Nature and Environment Archive

"Making It Right" After BP Oil Disaster Is Up to Us - Not BP

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Grand Isle, Louisiana. When I returned to Cordova, Alaska, in December 2010 after my first six-month stint in the Gulf coast communities impacted by the BP oil disaster, fishermen greeted me wryly. "See you found your way home."

Fishermen were interested in stories because even then, twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was still no sense of closure. Exxon never "made it right." How could Exxon "make right" family lives shattered by divorce, suicide, or strange illnesses stemming from the "cleanup" work? Or the sense of betrayal by the Supreme Court to hold Exxon to its promise to "pay all reasonable claims"?

As fishermen listened to the Gulf stories, one asked, "Do they know how f—ed they are yet?" No, I explained, they've only lost one fishing season and they just now are filing claims for the first deadline.

When I returned to the Gulf in early January 2011, I heard the same story from Louisiana to Florida. "Everything you warned us about is coming true." During the next four months, I witnessed "oil-sick" people from grandbabies to elders, people distraught from claims denied, shellfish fisheries collapsing, baby and adult dolphins dying in unusually high numbers, continued dispersant spraying, and the early stages of Gulf ecosystem collapse — all while nationwide ads claimed BP is "making it right."

Two years after the BP oil disaster, I ask for people to help make it right — in the Gulf and across the country. We have the power to stop BP and the federal government from doing more harm. It is time to exercise our power in our communities.

Stop the false ad campaign.

When you hear one of BP's "making it right" ads, call your local media station. Tell them to pull the greenwashing ads and get the real story. The Gulf is sick and so are its coastal residents. Money, even heaps of it, will never make it right. Airing the misleading ads only makes things worse, especially in the Gulf where people despise BP's bid to brainwash other Americans.

Stop spraying chemical dispersants.

Chemical dispersants are the oil industry's preferred method of marine spill response in the United States. Dispersants drive the oil out of sight, out of mind, while dispersant production companies like Nalco profit handsomely and the spiller writes off the expense as a cost of doing business. Big oil companies often make their own dispersants — and profits from sales — but hide connections through subsidiaries. Small wonder that spillers prefer dispersants.

The problem with dispersants is exactly what is occurring in the Gulf. The federal government uses outdated and minimal testing procedures for dispersants, which hugely underestimate the chemicals' impacts to marine — and human — life. Some of the reported chemicals in dispersants are known human health hazards; many of the proprietary chemicals are as well as we learned from Gulf disclosures. Dispersants are now linked, or heavily implicated, with the widespread occurrences of lesions and maladies in fish and shellfish, dolphin deaths, and dramatic decline in populations of some Gulf species such as shrimps and killifish.

Yet people have a say in dispersant use. For example, dispersants were sprayed in the Gulf in coastal seas and nearshore areas in direct contradiction to reports from the US Coast Guard and EPA because the coastal states have signed pre-approval letters to allow dispersant use anywhere, anytime. But people in coastal communities of America could pass local ordinances banning dispersant use in state waters after marine oil spills; people could make sure their state had a signed no-approval letter as part of their Regional Response Team's spill contingency plan. Changing the National Contingency Plan would take more effort, so let's start locally by banning these deadly chemicals in our coastal seas.

Stop pretending that people in the Gulf coastal communities aren't "oil-sick" and that BP isn't responsible and liable.

It's not only the dolphins that are sick and dying. For two years, BP and the state and federal governments denied the epidemic of respiratory problems, dizziness and headaches, horrific skin lesions, and blood problems was linked with the oil and chemical disaster — despite the fact that medical literature identifies these identical symptoms as characteristic of oil spill exposure. Now under the BP-Plaintiffs' Settlement, BP has agreed to pay literally billions of dollars for medical claims, medical monitoring for twenty-one years, medical services, and community health clinics for underserved populations staffed with specialists in chemical illness treatment — but with no admission of liability.

Get educated and educate others about what is happening in the Gulf. Tell your local film festivals to screen the award-winning Gulf documentary, Dirty Energy, in which local residents talk about being "oil-sick." Many of the same chemicals in dispersants are in drilling muds, used in both onshore and offshore oil drilling, and in injection fluids, used in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in drilling for natural gas. Not surprisingly, the "oil-sick" symptoms are not limited to the Gulf.

Stop pretending that people in other oil sacrifice communities aren't "oil-sick" and that the oil companies aren't responsible and liable.

