Oil Spill? What Oil Spill?

"I don't see any oil on me. Do you see any oil on you?" Now that the pelicans have been whitewashed, the BP-oil-spill apologists are at work on the rest of the story. (Photo by MindfulWalker/Flickr)

Scientists working for the government (hence the people) of the United States made the declaration in August, a scant month after BP had managed to stop a five-month gusher of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Like cops at an accident scene littered with crushed cars and dead bodies, they intoned “Nothing to see here. Move on.” Three quarters of the spilled oil, they said, was gone. Nearly five million barrels of oil and two million barrels of chemical dispersant had been processed by the Gulf, no problem. In the words of Energy Secretary Carol Browner, “the vast majority of the oil is gone.” Nothing to see here. Move on.

And so the country did. And indeed the oil was gone — from the surface of the Gulf and its beaches, from the feathers of pelicans and the shells of shrimp — and the media were gone, heeding their genetic impulse to move on to another catastrophe. The scientists, too, moved on, especially those from the Gulf Coast universities already coated with a thick layer of oil money, and those who worked for a government desperate to look competent and not at all like the government of the Katrina era.

Just a month ago, the government-BP task force created to “manage” the disaster reported on its efforts, and found them to have been good: “The beaches are safe, the water is safe, and the seafood is safe.” BP’s stock is up. Deep-water offshore drilling is back on in US waters. All’s right with the world.

Really? Ask the scientists who are looking into the oil spill who are not under any obligation for funding to the oil industry. Ask the thousands of sick people along the Gulf Coast, who would be glad for a chance to “move on.”

In a comprehensive, and hair-raising, survey of the real research being done in the Gulf, Naomi Klein writes in the current issue of The Nation:

“…these veteran scientists have seen things that they describe as unprecedented. Among their most striking findings are graveyards of recently deceased coral, oiled crab larvae, evidence of bizarre sickness in the phytoplankton and bacterial communities, and a mysterious brown liquid coating large swaths of the ocean floor, snuffing out life underneath. All are worrying signs that the toxins that invaded these waters are not finished wreaking havoc and could, in the months and years to come, lead to consequences as severe as commercial fishery collapses and even species extinction.”

The fact is that the long-term, quite possibly catastrophic damage done to the Gulf of Mexico by the oil spill was done not to the top of the food chain, where it is visible to TV cameras and food markets, but to the bottom, the domain of tiny organisms whose health and welfare determines the health and welfare of the top of the chain. Scientists from the Universities of South Florida and Georgia — institutions not particularly indebted to Big Oil — are finding dismaying concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the water and vast extents of sea floor coated with a smothering layer of tar.

This June, when the great spawning begins of the fish, crabs and shrimp that make the Gulf a seafood cornucopia, we may begin to see the beginning of the true cost of the BP spill. Or it could, like an improvised explosive device, lie doggo for the passing of another year to unleash its destructive power. But it is far, far from gone.

Ask the residents of the Gulf Coast who are suffering from the symptoms of exposure to volatile organic compounds found in crude oil. Evidence of the spreading and worsening of these afflictions are anecdotal at best, no serious effort is being made, apparently, to measure them.

But this week, the sufferers crowded by the hundreds into a meeting of the national commission on the spill (whose final report has already been filed) to plead for recognition of the problem and a response to it. VOCs and many of the toxic chemicals found in dispersant are known — known — to cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, kidney damage, altered renal functions, irritation of the digestive tract, lung damage, burning pain in the nose and throat, coughing, pulmonary edema, cancer, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, difficulty breathing, delayed reaction time, memory difficulties, stomach discomfort, liver and kidney damage, unconsciousness, tiredness/lethargy, irritation of the upper respiratory tract, and hematological disorders.

One of the few doctors who will speak publicly about what he is seeing in his Gulf Coast patients, Dr. Rodney Soto of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, told IPS News that he is “regularly finding between five and seven VOCs in my patients. These patients include people not directly involved in the oil clean-up, as well as residents that do not live right on the coast. These are clearly related to the oil disaster.” He says that people affected by BP’s toxic chemicals need to relocate or to engage in an intensive, long-term detoxification regime that includes intravenous detoxification programs.

[By the way. The best source of information about this ongoing and worsening problem? Al Jazeera.]

The other sources? As IPS reports, U.S. government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with President Obama himself, have declared the Gulf of Mexico, its waters, beaches, and seafood, safe and open to the public.

What about the invisible hand of the market? Applauding wildly. Late last week, BP signed a lucrative deal to explore for offshore oil in the Arctic Ocean with Russia’s state oil company Rosneft.  The reason BP got the highly competitive deal? According to a deputy Russian prime minister, “They have gained a great deal of experience, including in the Gulf of Mexico clean-up operation.”

Nothing to see here. Move on.

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