Threats to Health and Welfare of Gulf and Communities
By Carol Adams-Davis
On day 77 of the Gulf Crisis, the July meeting of the Mobile Bay Group Sierra Club featured a presentation by Dr. Riki Ott and Dr. J. Steven Picou.
Dr. Riki Ott, is a marine toxicologist with a specialty in oil pollution. She experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and chose to do something about it. She has founded three nonprofit organizations that deal with the lingering harm from man-made environmental disaster.
Dr. J. Steven Picou, a Professor of Sociology at the University of South Alabama, is currently working on the human response to the BP oil catastrophe. He has studied the social fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, and other man-made and "technological" disasters. Dr. Picou draws a sharp distinction between natural and technological events. The drawn out recovery period and the uncertainty that comes with it make technological disasters much more threatening to the health and welfare of the affected people and communities.
Dr. Picou and Dr. Ott have both spent the last several months traveling throughout the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal regions, speaking to communities, agencies, and relief workers. They talked about what we can do to help our community cope with this unfolding BP Gulf Oil Disaster.
Over 150 residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties gathered at 5 Rivers Alabama Delta Resource Center to hear these brilliant, wonderful individuals who have only the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf Coast communities’ best interests at heart.
An interesting and almost unbelievable note is that Riki Ott and Steven Picou became close friends after the Exxon Valdez incident. Dr. Picou left Mobile and spent years in Alaska conducting research about the social impact the oil spill had on residents. Riki Ott said, "Steven was there to help my people, and now I've come to help his people." Such is a bittersweet twist of fate.
Dr. Picou opened the meeting by speaking about what we can expect from the social impact, and how the cleanup efforts will be more destructive than the oil spill itself. He referred to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He and Dr. Ott agreed that the BP disaster is the Exxon Valdez in fast forward mode, that everything is unfolding at a much faster rate. In Alaska, the first suicide took place 4 years after the spill. The Gulf Coast experienced its first suicide (the charter boat captain in Gulf Shores, AL) on Day 65.
Dr. Picou diagrammed how the loss of social capital emerges into a corrosive community. We have already witnessed the loss of trust in BP, and then the loss of trust in the federal government, then it dribbled down to the state government. The newspapers and media are quoting leaders on the local government level as having lost trust in the state government. When the only trust in government the community retains is for government at the local level, Dr. Picou warned that, too, will soon fade, and it is. This downward spiral will continue until citizens turn against other citizens, then family members against each other. Already, in the last 4 weeks, the hard-hit fishing community of Bayou La Batre, AL has witnessed a 50% crime rate increase. Not only in Bayou La Batre, but everywhere that is directly affected, we're seeing what some are calling the "spillionaires" and what one member in the audience called the "BP Whores." In other words, BP picks and chooses who will work for them. One unemployed fishermen gets to participate in the Vessels of Opportunity program (skimming, laying the boom, etc.) while his/her neighbor's boat sits idle, and the owner faces bankruptcy in a few months.
"This is not a 100-meter dash we're running. This is a marathon. And we haven't even run the first lap, yet."
Riki Ott describes the oil as an amoeba. It's constantly moving, and growing throughout the water column. It's an evolving destructive monster, and we are under siege by it.
"The Exxon Valdez incident directly impacted the lives of 22,000 people. The BP Oil Disaster will directly impact the lives of 30 million residents of the gulf coast."
Dr. Ott --- "When BP says that we will make you whole again, what they are really saying is that we'll see you in court." 19 years after the Exxon Valdez, Exxon ended up paying 10 cents on the dollar for every claim filed. The law that is written holding oil companies responsible does not include: devaluation of property, or symptoms that are related to the flu. This is the loophole that will get BP out of compensation. The toxins will attack our respiratory tracts, leaving long-term damage, yet because "cough" is excluded, BP will end up having to pay very few medical claims.
Dr. Ott said that we are in a democracy crisis, that she thought it was bad during the Exxon Valdez, that Exxon was aggressive and the U.S. government was passive, but what she is seeing here is much worse. BP is much more aggressive than Exxon ever was in that it is calling all the shots in the clean-up effort and has seized control of the media through censorship, even down to seizing control of no-fly zones. She said that if the U.S. government was passive during the Exxon Valdez, they are for all purposes sake non-existent during the Gulf crisis.
She said that one EPA whistle-blower had once stated that the South was the region of the country to which EPA formulated one extreme end of the spectrum for its "tolerance" test, i.e. how much people would take before they began to scream in protest. She said that Southerners are known to be more docile, accepting and respectful of authority, that it's the way we're raised -- a part of the "southern hospitality" package. With a twinkle in her eye, Dr. Ott said, "But just what if the South were to rise again!"
She came to the Gulf Coast May 3. What she witnessed caused even her to relapse into post-traumatic stress syndrome. She had to get away, if only for a few days. Memorial Day weekend she decided to fly back home to Alaska for a few days. She got as far as Seattle airport, turned around and came back. She knows what it is like, and for the time being, she isn't leaving us.
She emphasized that the government doesn't have, nor will they ever have a Plan B. We, The People, must come up with a Plan B if we are to get through this. The killing will not stop with the spill. The killing of marine life goes on and on. The 4th year after the Exxon Valdez was when Alaska suffered the most. By that time, they knew the red herring population was gone forever. That was when the suicides began, starting with their very own mayor, who up until that point had been a courageous leader. 21 years later, the red herring is still absent in their waters, and they have no hope it will ever come back, at least not in our lifetimes. The Gulf will have many species of marine life that won't survive this, and which will never come back. We need to prepare ourselves for this inevitability.
