outside of Feinberg’s office, Cherri Foytlin, Gulf organizer and wife of an oil rig worker, rebuked Representatives for appearing to be unaware of the health problems gulf residents are experiencing: “Not one of our representatives in any way shape or form stood up and asked that man about the health of the Gulf. And they knew … every one of them, because we talked to every single one.”

When Feinberg was asked during the hearing break how he was processing health claims, he replied:

There are about 200 health and respiratory claims arising out of claimants who say they were exposed to oil fumes and detergent in cleaning up the oil. Out of those 200, we’ve got them on hold, we’re getting some expert input from epidemiologists and doctors in Houston, independent people, to evaluate claims and tell us what they think about the science and the medicine. We expect to hear back from them by the end of next week and then we’ll know how to go forward with those claims…

While 200 seem low, without oversight of the GCCF, we’ll have to take Feinberg’s word … While waiting for his experts’ opinion, Feinberg should look to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) for answers. Founded in 1986 and a statewide network of over 100 groups, LEAN in collaboration with Dr. Michael Robichaux (“Dr. Mike”), a physician from Raceland, LA, and Dr. Wilma Subra, chemist and MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient, are conducting blood tests for residents who have fallen ill since the spill, to determine if there is a correlation between chemical exposure and the reported health problems. In a recent radio interview, LEAN Director Marylee Orr, reported:

We did volatile solvents whole blood testing which included a host of 10 chemicals and those folks that had very high levels of the chemicals also had a lot of symptoms that Dr. Mike was describing, and most alarming as he said is folks neurological problems, the seizures and things that they are progressing to now.

So why are health problems in the Gulf reported as getting progressively worse?   New evidence on seafood safety in the Gulf, compounded by evidence that the dispersed oil can pose a substantial public health risk with accumulated exposure, and reports that fresh oil continues to wash up on shore, could shed light on this concern.

The Natural Recourse Defense Council, in a newly published report  that refutes the FDA’s green light for Gulf seafood since the spill, found that “by using flawed assumptions and outdated risk assessment methods, FDA allowed up to 10,000 times too much contamination and failed to identify risks for pregnant women and children.” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, co-author of the report, warned:  “Our findings add to a long  list of evidence that FDA is overlooking the risks from chemical contaminants in food…We must not wait for people to get sick or cancer rates to rise, we need FDA to act now to protect the food supply.”

Her warnings were elevated by a recent Earthjustice report, “The Chaos of Cleanup: Analysis of Potential Health and Environmental Impacts” which found that of the 57 chemicals in dispersants, five are linked to cancer.

EPA senior policy analyst Hugh Kaufman – the lone EPA whistleblower to come out publicly against the agency’s approval of Corexit – in a Democracy Now interview – said “the largest ingredient in Corexit is oil. But there are other materials. And when the ingredients are mixed with oil, the combination of Corexit or any dispersant and oil is more toxic than the oil itself.” Rebuking EPA’s position that it did not know of the long-term health impacts associated with Corexit when it approved BP’s recommended use, Kaufman continued: “Toxicologists from Exxon that developed it have published on it. So, we know enough to know that it’s very dangerous, and to say that we just have to know more about it is a red herring issue.”  EPA data available at the time of the oil spill did indicate that this controversial dispersant was rated less effective on Sweet Louisiana Crude, the type of oil that leaked from the Macondo well, and that it was more toxic than many other options on the list of 18 EPA-approved dispersants.

Parallels being drawn between health problems experienced by cleanup workers from the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill and cleanup workers in the Gulf offers grim foreshadowing for workers already experiencing severe upper respiratory problems and, in some cases, signs of neurological damage; the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil and employed less than less than 4,000 gallons of Corexit, compared to the 200 million gallons of crude oil and nearly 2 million gallons of Corexit released into Gulf waters. This fear is compounded by the rising cancer rates among 9/11 first responders who, akin to BP oil spill first-responders, were denied the use of respirators.

The National Institutes of Health is conducting a long-term study to determine the human health impact of the spill on cleanup workers throughout the Gulf. Reported by the New Orleans Times Picayune November 14, this study also aims to address the government’s scientific vacuum on this matter:

Some scientists and physicians have weighed in with tests on samples of seafood, human blood and Gulf Coast soil that show elevated levels of some of the same toxins. But there has been a dearth of scientific evidence directly connecting illnesses to the oil or the dispersant … Government officials have been unwilling to accept a direct causal effect but also unable to disprove it.

President Obama, after heeding the people’s call to stop the Keystone Pipeline until environmental and public health concerns are thoroughly vetted, must apply the same standards in the Gulf, where our government has yet to fully assess and respond to damage from the BP oil spill. Otherwise, intensified by the growing health concern, taxpayers and future generations will be forced to pick up a bill that BP was allowed to walk out on.

Remarkably, in the midst of reports fresh oil washing up on Gulf shores matches the fingerprint of BP oil MC 252, last week the Coast Guard approved BP’s proposal to conclude cleanup responsibilities in the Gulf.

Earlier posts:

BP control of Gulf cleanup money interfering with scientific integrity of damage assessment, Senate Environment committee told at hearing

The Government Accountability Project’s “Know Your Rights Campaign” raises public awareness of Gulf worker whistleblower rights

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline demonstrators surround White House – pipeline permit decision blocked until 2013

Obama administration to expand offshore drilling inAlaska and Gulf of Mexico

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