The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

Move Along, Nothing to See Here… [updated 7/7]

As of this moment somewhere north of 85 Million gallons of oil has been leaked into the gulf. Depending on whose numbers you take on either spill this is from 3 to 15 times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Over the course of several disasters, natural and otherwise, nothing is being learned. Or rather, an amount is being learned, but that learning is not being applied. Prior deficiencies have not been rectified, prior mistakes are being repeated.

There is a certain proximity the Gulf spill has to the political arena, unfortunately, apart and aside of the business interests involved. There is also a political aspect that is fully meshed with business and finance. (and I could fill this and many more posts about it’s huge impact on disaster response over time. don’t tempt me, I might still, but it’s alotta work.) These stymie the application of common sense to current response or future preparedness.

Impediments to media coverage in the gulf remain, despite Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen’s continued assurances and protocols. Incidently, the Gulf response is under the umbrella of the Coast Guard and not FEMA, as was the case with Katrina, so this puts different players into the mix at the top, such Health and Human Services (HHS), the EPA, the CDC, and, of all folks, BP. All of which have their reasons to keep various types of info out of the public sphere. As a result this makes any data spotty and suspect without the ability for independent corroboration.

To wit:

[Public officials, medical experts and academic researchers] observations during two days of meetings seemed to converge on two key conclusions: Data gathered from previous oil spills is grossly inadequate in depth and chronological scope; and a massive, multilateral effort will be required to effectively treat, research and monitor affected populations along the Gulf Coast this time around. – via

This, in my opinion, falls into the “Duh” category, but I will applaud it for the simple fact of it’s blazing truth. The unfortunate part is that there are far too many specific reasons for this gross inadequacy and they all point to availability of access. Now I’m not the biggest fan of the way big press reports ‘news’ these days, (a far cry from Murrow and Cronkite, to be sure) but some of them do actually commit acts of real journalism every once and a while and access to the HHS medical treatment facility inside the so-called “BP compound” in Louisiana is one of those places that corroborative data needs to be generated from.

Now, I am an unabashed tree-hugger, but I do have a bit of a weak spot for humans. (Granted, that soft spot only extends to a few individuals specifically and then bypasses everyone else until you get to societal groups, and I only include those because of the amusement value…) While I prefer the civilization vs environment to be weighted further to the enviro side than it generally is, I can understand why there must be a balance in the first place. Such a simple concept, really, but one that escapes folks on both sides of the see-saw.

That brings me to an aspect that seems to get lost in all the noise; the ongoing human toll. The number of oil-affected birds gets diminishing coverage, but as far as humans are concerned all measures seem to begin and end with the onset of the disaster. The long-term health effects stories only occasionally poke their heads above the fold when there isn’t a larger distraction or political pull-toy in play.

By definition, long-term studies of anything requires multiple data points and information collection from a variety of informed and corroborative sources and resources. Unfortunately, the public has a hard time sitting still long enough to absorb, let alone try to understand, data collections in progress. (unless, of course, it includes naked pictures, or celebrities, or both, and even that has it’s limits.)

In my previous post I noted the use of Corexit dispersant on the spill and the possible health effects. Corexit, in it’s various versions, is just one of several known dispersants, some better on the environment and biologicals and a few worse. It does, however, have the distinction of being made by a company owned by BP. Due to Very Serious Business Concerns, Nalco was reluctant to release the composition of the stuff “to protect the proprietary trade secret composition of the product”. They did finally turn over the list of ingredients to the EPA and the EPA was eventually kind enough to quietly release said list on their site in June. Now how does John Q. Public know if this is bad for them? How does the clean-up worker know whether his bloody nose or intestinal discomfort is related? How does the attending doctor know to consider it as a potential?

An interesting note here is that as the CDC is also part of this response, and as an organization that is known for it’s data gathering and analysis, is HHS and the CDC compiling health info and coordinating with local medicos? They say they are, but considering the historical record you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful here. Where I’m hoping the CDC is picking up the ball, and it is certainly within their ballywick, is the vectors the pollutants (both the crude and the dispersants) end up being spread by. An easy example is how mercury is transferred via fish. In the gulf we have not only a toxin vector in the fish and shellfish, we have hundreds of miles of shoreline vegetation also.

There were a lot of lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. One form of dispersant Corexit was used there too. Nineteen months after that spill, the dispersant was not only evident in the marine ecosystem but mussels were still poisoned. And the effects of spreading the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons ranged far and wide as they caused developing hearts of Pacific herring and salmon to fail.  – via Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Oh! And let’s not forget that little thing called ‘evaporation’.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, evaporation. The dispersants themselves are meant to do that, and after the oil is broken down into sufficiently small enough molecules it too succumbs to the process. As the adage goes; “what goes up must come down” also applies to an ecosystem, what is evaporated will eventually rain back down. And that is exactly what’s happening down in the gulf area, oil and dispersant is being carried inland with the clouds.

I hesitate to make the blanket statement that many have saying that BP could care less about the health of the gulf coast ecosystem or residents, it’s easy to find an executive that will apologize and promise full recompense for any trouble it might cause. The reality, however, is that BP is a multi-billion dollar company that has a bottom line to maintain and a disaster of this developing magnitude may be a company killer even for it. While a corporation is considered an individual entity in a legal sense, it can by no means be ascribed the same motivations nor sense of responsibility that apply to an individual human.

And it’s likely this distinction that is being exploited by some to further blur that definition.

Now, the US is not the only country that drills off it’s shores – several European countries do as well, and there are many spill experts there that are wondering why in the hell dispersant is being used on a spill of this size in the first place.

Rather than allow the oil to rise to the surface where it can be skimmed, it disperses the top of the plumes and, like the petroleum it’s breaking into molecular chunks, is absorbed by the fish, shellfish, and plant life, poisoning them for years.

The dispersants are designed to break down crude into tiny drops, which can be eaten up by naturally occurring bacteria, to lessen the impact of a giant sea of crude washing on to oyster beds and birds’ nests on shore. But environmental scientists say the dispersants, which can cause genetic mutations and cancer, add to the toxicity of the spill. That exposes sea turtles and bluefin tuna to an even greater risk than crude alone. Dolphins and whales have already been spotted in the spill.The dangers are even greater for dispersants poured into the source of the spill, where they are picked up by the current and wash through the Gulf. – via Guardian UK

So what is it that outweighs proper documentation and study of the causes and effects of the spill and response? As  noted above and in my previous quick post, money. For every barrel leaked it can cost $4,300 in fines to BP , so it becomes clear why BP wasn’t interested in giving anyone enough information to make flow calculations, and began using dispersants to break up the surface exhibitions of deep oil plumes to further obfuscate spill calcs. Politicos recieve millions in campaign donations from the oil lobby so, while not technically a quid pro quo arrangement, monetary self-preservation drives much of their rhetoric.

And we get left with more damage than when it began; the effects stretching into places it never should have gone, the patient treated to a point near death, the rickety pillars painted and called brand new.

[UPDATE: Scientists continue to ask  for access to study the spill]

[2nd UPDATE, 7/7/10: BP is subtracting money from gulf coast resident’s settlements if they don’t help in the clean-up.]

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