Four years after the Exxon Valdez, the media was gone, no attention given to their dying communities, their dead wildlife and their sick and dying residents. She told us a story of how in a call of desperation, the community took all the fishing boats and every recreational boat available and blockaded the oil tankers from coming in to gather the oil from the pipeline. The FBI was called in, but they only got as far as Valdez, because the residents had every single boat in the water forming the blockade. They held the blockade for 3 days. Finally, the president called and said, "Okay, let's hear what these fishermen have to say, what they want." She warned that this is what will happen along the Gulf Coast. The rest of the world will forget about the sensationalism of the oil spill, while we witness the slow death of everything, both animal and human. We will be left alone to survive the economic, ecologic and human damage.
The three methods used by Exxon in 1989 that didn't work then, yet 21 years later BP is using these same tactics: Boom, Berms, and Dispersants.
Corexit is TOXIC. It is the equivalent of an industrial solvent. She said if you have to wonder how toxic it is, how toxic our waters are, look to how the propellars are being eaten off of the boats in the clean-up effort. Corexit has been proven to kill human babies in the womb, to destroy marine life, and is banned in almost every country in the world (including Great Britain) yet EPA has been powerless to stop BP from pumping millions of gallons of this toxin into the Gulf. Dr. Ott explained why EPA has been powerless. The laws were written 50 years ago. We must demand through pro-active measures that EPA amends its National Contingency Plan product list to de-list this toxic agent.
During the Exxon Valdez spill, Corexit was used by Exxon. Exxon owned the production of Corexit at the time.
Guess who has interests in Corexit now? You got it --- BP.
Dr. Ott says it is rumored in high circles that BP has almost exhausted the world's stockpile of Corexit. THAT is how much they've already pumped into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 1.8 million gallons. She thinks that after all of this is said and done, and the world witnesses the far-reaching damage from this toxic agent, Corexit will never be manufactured again. Unfortunately, our Gulf will have been offered up in sacrifice by that time.
Five components of oil: (and all of them are toxic)
1) Tar balls and don't let anyone tell you they are harmless because they aren't. They are congealed oil, and in the heat of the Gulf Coast, they are baking under the sun and becoming even more toxic all the time. 2) Oil mousse, which is very dense and heavy. 3) Dissolved oil and dispersants -- this is the "invisible" oil. We don't usually see it, but it is there. 4) Sheen --- this includes the "orange or amber water" that is produced from the dispersants and is so very toxic. This can be at any level of the water column. 5) Air -- 92% of oil will go up and down from the surface in ultra-fine particles, rising in the air, forming in the clouds, coming back to us in the form of rain, then going back into the water again.
For humans on the Gulf Coast, air quality is our biggest enemy. If you can smell it, you know you're sunk. Once you can smell the oil, you've just been exposed to 1000 times the toxic levels. The oil mixed with Corexit is a chemical nightmare when it comes to air quality. She said that our communities are in desperate need of OEM physicians. The only way to detect chemical poisoning is through blood tests.
Dr. Ott said that with a major hurricane, the ultra-fine particles of oil mixed with dispersant will be carried as far as 500 miles inland.
The "canaries" in our community who are most at risk from chemical poisoning: 1) Children 2) Pregnant women 3) African Americans 4) Asthmatics or those with upper respiratory tract problems 5) Cancer survivors.
People from the Orange Beach area voiced their concerns about people in their community already getting sick. Families with sick children are moving out. Even pets are getting sick. Dr. Ott is appalled that these areas are not being recognized. She warns that the government will not order an evacuation until it is too late, so people need to protect themselves. She said that Orange Beach is indeed a problem area and that the oil is going over and under all the boom and getting into Perdido Pass and Little Lagoon.
Benzene air samples have been collected, and the Mobile/Baldwin county area levels are rising every day, and are already way above the levels deemed to be safe. Dr. Ott sat in a meeting with Lisa Jackson, administrator for EPA. Dr. Ott quoted Jackson saying; "I am walking a fine line between truth and hysteria, as we are trying not to create a panic."
Respirators --- Dr. Ott is furious that with everything we have learned about the long-term illness and deaths of the Exxon Valdez clean-up workers, that not only is BP not supplying respirators, but also in a Louisiana parish, the local government bought respirators for the workers. BP then threatened to fire these workers if they wore them. Why? Because having workers wear respirators in some parts on the Coast, and not in others, provides a baseline for case studies.
Symptoms of chemical-induced poisoning: headaches, burning eyes, rash, cold, persistent/chronic cough, flu-like symptoms and cancer. She is appalled that the local governments have not closed the beaches. Granted, not many people are hanging around the beaches, but she reported one man who walked out into waist-deep water had to seek medical treatment. Here again, she stressed that there is so much we don't know about this giant science experiment, that this man would not have been one she would have suspected to react so quickly and violently to the chemicals in the water, yet he did. She said that short-term exposure symptoms would usually dissipate if the person leaves the area and travels to a "clean" area. The people with children on the Gulf Coast, those who are experiencing symptoms, should do that this summer. Get the heck out of Dodge. Long-term exposure is a different animal, however. The toxins can attack the respiratory tract, and cause liver and kidney damage.
She is concerned about the methods of disposal. Oil is being taking to the local landfills. She urged us to take community action on this, as well as demand that our watersheds and public water supply be constantly monitored. The "Bucket Brigade" in Louisiana is a group that is actively taking air samples.
Dr. Ott said much more. If ever you have the opportunity to hear her speak, I highly recommend it.
In essence her message to us was this: Democracy has just been hi-jacked. Don't look to BP or the federal government for help. Look out for yourself and your families. Come together as a community. GET PRO-ACTIVE and come up with a plan to keep the community as safe as possible.