How bad is the Gulf? How bad is American media?

| March 10, 2011 | 3 Replies

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has endorsed Arab news organization Al Jazeera as offering “real news”, superior to ersatz U.S. news which is full of commercials, talking-heads and soundbites that are “not particularly informative to us.”  Perhaps that explains a part of the reason why U.S. audiences are largely unaware of the continuing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout last year.

Al Jazeera, on the other hand, brings us this story of sickness and death on the Gulf Coast.

Eco-terrorism in Gulf of Mexico. Image via Leoma Lovegrove (creative commons)

“I have critically high levels of chemicals in my body,” 33-year-old Steven Aguinaga of Hazlehurst, Mississippi told Al Jazeera. “Yesterday I went to see another doctor to get my blood test results and the nurse said she didn’t know how I even got there.”

Aguinaga and his close friend Merrick Vallian went swimming at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, in July 2010.

“I swam underwater, then found I had orange slick stuff all over me,” Aguinaga said. “At that time I had no knowledge of what dispersants were, but within a few hours, we were drained of energy and not feeling good. I’ve been extremely sick ever since.”

The story continues with in-depth reporting, speaking with “scores of sick people” as well as chemists, academics, and others seeking to draw attention to the continuing health problems stemming from the millions of gallons of oil and dispersant which were spilled in the Gulf almost a year ago.  Chemist Bob Naman with the Analytical Chemical Testing Laboratory in Mobile, AL is finding chemical signatures from the oil and dispersants:

Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from this toxic mix are making people sick, Naman said. PAHs contain compounds that have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic [interfering with fetus development].

“The dispersants are being added to the water and are causing chemical compounds to become water soluble, which is then given off into the air, so it is coming down as rain, in addition to being in the water and beaches of these areas of the Gulf,” Naman told Al Jazeera.

“I’m scared of what I’m finding. These cyclic compounds intermingle with the Corexit [dispersants] and generate other cyclic compounds that aren’t good. Many have double bonds, and many are on the EPA’s danger list. This is an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.”

This is not the first Al Jazeera article on the subject.  They covered the issue in October last year as well:

Trisha Springstead, is a registered nurse of 36 years who lives and works in Brooksville, Florida.

“What I’m seeing are toxified people who have been chemically poisoned,” she said, “They have sore throats, respiratory problems, neurological problems, lesions, sores, and ulcers. These people have been poisoned and they are dying. Drugs aren’t going to help these people. They need to be detoxed.”

But how can this be, when the government insists the area is safe?  McClatchy news reported last year that the government has been covering up the worst-case scenarios from the beginning of the blowout.

"President Obama- we beg you to save our Gulf". Image via Leoma Lovegrove (creative commons)

Government scientists wanted to tell Americans early on how bad the BP oil spill could get, but the White House denied their request to make the worst-case models public, a report by the staff of the national panel investigating the spill said Wednesday.

White House officials denied that they tried to suppress the information.

The allegation was made by unnamed government officials cited in a staff working paper released Wednesday by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Although not a final report, it could raise questions over whether the Obama administration tried to minimize the extent of the BP oil spill, the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.

But the national news has been mostly silent on the issue.  A Google search this morning showed no major U.S. news reports on the topic on the front page of search results.  Top results are from Al Jazeera and The Telegraph (U.K.), as well as a number of blogs and local-news sources from news affiliates around the Gulf, such as WKRG covering Mobile and Pensacola, and Nola.com serving New Orleans.

It has also been largely local-news outlets covering possibly-related items, such as the mystery of large numbers of dead dolphin fetuses which have been washing up on local shores at ten-times the normal rate.  If you aren’t a reader of the Herald-Tribune serving Sarasota, FL, you probably did not hear about the mystery of the “toxic goo” which is baffling researchers in the area.  Many scientists researching these abnormalities in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster tell us that it is too soon to draw conclusions as to the cause of all these bizarre phenomenon.  Others are not so reticent, such as marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, who has been studying the Gulf from a submersible craft:

At a science conference in Washington, marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia aired early results of her December submarine dives around the BP spill site. She went to places she had visited in the summer and expected the oil and residue from oil-munching microbes would be gone by then. It wasn’t.

“There’s some sort of a bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn’t seem to be degrading,” Joye told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington. Her research and those of her colleagues contrasts with other studies that show a more optimistic outlook about the health of the Gulf, saying microbes did great work munching the oil.

“Magic microbes consumed maybe 10% of the total discharge, the rest of it we don’t know,” Joye said. “There’s a lot of it out there,” she later added.

Joye’s finding conflict with the government’s story in several ways:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told reporters Saturday that “it’s not a contradiction to say that although most of the oil is gone, there still remains oil out there.”

"Feds: do something". Image via Leoma Lovegrove (creative commons)

Earlier this month, Kenneth Feinberg, the government’s oil compensation fund czar, said based on research he commissioned he figured the Gulf of Mexico would almost fully recover by 2012 — something Joye and Lubchenco said isn’t right.

“I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It’s not going to be fine by 2012,” Joye told the Associated Press. “You see what the bottom looks like, you have a different opinion.”

So, who is to be believed?  Our government, marred by allegations of cover-up from the start, or local-news organizations and the “real news” offered by Al Jazeera?   Would you believe one of the EPA’s own scientists, offering his opinion to Al Jazeera?  Listen to Hugh Kaufman of the EPA and Bob Naman (cited above) explain why the “rigorous” testing of Gulf seafood may not be so rigorous after all (emphasis mine):

Gulf Coast residents, fishermen, seafood distributors, and scientists believe that living on the coast and eating seafood from the Gulf has become hazardous to their health.

