Barataria, LA. -- Bonnie Schumaker
slowed her souped-up Cessna 180 from 130 to 50 knots so I could hold
open the window for documentary film producer Bo Bodart to shoot the
grim scene below us. The oil-laced air rushed in and stung our throats
Bay Jimmy on the northeast side of Barataria Bay was full of oil. So
was Bay Baptiste, Lake Grande Ecaille, and Billet Bay. Sitting next to
me was Mike Roberts,
a shrimper with Louisiana Bayoukeepers, who has grown up in this area.
His voice crackled over the headset as I strained to hold the window.
"I've fished in all these waters - everywhere you can see. It's all
oiled. This is the worst I've seen. This is a heart-break..."
Bay Jimmy, northeast end of Barataria Bay. July 31, 2010. Bo Bodart.
We followed thick streamers of black oil and ribbons of rainbow sheen
from Bay Baptiste and Bay Jimmy south across Barataria Bay through Four
Bayou Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico. The ocean's smooth surface
glinted like molten lead in the late afternoon sun. Oil. As far as we
could see: Oil.
This was July 31, Day 103 of BP's disaster and more than two weeks
after BP had sealed its broken wellhead that had hemorrhaged oil into
the Gulf for nearly three months. BP's latest pretend is that tropical
storm Bonnie washed the oil away - or at least off the surface - so the
company is busily laying off response crews and claiming damages were
Since Day 1, BP has consistently downplayed the size of its gusher
and the damage it was causing to wildlife and people. This is what
happens when governments leave the spiller in charge of the spill or, in
this case, the criminal in charge of the crime scene. Evidence
disappears as the criminal seeks to minimize its liability for damages.
What should be a war on the spill becomes a war against the truth, the
environment, and the injured people.
The official story emerging now from BP and most of the president's men - and now being echoed by some national media
- is: the oil is gone; the danger is past and was exaggerated; the
dispersants were effective in keeping oil from reaching the shore; the
oil that does reach shore is mostly weathered and not toxic; and federal
officials have found no unsafe levels of oil in air or water samples
and no evidence of illness due to oil or dispersant use.
As my father used to say: Good story if true.
The official story does not match the reality that I saw from the
Cessna or have heard from people I have met during community visits
since the well was temporarily sealed - and ever since I first arrived
in early May. Public health is a huge concern - and with good reason.
BP has created Frankenstein in its Gulf laboratory: an oil-dispersant
chemical stew that so far has contaminated over 44,000 square miles of
ocean and caused internal bleeding and hemorrhaging in workers and
dolphins alike, according to Hugh Kaufman,
a senior policy analyst at the EPA, who recently blew the whistle on
the industry-government cover up. BP has sprayed dispersants steadily in
the Gulf with Coast Guard approval
from the beginning - under the sea, on the surface, offshore, near
shore, in inland waters, at night, during the day - despite a public
uproar to cease and desist.
The dispersants used in BP's draconian experiment contain solvents
such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve
oil, grease, and rubber. Spill responders have told me that the hard
rubber impellors in their engines and the soft rubber bushings on their
outboard motor pumps are falling apart and need frequent replacement.
They say the plastic corks used to float the absorbent booms during
skimming operations dissolve after a week of use. They say the hard
epoxy resin on and below the waterline of their fiberglass boats is also
dissolving and chipping away. Divers have told me that they have had to
replace the soft rubber o-rings on their gear after dives in the Gulf
and that the oil-chemical stew eats its way into even the Hazmat dive
Given this evidence, it should be no surprise that solvents are also
notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long
known. In Generations at Risk, medical doctor Ted Schettler and others
warn that solvents can rapidly enter the human body: They evaporate in
air and are easily inhaled, they penetrate skin easily, and they cross
the placenta into fetuses. For example, 2-butoxyethanol is a human
health hazard substance: It is a fetal toxin and it breaks down blood
cells, causing blood and kidney disorders.
I suspect that the oil-chemical stew is likely the culprit behind the
strange rashes reported by people across the Gulf - rashes that break
out into deep blisters on legs or repeated peeling on hands. Stories
accompany the rashes, stories of handling dead sea turtles, wading or
swimming in the Gulf, or washing clothes of spill responders. Medical
doctors are diagnosing rashes as staph infections or scabies, but the
rashes are not responding to medical treatment as they would if the
causation was biological instead of chemical.
Blisters and rashes experienced by fisher and Venice,
Louisiana, Councilwoman Kindra Arneson are widespread across the Gulf.
Rashes are not responding to treatment for staph or scabies. The cause
may be chemical, not biological. 2010 Kindra Arneson.
Cindy Feinberg and her family visited Ft. Walton, Florida,
on vacation in mid June when the "ocean was full of tar" and crews were
picking up tar balls on the beach. The day after swimming in the Gulf -
people were told it was safe, her palms became fiery red and flaked and
peeled repeatedly for several days. Other people have shown me similar
rashes that have lingered for months. June 18, 2010. Cindy Feinberg.
