Environmentalists are still concerned about oil disaster impacts

04/18/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf. Many officials are touting a swift environmental recovery, but environmentalists see alarming signs that Gulf of Mexico is far from healthy.

It’s been more than nine months since gushing oil well in the gulf was permanently capped. The worst human-caused environmental disaster in US history may no longer be daily fodder for front page news, but scientists and environmental groups say the disaster is still unfolding out in the Gulf. For one, says Darden Rice, Florida director of the Gulf Restoration Network, there’s still some oil out there.

"The oil is still here and it's still washing up in the Florida Panhandle. There are still submerged tar mats off of Perdido Key and Pensacola Pass in Escandia County. The cleanup is ongoing and what happens is just that small pieces break off from these mats and you have tar balls and patties that continue to wash onto the shore."

Officials estimate that of the nearly 200 million gallons of oil that escaped the well, a quarter of it dissolved, and another quarter was flared, vacuumed out of the water, or skimmed. Sixteen percent was reportedly chemically dispersed, and 13 percent is said to have been blown into droplets. Environmentalists have been skeptical about those numbers. Rice said it’s pretty clear that something is way off in the gulf ecosystem.

"Fishermen are pressed to find that it takes twice as long to catch half as much as before. Shrimpers are still pulling up oil in their nets. And we have reports of redfish that are being caught that have unusual lesions."

There have also been reports of a spike in the number of dolphins washing up on beaches dead – especially baby dolphins. The same goes for sea turtles. Still, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam sent out a press release today claiming that less than eleven percent of 200 seafood samples examined by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services contained possible oil contaminants. The department tested finfish, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and oysters. Rice said the methodology of the sampling appears flawed.

"Each of these animals has very different metabolic processes and different exposure scenarios. So, for example, finfish and shrimp can swim away from contaminated water. Crabs and lobsters can walk away, but more slowly and they tend to be on the bottom. Oysters are just stuck."

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office did not return a request for an interview by deadline. Putnam’s press release regarding the study says those found to have oil contamination did so at 1/1,000th the US Food and Drug Administration’s level of concern. Rice said the FDA guidelines were developed for a narrow set of people.

"The weight of the average subject was 176 pounds and it was based on the consumption of 4 shrimp a week. So what this means is, it means that elderly people and children are not protected by FDA testing guidelines of the seafood. It also means that people who live in coastal areas who certainly consume more seafood than 4 shrimp a week are also not protected by these guidelines."

Environmentalists have used the disaster to make their case against offshore drilling. It’s illegal in state waters, and after the blowout few supporters of such operators were very vocal about lifting the ban. Rice said calling for offshore oil and gas exploration in Florida waters isn’t the most politically popular move at the moment, but she fears that will change the further we get from April 20th, 2010.

"I think generally we know that they've just basically hit the pause button. They're waiting for more time to go past for the public to forget about the BP oil spill disaster and as gas prices climb they are cynically waiting for the right time to bring it back."

Meanwhile, the federal government has approved ten deep water drilling permits since the Obama administration lifted its moratorium on deep water drilling in October. Frances Beineke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council was on the president’s National Oil Spill Commission. She said the government knows little about the ongoing impacts of the oil gusher, and how quickly they let the industry go back to business as usual without addressing the safety of deep water drilling equipment. Beineke said it’s astounding that some members of Congress actually want to expand offshore drilling operations, and there appears to be no motivation to beef up industry regulations.

"No, the political will is not there. I mean, just last week we saw Congressman Hastings put forth 3 bills on the House side that promote more drilling. More drilling off the coast of Florida, on the Atlantic and also in the Pacific. That is before the safeguards are put in place and, to me, that is absolutely a backwards way to go about it."

She said it defies logic that the government wouldn’t want to amp up its oversight of the industry, given the kind of revenue it could provide.

"This is an incredibly lucrative source of both oil, but also money for the federal government and yet they've starved the agency that has the responsibility to insure that this is operated as safely as possible and that the marine environment is protected in the process."

Beineke said this sluggish attitude toward regulation comes at a time when the federal government should be taking a more serious look at alternative energy.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the oil spill

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