On October 29 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in a press release, new chemical testing for BP’s dispersants.

Prior to the federal government’s announcement, a “rigorous sensory analysis” (a sniff test), was the only measure in place to test seafood samples for dispersant contamination. According to the press release, the new testing measure checks for the level of dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (known as DOSS), a major component of the dispersants.

Surprisingly, the press release admits to dispersant chemicals being present in some of their seafood samples: “Using this new, second test, in the Gulf scientists have tested 1,735 tissue samples … Only a few showed trace amounts of dispersants residue (13 of the 1,735) and they were well below the safety threshold of 100 parts per million [ppm] for finfish and 500 parts per million for shrimp, crabs and oysters.”

“This test adds another layer of information, reinforcing our findings to date that seafood from the Gulf remains safe,” Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary for commerce and NOAA administrator, said of the test.

However the press release does not specify which type of analytical testing was carried out on what types of seafood, nor what the “trace amounts of dispersants” were. Al Jazeera’s requests last week for this information from both NOAA and the FDA have not been answered.

Hugh Kaufman is a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) office of solid waste and emergency response. Kaufman, a leading critic of the US government’s decision to use Corexit, told Al Jazeera this about the press release: “They say it perfectly clear: the purpose of the test they developed is to make the public confident, not whether the seafood was safe or not.

“They selected the one compound that doesn’t bio-accumulate, as opposed to testing for the toxic ingredients that have a low safety threshold and do build up in tissue. They are not looking for those.”

Kaufman, who has been the EPA’s chief investigator on several contamination cases, including Love Canal and Times Beach, said: “They want to be able to tell the public the seafood is safe. But if you are going to test seafood to see if it’s safe or not, you want to test for the ingredients of Corexit that have a low safety threshold and do bio-accumulate in tissue.”

“However, if you want the public to think everything is fine, then you do what they said in their press release they are doing, which is to look for an ingredient with a high safety threshold that doesn’t build up in tissue.”

“They told you they are doing a cover up, how they are doing the cover up, and notwithstanding that, they still have some positive results for chemicals.”

Chemist Bob Naman with the Analytical Chemical Testing Lab in Mobile, Alabama, has been testing samples from across the Gulf for oil and dispersant also takes issue with these recent government statements.

“500 ppm is an incredible amount,” Naman explained to Al Jazeera, “I don’t know what moron set that level, but 500 ppm is an extreme amount. It is probably 100 times too high. A reasonably insignificant number would be five parts per billion [ppb], not something being tracked in ppm.

Hugh Kaufman’s whistleblowing efforts were not covered in any mainstream media reports, although once again, they were covered by several blogs and alternative news sources such as Mother Jones and DemocracyNow!, as well as The Independent (U.K.).

Most Americans seem to intuitively know that Gulf seafood may not be safe to eat so soon after the disaster, which is why sales have been down dramatically since the incident.  The U.S. military has stepped into the breach, purchasing large quantities of the seafood for sale at base commissaries along the east coast:

The boost couldn’t come at a better time. The New Orleans Fish House, for instance, was selling $40 million in seafood annually before the spill. Now, Ketchum said, the company is doing about $10 million.

A recent Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board survey found 70 percent of people are still nervous about eating Gulf seafood, said executive director Ewell Smith.

“And that’s with all the testing that has been done and is still being done,” he said.

Some commissary customers have been just as nervous, but not enough to pull seafood from the shelves, Ackerman said.

“We believe that will fade quickly,” he said.

I’m not so sure.  I have been suspicious of the Government’s claims since day one, and they will have to do a lot more than a smell-test to assure me that the seafood is safe.  Not one piece of seafood from the Gulf has passed my lips since the disaster began, and I’m a guy who loves seafood and eats it approximately twice weekly.

Lastly, please set aside 10 minutes to watch this video from Kindra Arneson.  She’s the wife of a Gulf coast shrimp fisherman, a housewife, and a newly-minted activist.  She was interviewed by CNN in July 2010, discussing how her husband and all the other fisherman that he worked with were becoming ill, but were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their checks from BP.  (BP blamed their illnesses on food poisoning, despite the fact that the men were working on seven different boats and did not eat the same food).  In this Youtube video, she pleads, “…I want America to wake up and really focus. Stop watching TV for a minute.  Get on the computer and research what’s going on in the Gulf…”

Sadly, it seems that whatever Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan are up to is more newsworthy in American media. Good thing we now have access to quality news, even if it originates from outside the U.S.

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Category: American Culture, Current Events, Environment, Health, Media, Whistle-blowers

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (3)

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  1. mike says:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I feel like the more people who mention THIS inconvenient truth, that we'll reach critical mass and won't be able to ignore it anymore.

    I voted for Obama. The handling of the Deepwater aftermath is one of my greatest disappointments regarding the guy. The white house is taking every advantage of "out of sight, out of mind-" perhaps not realizing how much worse it looks in retrospect that being upfront about it.

    Regarding Charlie Sheen- I think we need to get him to devote a Sheen's Korner episode to this problem. Since the average American has shown an appetite for his brand of nuttery, it might be a good way to shine the light into some dark corners. Seems like a concept he might get into.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    You're welcome Mike. I certainly hope that people's awareness on this issue is trending up, but I can't say that I see any evidence of that.

    As to Obama's actions, I say he's a typical politician. Much easier to say afterwards, "There was no way we could have known…. all our scientists said it was safe…" and so on than to admit the truth at the start.

  3. Really enjoyed your article. Was glad my public art display got the milage. You are a good writer.

    Shine On,

    Leoma

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