In Sound Truth and Corporate Myths, I wrote of similar rashes and
peeling skin experienced by Exxon Valdez spill responders, especially
ones who used dispersants and other chemical solvents. Yet in the Gulf,
many doctors are turning a blind eye to chemical causes, because BP
insists that solvents "disappear" after only a day or two. Retired
toxicologist and forensic chemist John Laseter disagrees. Laseter's long
career includes evaluation of human health effects of some of the
largest toxic chemical and petroleum releases into the environment in
the United States and Europe. He also founded and ran Accu-Chem, a lab
that analyzed blood work for criminal justice cases.
Laseter told me that solvents "solubilize" or become soluble in oil
and remain a threat for up to two months. He said the oil-solvent
mixture sticks on biological tissue - gills of fish, the organic film
coating sand grains and raindrops - and can wreak havoc. He told me that
the dispersants are "almost certainly" making the oil penetrate more
deeply into the skin and could very well be causing the rashes in the
Gulf. Other toxicologists confirm
that dispersants amount to a "delivery system" for oil: the combination
is worse for human and sea life than the oil or dispersant alone.
Yet all the president's men - the Coast Guard, OSHA, NIOSH, FDA, and
the EPA (except the EPA whistleblower noted above), in keeping with the
cover up, cannot seem to find any unsafe levels of oil or solvents in
the air or water. But other people are.
For example, about a week after the oil started coming ashore in Alabama, the Mobile television station WKRG took samples
of water and sand from Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Katrina Key, and
Dauphin Island. The test was nothing fancy. The on-air reporter simply
dipped a jar into the ocean and another into some surf water filling a
sand pit dug by a small child. In the samples, oil was not visible in
the water or the sand, but the chemist who analyzed them reported
astonishingly high levels of oil ranging from 16 to 221 parts per
million (ppm). Except for the Dauphin Island sample -- that one
literally exploded in the lab before testing could be completed. The
chemist thought maybe the exploding sample contained methane or
There is also evidence of dangerous levels of oil in the air. A
preliminary study commissioned in mid-July by Guardians of the Gulf, a
community-based nonprofit organization in Orange Beach, Alabama, found
that nightly air inversions - common in the area during the summer and fall - were trapping pollutants near the ground.
Total Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - including the carcinogen
benzene, and oil vapors - reached 85 to 108 ppm at 9:00 a.m. but rapidly
dropped to zero (or nondetectable) within half an hour as the sun
burned through the inversion layer. (For comparison, the federal
standard for 15-minute exposure to benzene is 5 ppm.) The EPA did find
unsafe levels of VOCs once in early May, but pulled much of its early
data, as I reported earlier.
Such high levels could explain the bout of respiratory problems,
dizziness, nausea, sore throats, headaches, and ear bleeds that I have
heard about from residents and health professionals from Houma,
Louisiana, to Apalachicola, Florida. Even the oil industry knows that
these chemicals are unsafe. As long ago as 1948, the American Petroleum
Institute confirmed, "The only absolutely safe concentration for benzene
When we landed after our 2-hour flight, our pilot told us that she
sometimes has to wipe an oily reddish film off the leading edges of her
plane's wings after flying over the Gulf. Hurricane Creekkeeper John
similar oily films on planes he chartered for Gulf over-flights. Bonnie
doesn't wear gloves when she wipes her plane. She showed me her hands
-- red rash, blisters, and peeling palms.
If peeling palms are an indication of the oil-solvent stew, the
reddish film on Bonnie's plane and others means that the stew is not
only in the Gulf, it is in the rain clouds above the Gulf. And in the
middle of hurricane season, this means the oil-solvent mix could rain
down anywhere across the Gulf.
Why all this pretend in the Gulf by BP and all the president's men
except the EPA whistleblower that oil and dispersants are not toxic? By
comparison, last week
in Calhoun County, Michigan, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling at
least 19,500 barrels of oil. At least thirty families were temporarily
relocated because of the stench and roads and beaches were closed.
Health officials have warned people to stay away from the fumes and
beaches, and to avoid swimming and fishing near oiled areas. "It's a
very toxic and dangerous environment," Calhoun County health officer Jim
If spilled oil is "toxic and dangerous" in Michigan, it's also toxic
and dangerous in the Gulf. But in the Gulf, public officials have
downplayed the health risk despite hard evidence of an epidemic of
chemical illnesses related to, I believe, the oil-chemical stew.
The fact that the official story in the Gulf does not match what
people are experiencing is more alarming to me than the oil disaster.
How can our president hold BP accountable if he accepts - or worse is
complicit in - the crime?
Correcting the false official story is the first step toward holding
the criminal accountable to the law and lore of the land. If the
government fails to hold the criminal accountable, as it did during the
Exxon Valdez, then the people and environment will bear the costs of
this avoidable tragedy.
Riki Ott, marine toxicologist and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
(Chelsea Green, 2008), is working with Gulf residents and others to
design and implement an independent air and water quality sampling