by Lisa Kaas Boyle
April 18, 2012
Lisa Kaas Boyle is
an environmental attorney based in Los Angeles. Lisa is
a Vanderbilt and Tulane Law School alum, former Los
Angeles Deputy District Attorney, long time Heal the Bay
Board Member, Co-Founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition,
and frequent blogger on environmental
and human rights
environmental and health consequences, not to mention
the death of 11 workers, no executives have received
Marine Photo Bank / Flickr Creative Commons
Almost two full years after the BP oil
spill, a panel of experts gathered at the
17th Annual Tulane
Environmental Law Summit, to present the continuing impacts of the
BP Oil Spill.
That spill began with the April 20th,
2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling unit used by BP 40
miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven men lost their lives. The
resulting spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico stands as the largest
oil spill in U.S. history and the second largest environmental
disaster in this country to date besides the nearly decade-long Dust
Bowl of the 1930s.
Scientists at the summit presented
recent photographs of shrimp with no eyes and fish with cancerous
tumors born long after the gulf was declared "safe" for fishing.
It turns out that testing water and fish flesh under the surface oil
after the spill was not very telling about long term impacts as oil
and water don't mix and the chronic, toxic impacts were delayed
until long after BP was put in charge of the "clean up."
When BP sprayed chemical dispersants
containing a slew of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, the oil
didn't magically disappear. It sank into the sediment.
Disturbingly, the allowable levels set
by the government for the toxins in our seafood are based on health
impacts for a 176 pound adult eating less than 2 medium shrimp a
day. The testing is for 1 chemical out of a crude oil mixture
containing thousands of chemicals. No synergistic effects are
This in no way protects children,
fetuses, people who weigh less than 176 pounds or anyone who eats
seafood on a daily basis like the folks here on the Gulf Coast.
Dr. Andrew Whitehead, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department
of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University, who is studying
the BP spill and has reviewed much of the scientific studies of
Exxon Valdez spill, explained that stock declines of species may
take several years to develop as reproduction is impacted in
successive generations and across species.
The Exxon Valdez spill is now known to
be responsible for the decline of many species, including marine
mammals, marine birds, and fishes such as pink salmon and herring.
Though we have a take on the immediate
acute impacts of the BP spill on animals caught in the oil, the
chronic ultimate impacts of the BP spill are still unknown. But we
do know that the killifish, the most abundant forage fish for the
bigger fish in Gulf coast marshes, are being affected. Fish from
oiled marshes show signs of direct toxicity and reproductive
Dr. Whitehead's experiments involving
exposures to oiled sediments, done in collaboration with colleague
Dr. Fernando Galvez, show that killifish embryos are taking longer
to develop or don't hatch at all.
They are being born with malformed
hearts and hearts that may not function properly when they mature.
And as the impacts from the spill on the fish bio-accumulate and
propagate across generations, liability is harder to prove without
good and strategic scientific study that sadly is harder to fund.
But some impacts are being felt now, especially for sediment
Current reports from fisherman up and down the
coast are startling. The oyster harvest for 2010 was the worst in
more than four decades and oystermen continue to report catches down
as much as 75 percent. Crab catches are in steep decline. Brown
shrimp production is down two-thirds.
And the white shrimp season
was even worse, leading to descriptions of "worst in memory" and
This 2011 photo provided by Donald Waters
shows a fish harvested from the Gulf of
Mexico with unusual lesions and infections.
Two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig
exploded and sank, touching off the worst
offshore spill in U.S. history, the latest
research into its effects is starting to
back up those early reports from the docks:
The ailing fish bear hallmarks of diseases
tied to petroleum and other pollutants.
(AP Photo/Courtesy Donald Waters)
This from the region that before the
spill provided 40% of the nation's seafood.
Dr. Patricia Williams, PhD, Diplomate of the American Board
of Toxicology, Associate Professor, Coordinator of Toxicology
Research Laboratories, Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental
Sciences, University of New Orleans, spoke at the Summit about what
she sees a failure to properly assess the impact of the spill on
seafood and on human health.