Independent films such as Gas Land and Split Estate are amplifying voices of residents from shale gas sites who are suing over fracking side-effects including earthquakes, exploding tap water, and mysterious debilitating illnesses. In Pennsylvania, residents are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about their contaminated well water in trade for a supply of clean fresh water from the very companies that caused the problem — while the same companies then claim there is no documented evidence of well contamination.

Independent filmmakers and videographers have amplified the voices of people sickened from the tars sands drilling operations in Alberta, Canada, and the 2010 tar sands oil spill in Battle Creek, Michigan. Already eleven people have died in one small trailer court near the Kalamazoo River from illnesses that they and their doctors believe were triggered or worsened by the tar sands that flowed past their homes and soiled the river banks.

Start taking responsibility for what is happening in your backyard.

The oil companies are polluting our air, poisoning our drinking water and land, poisoning people and communities across the country, collapsing ocean ecosystems from Alaska's Prince William Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, and even altering our climate in pursuit of profit, while leaving people and communities with the costs. The federal government clearly has no exit strategy off fossil fuels, so is beholden to — actually partnered with — this industry. When the industry and its supporters chant drill, baby, drill, politicians enable oil activities and help maximize profit by drilling loopholes and exemptions into the very laws and regulations designed to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment.

It is the ordinary people, not the bureaucrats and oil cats, who have the power to alter our collective future — and make it right for everyone. We all matter.

We start with town meetings to recognize what we value collectively in our community, determine a shared vision, then prioritize the actions to achieve that vision. We move our money and resources to encourage businesses that match our values. Towns across America are doing this now as people strive to become more self-reliant from the corporate-driven government policies that disconnect our jobs from what we love and value.

We need to insist on energy sources that do not create, then sacrifice, communities. We need an energy policy that leaves no Americans behind — not in the mountains of Appalachia, not in the Gulf of Mexico or along the North Slope of Alaska, not in the western Rockies or over the eastern Marcellus shale deposits, not in northern tar sands oil pits or pipeline corridors, not on foreign soil in wars over oil.

Making it right in the Gulf starts with diversifying our energy portfolio in our own backyards. A federal energy policy for the sake of energy alone will "make it wrong" for many people because all jobs not created equal. Jobs that simultaneously support healthy people, thriving communities, and environmental quality are worth more than jobs that pollute and poison the biosphere for profit.

What government of, for, and by the people puts corporate profit above the wellbeing of millions of people and the very survival of the youngest generations? Governments are instituted to secure the safety, health, and wellbeing of the people. Laws and policies that fail to safeguard these rights and protect the environment are illegitimate and unjust in a democratic society. Writing laws to protect our backyards starts in our backyards with local ordinances. The community-based movement builds to constitutional reform to assert that only real humans are sovereign and entitled to human rights.

The transformation starts when we believe that we have the power to act. When enough of us prove another way is possible and demand change, the politicians will have no choice but to follow the people's lead and make things right in America.

Riki Ott is a co-founder of Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute. Her latest book is Not One Drop (Chelsea Green) and an original essay, "They have no ears," will appear in Arctic Voices (Seven Stories Press, May).

When Harm Goes Unpunished: Why Congress Should Overturn the Supreme Court's Exxon Valdez Decision

Monday, June 6th, 2011

When the Supreme Court slashed punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez case last month, it was more than a travesty of justice. The court's decision also charted a dangerous course for America — one largely overlooked in the flurry of coverage on the court's other eleventh-hour, high-profile decisions, but one that renders our legal system incapable of protecting people from long-term harm caused by corporations as large and profitable as ExxonMobil. Unless Congress acts to overturn this ruling, the court has paved the way for corporate rights to trump individual rights whenever manmade disasters put people, their livelihoods, or both, at risk.

Here, in a nutshell, are pieces of the Exxon Valdez story that are familiar to most news-reading Americans: 19 years ago, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing the largest oil spill in the United States, contaminating 10,000 square miles of ocean and 3,200 miles of pristine coastline, and trashing the local fishing industry and the communities it supports.