In 1996, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration acknowledged that direct measurement
of tissue for PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon)
concentrations generally does not provide a useful indicator of
exposure of fish to PAHs from petroleum spills.
Regardless, an extremely expensive
seafood testing program was launched using this method. Testing
included only 13 PAH parent compounds out of 200 PAHs present in
crude oil. PAHs act on each other resulting in greater toxicity
than expected from a single PAH (synergism). The synergistic
nature of the PAHs were ignored in interpretation of the
Additionally, the Levels of Concern
were calculated for a 176 pound individual. This does not
address toddlers and children or the developing fetus and
The public was not warned of these
deficiencies in the seafood testing program.
Dr. Williams explained that,
"PAHs are endocrine disruptors that
interfere with the normal blood-borne hormones (e.g. estrogen
and testosterone) that are responsible for the regulation of
reproductive and developmental processes.
Only very low amounts
of chemicals are needed to disrupt the normal endocrine balance
of both humans and animals. Evidence of reproduction imbalance
is seen in the second generation of white shrimp in the 2011
Shrimp were harvested with defective eye stalks, pleopods, and pereiopods. Such anatomical defects are occurring
in the markedly reduced white shrimp population in the Gulf and
warn of endocrine dysfunction that could result in the loss of
"The heavy metals known to be
present in crude oil are being ignored in the testing of
seafood. Metal toxicity can produce neurobehavioral
abnormalities in sea life such as:
alterations in avoidance or
critical swimming speed
changes in social
interactions (e.g. aggression), reproduction, feeding,
and predator avoidance
food foraging with reduced
loss or orientation in
swimming and changes in schooling behavior
Heavy metal testing in BP Oil
clean-up workers has documented increased arsenic levels in 24
hour urine specimens."
Finally, Dr. Williams warned that,
"The future chronic health effects
from consumption of contaminated seafood and biomagnifications
along the food chain are yet to be realized in both sea life and
humans. Chronic effects may take years to present and may elude
an analysis of their causal origins."
Tulane Enviro Law Summit 2012.
Long Term Effects - Patricia Williams and Q&A
April 18, 2012
On the second day of the summit, a
settlement between private plaintiffs and BP was announced in the
This settlement does not resolve the
government cases, either civil or criminal, against the responsible
parties. But the settlement of the private case raises the question
whether the government prosecutions will be resolved without a trial
and without jail time for executives ultimately responsible for the
deaths of 11 workers and severe and ongoing environmental and
economic impacts on the region.
The summit attendees were abuzz with
speculation about what will happen in the federal and State of
In Louisiana, petroleum is king. This state is the 3rd largest
producer of petroleum in America, Louisiana is responsible for more
than 1/4 of nation's natural gas production, and Louisiana is the
third leading refiner of petroleum in the country. In addition, the
state makes over 600 petroleum products making it the second in the
nation in primary production of petrochemicals.
The 20-mile stretch on the Mississippi
from New Orleans to Baton Rouge known as "The Cancer Corridor" pumps
out 1/4 of the chemicals made in America. Louisiana leads the United
release of toxic chemicals into the environment.
The seven-parish industrial corridor has
the highest density of petrochemical industries in the nation and
possibly the world.
All this money in petroleum has a huge impact on politics in
Louisiana, just as it does on a national and international level.
It's probably impossible to get elected to any Louisiana office
without courting petroleum dollars and making campaign promises to
A visit to the petroleum friendly website for the
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources reveals the following
section titled "Legacy Liability Reform" from
Oil & Gas Industry of Louisiana
This "Legacy Liability Reform" is less likely to ensure any
protection for Louisiana's resources or its citizens than it is to
assure petroleum companies that Louisiana and its resources are
theirs for the taking.
The reform is code for,
"don't worry about liability because
immunity for really bad stuff is all part of the deal for
investing in Louisiana."
Oh, by the way, the Louisiana courts
have been very protective historically of petroleum interests as
From the 1950s on, drilling for oil and gas on federal lands and
waters has produced the second largest source of revenue for the
federal government besides taxes. This has led to a rather cozy
relationship between the federal government and those corporations
that extract petroleum here.