And, here are the lesser known elements of the story: after Exxon got thousands of claims thrown out of court, the roughly 32,000 that remained were heard by a jury that awarded spill victims $5 billion in punitive damages and another $287 million in compensatory damages. The compensatory damages were only for short-term harm — mostly fisheries closures in 1989 — and not for the long-term harm that we have since experienced in Prince William Sound from collapsed fisheries. Exxon, then ExxonMobil, appealed the punitive award, and the Ninth Circuit judges cut that award in half despite finding no legal reason to do so. ExxonMobil appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court — keeping the case unsettled for nearly two decades — and that court slashed the punitive award to just $507 million, a mere 10 percent of the original award and an amount so small, after court expenses, that many plaintiffs face bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other financial distress from debt stemming from this spill.

But that is not the worst of it. The biggest injustice is that the Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling to limit the size of punitive damages in maritime cases to no more than compensatory damages. In other words, the court set a cap of 1:1 punitive to compensatory damages.

It is just a matter of time before this precedent in maritime law is extended to other fields of law — which will affect everyone in America.

No community should have to go through what we, in Cordova and other oiled communities, have been through. Livelihoods have been lost, financial stress has broken families apart, businesses supported by fishermen have crumbled, and our environment remains oiled after 19 years awaiting compensation. Ultimately, the law could not replace what we lost. And the Supreme Court has just assured that others will fare no better in future manmade disasters, unless we act now.

On July 23, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the effects of this case and others on ordinary Americans. The chair, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has invited comments.

I hope many of those comments will stress that the Supreme Court decision creates too much leeway for carelessness by corporations. I also hope those comments advocate that the decision should be overturned for three reasons.

First, legislating from the bench undermines the power of people to self-govern and sets bad precedent. The high court overstepped its boundaries. Several Supreme Court judges wrote in their opinions, in effect, if Congress doesn't like what the high court did, then Congress should set guidelines for punitive awards. Congress must take up this challenge.

Second, setting a cap of 1:1 punitive to compensatory damages makes an absolute mockery of "punitive" damages as punishment. Some corporations have grown far too large and profitable to be punished sufficiently enough under this ruling to deter behavior that puts the public and environment at risk.

By minimizing financial liability — a powerful incentive for corporations to abide by the law — the Supreme Court's ruling practically guarantees that there will be many more such industrial disasters. Further, the Supreme Court's decision to low-ball predictability of punitive awards allows industries to externalize the cost of risks to the public and environment, thus ensuring that citizens and communities will bear the full brunt of industrial accidents, pollution, and faulty consumer products.

Third, linking punitive damages to compensatory damages instead of profits is wrong-headed. The jury of peers — ordinary Americans who first heard the Exxon Valdez case — realized that to punish a mega-corporation like ExxonMobil, the punitive award needed to be linked to corporate profits, not compensatory damages. Linking punitive damages to profits creates a tool for ordinary people to dispense meaningful punishment to all sizes of corporations, including giants like ExxonMobil. It gives big business the predictability it desires — and that the Supreme Court sought to achieve with its most recent ruling. It also gives ordinary people the predictability we need of knowing that corporations will act responsibly to minimize risk of harm to people and the environment.

By tying punitive damages to net profits, not a fixed amount, then the award rises if profits rise while the case is appealed. This would have a secondary desirable effect of hastening case closure by removing a powerful incentive to profit by stalling. Further, Congress should also mandate that punitive awards be escrowed when entered to further remove financial incentives for corporations to stall payment through appeals — as ExxonMobil did for 12 years.

Obviously, given the size of some corporations, capping punitive damages in a 1:1 ratio with annual net profits could result in some obscenely high awards — in keeping with obscenely high profits posted by ExxonMobil and some other corporations. In anticipation of this, Congress could mandate guidelines to share such large awards.

For example, if the punitive award exceeds compensatory awards by more than, say, ten-fold, then Congress could mandate that the excess must be distributed to community foundations within the affected region.

In Alaska, the plaintiffs (and I am one) were prepared to share the taxable portion of the punitive award with local communities through charitable giving strategies. If ordinary people can figure out an equitable way to share large punitive awards, then Congress ought to be able to do the same.

Congress has the power to make a course correction of the Supreme Court's ruling before it is too late for other communities to avoid our fate. Congress should restore people's primary tool to hold corporations accountable to the law: financial liability in the form of large punitive damage awards.

Further, Congress should overturn this decision retro January 1, 2008. More than one-third of the plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez case — some 6,000 people — have died and will never see justice done. It is now up to Congress to make good on Exxon's promise to make the rest of us whole.

Read original post at The Huffington Post here.

Riki Ott is author of the book

Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage
in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

From the Ground: BP Censoring Media, Destroying Evidence

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Orange Beach, Alabama – While President Obama insists that the federal government is firmly in control of the response to BP's spill in the Gulf, people in coastal communities where I visited last week in Louisiana and Alabama know an inconvenient truth: BP — not our president — controls the response. In fact, people on the ground say things are out of control in the gulf.

Even worse, as my latest week of adventures illustrate, BP is using federal agencies to shield itself from public accountability.

For example, while flying on a small plane from New Orleans to Orange Beach, the pilot suddenly exclaimed, "Look at that!" The thin red line marking the federal flight restrictions of 3,000 feet over the oiled Gulf region had just jumped to include the coastal barrier islands off Alabama.

"There's only one reason for that," the pilot said. "BP doesn't want the media taking pictures of oil on the beaches. You should see the oil that's about six miles off the coast," he said grimly. We looked down at the wavy orange boom surrounding the islands below us. The pilot shook his head. "There's no way those booms are going to stop what's offshore from hitting those beaches."

BP knows this as well — boom can only deflect oil under the calmest of sea conditions, not barricade it — so they have stepped up their already aggressive effort to control what the public sees.

At the same time I was en route to Orange Beach, Clint Guidry with the Louisiana Shrimp Association and Dean Blanchard, who owns the largest shrimp processor in Louisiana, were in Grand Isle taking Anderson Cooper out in a small boat to see the oiled beaches. The U.S. Coast Guard held up the boat for 20 minutes - an intimidation tactic intended to stop the cameras from recording BP's damage. Luckily for Cooper and the viewing public, Dean Blanchard is not easily intimidated.

Credit - Clint Guidry. U.S. Coast Guard blocking media from oiled beaches off Grand Isle, Louisiana. June 2, 2010.

A few days later, the gig was up with the booms. Oil was making landfall in four states and even BP can't be everywhere at once. CBS 60 Minutes Australia found entire sections of boom hung up in marsh grasses two feet above the water off Venice. On the same day on the other side of Barataria Bay, Louisiana Bayoukeeper documented pools of oil and oiled pelicans inside the boom - on the supposedly protected landward side - of Queen Bess Island off Grand Isle.

Credit - Louisiana Bayoukeeper. Ineffective boom traps oil on beach; oiled brown pelican awaits fate. Queen Bess Island, Louisiana. June 5, 2010.

With oil undisputedly hitting the beaches and the number of dead wildlife mounting, BP is switching tactics. In Orange Beach, people told me BP wouldn't let them collect carcasses. Instead, the company was raking up carcasses of oiled seabirds. "The heads separate from the bodies," one upset resident told me. "There's no way those birds are going to be autopsied. BP is destroying evidence!"

Provided by Riki Ott. Laughing gull head is separated from body during collection, rendering it useless for autopsy. Waveland, MS. May 13, 2010.

The body count of affected wildlife is crucial to prove the harm caused by the spill, and also serves as an invaluable tool to evaluate damages to public property - the dolphins, sea turtles, whales, sea birds, fish, and more, that are owned by the American public. Disappeared body counts means disappeared damages - and disappeared liability for BP. BP should not be collecting carcasses. The job should be given to NOAA, a federal agency, and volunteers, as was done during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

NOAA should also be conducting carcass drift studies. Only one percent of the dead sea birds made landfall in the Gulf of Alaska, for example. That means for every one bird that was found, another 99 were carried out to sea by currents. Further, NOAA should be conducting aerial surveys to look for carcasses in the offshore rips where the currents converge. That's where the carcasses will pile up–a fact we learned during the Exxon Valdez spill. Maybe that's another reason for BP's "no camera" policy and the flight restrictions.

On Saturday June 12, people across America will stand up and speak out with one voice to protest BP's treatment of the Gulf, neglect for the response workers, and their response to government authority. President Obama needs to hear and see the people waving cameras and respirators. Until the media is allowed unrestricted access to the Gulf and impacted beaches, BP - not the President of United States - will remain in charge of the Gulf response.

For more information on community rallies, please visit HERE.