Let us not forget that since the
inception of the Minerals Management Service - MMS (now renamed
of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to emphasize
what it should be doing) - has been involved in numerous scandals.
For example, in 1990, MMS employees were
linked to prostitution, and in 2008 the Department of Interior's
Inspector General reported that MMS employees were engaged in both
drug use and sexual activity with employees from the very energy
firms they were to be regulating. This wasn't just the foxes
guarding the chicken coop, but the foxes actually in bed doing lines
of coke with the chickens.
Clint Guidry, President, Louisiana Shrimp Association, spoke
at the summit about the political ramifications of the spill and the
unlikelihood of real justice coming from the government case. Mr.
Guidry had worked for BP earlier in his career like so many
Louisiana men have.
He knows intimately both the oil
industry and the fishing industry.
When the spill happened, the Louisiana
shrimping was devastated. First, Guidry lobbied for jobs for all the
shrimpers when the fisheries closed. Then he fought for jobsite
safety for the workers and community residents impacted by the clean
up. Guidry's role became that of witness to the harms on fisherman
response workers when they began to suffer from being exposed to
aerial application of the chemical dispersant and being downwind
from burn sites of the surface oil.
For instance, on May 26th
seven shrimpers from the offshore response crew were admitted to
West Jefferson Hospital with chemical poisoning. Two days later,
after Obama's May 27th visit to Grand Isle where he was
photographed picking up tar balls, two more shrimpers were
air-lifted to West Jefferson Hospital for emergency medical
treatment, also for chemical poisoning.
Guidry met with the Occupational Health
and Safety Administration, the US Coast Guard, the National
Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and with other
government representatives from the local to the federal including
Secretaries Napolitano and Salazar and US EPA Administrator
Mr. Guidry still has the following unresolved questions:
Why did we allow people who caused
oil spill to be in charge of the clean up? Everything they did
was to limit liability, not to protect the environment, the
resources or the people.
How could the government announce on August 5, 2010 that
suddenly 75% of the oil had disappeared? Corporations run this
country and they operate under The Golden Rule: Who holds the
gold makes the rule.
According to statements made by
Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman
Garret Graves, BP is choosing the direction of the environmental
Shouldn't the Oil Spill Recovery Fund be
administered independently so it could fund real scientists like Dr.
Oil companies are good at covering up spills and sinking the oil
with additional chemicals, but they are no good at cleaning up
spills. If we are allowing these companies to drill in the Gulf,
shouldn't they be required to have the technology to prevent
disasters and to clean them up? They don't.
Even after the largest loss of life and oil, no laws have been
changed. Eleven men are dead but I don't believe anybody will go to
jail. The government is the keeper of the record of the criminal
investigation and if they settle the case, the public will never see
that information. If the record is not made public in a trial, how
we learn from this spill?
I'm a third generation fisherman. We were the first
environmentalists because if you don't take care of the environment,
it doesn't take care of you. I love wildlife. The spill has
devastated wildlife. What price do you put on a dead dolphin?
The head of Minerals Management Service at the time of the BP
disaster came from big oil. She was fired by Obama and MMS was split
up but no one else was fired. Is that enough house cleaning? Can
these people keep us safe when they have failed in the past?
As the federal government and affected states including Louisiana
move toward trial or settlement, we should all be asking these
How will the government cases be resolved? Potential penalties of
more than $17 billion for environmental violations remain on the
books for BP.
Peter Lehner, Executive Director
of Natural Resources Defense Counsel writes in his blog,
"How the remainder of the case pans
out says a lot about the future of energy in this country.
the government allow BP, and the rest of the oil industry, to
continue business as usual with nothing more than a slap on the
Or will the company be put on trial
and held accountable for its actions?
Will the penalties be
severe enough to make the oil industry clean up its act?
reported profits of $21.7 billion in 2011, nearly 3 times the
estimated cost of its settlement with private parties in the
And one question looms even larger than
the spill, the resulting legal cases or even BP profits:
How can we establish a separation
between the oil industry and our government?