Human Health Tragedy in the Making: Gulf Response Failing to Protect People

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Originally published in the Huffington Post

Grand Bayou, Louisiana — The federal agencies delegated with protecting the environment, worker safety, and public health are in hot water in the small coastal communities across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Fishermen responders who are working BP's giant uncontrolled slick in the Gulf are reporting bad headaches, hacking coughs, stuffy sinuses, sore throats, and other symptoms. The Material Safety Data Sheets for crude oil and the chemical products being used to disperse and break up the slick — underwater and on the surface — list these very illnesses as symptoms of overexposure to volatile organic carbons (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide, and other chemicals boiling off the slick.

When the fishermen come home, they find their families hacking, snuffling, and complaining of sore throats and headaches, too. There is a good reason for the outbreak of illnesses sweeping across this area.

Last weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted its air quality monitoring data from the greater Venice, Louisiana, area. The data showed federal standards were being exceeded by 100- to 1,000-fold for VOCs, and hydrogen sulfide, among others–and that was on shore. These high levels could certainly explain the illnesses and were certainly a cause for alarm in the coastal communities.

I wrote an article based on EPA's information. So did chemist Wilma Subra with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). Baton Rouge-based LEAN is an advocate of public health and worker safety, and a trusted source of information on chemicals, exposure, and safety monitoring throughout this region.

Two days after the EPA posted its air quality monitoring data, most of it vanished from its website–except for the data showing the very highest level of airborne chemicals. Subra reports that she had a conference call with EPA officials yesterday and those officials confirmed that the higher levels they initially reported had remained on the site and were accurate.

"The detection levels on the instrumentation used by the EPA were not accurate enough to report airborne chemicals at lower levels," explains Subra. "So the EPA removed the data showing low levels from their website. But the EPA maintained the higher levels–those concentrations of 5 to 10 parts per billion, the concentration where you start getting acute health impacts."

This raises serious concerns for people in and around the coastal city of Venice, Louisiana, where the data were collected. And concentrations of oil and chemical dispersants are expected to be much, much higher offshore above the slick. How high? Five oil rigs have been shut down in the Gulf near BP's blowout allegedly because of concerns about fire. However, many of the fishermen in this area also work on the rigs. And the fishermen know the oil workers coming in from the rigs are suffering identical symptoms to the fishermen and their families.

But oilmen and fishermen are not being treated the same by BP and other oil companies operating in the Gulf. Oilmen are being evacuated because of high concentrations of dangerous chemicals, according to the fishermen, not fire danger. Meanwhile, fishermen responders are not even being provided with respirators for cleanup work - much less being protected from "fire danger."

As someone who witnessed the Exxon Valdez disaster, I saw this same charade unfold 20 years ago in Prince William Sound-and the result was literally thousands of sick cleanup workers who thought they had "the Valdez Crud," or simple colds and flu. Instead Exxon likely dismissed injured workers - and its own responsibility/liability to take care of these people - using an exemption for reporting "colds and flu" in hazardous waste cleanup regulations. 29 CFR (1904.5(b)(2)(viii)

The response to the BP leak is starting to look an awful lot like what happened during the Exxon Valdez cleanup. BP is not a self-regulated company, but it sure is acting like one.

The federal agencies responsible for monitoring public health and worker safety need to take aggressive action to prevent human tragedy. EPA should do continuous monitoring of air quality across the oil-impacted Gulf states–rather than only in communities where the oil is coming ashore–and EPA should post all the data it collects. It is public information and the people have a right to know about a toxic menace in their communities. If air quality continues to exceed public safety standards, the federal government has an obligation to act to evacuate people-just as it would in response to a hurricane, except at BP's expense.

Further, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) officials should be monitoring BP's worker-safety program. OSHA has a responsibility to order BP to take steps to figure out why workers are getting sick and to order BP to take immediate preventative action. This is all supposed to be part of BP's worker-safety program and it's up to the federal government to make sure BP's plan works in practice as stated on paper.

The current situation is a disaster in the making. Fishermen who ask BP for respirators jeopardize their cleanup jobs. So, they've stopped asking. Fishermen are aware that only three workers need to request a Health Hazard Evaluation for the federal government to take action. But no one has stepped up because fisheries have closed and spill response might be the only job they have–even if it might cost them their health or life, as happened to Exxon Valdez workers.

Americans need to demand that Congress authorize the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety to conduct a Health Hazard Evaluation of the Gulf situation. Failure to have our regulatory agencies act immediately to protect people's health in impacted coastal communities is a crime our country cannot afford to commit.