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BP Spill: All Hands on Deck!

Oil spill workers

In the southern marshes and swamplands euphemistically called Barataria “Bay,” local Louisiana fishermen refer to BP as “Bayou Polluter” – and that was before the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by the oil giant. Fishermen say BP spills oil every year and they point out marshes still dead from dispersants that were sprayed there.

If President Obama has a say, it’s “Better Pay-up” for the environmental and economic damages that will stem from the uncontrolled leak, likely at 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons) a day, according to satellite imagery.

In the Exxon Valdez spill, people counted on BP, then Exxon, to respond to and cleanup the mess, and we counted on Congress and the legal system to hold the oil industry accountable for damages to the environment and the injured people and communities. In hindsight, these turned out to be bad ideas for reasons I’ve recounted in two books.

Let’s not make the same mistakes again. BP’s leak from the rig blowout is so catastrophic and so out of control that the situation calls for “all hands on deck” – both for immediate response and the long-term ramifications.

What can local impacted communities, governments, and states do to monitor, cleanup, and restore marshes and beaches?

√    Start up Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Teams to monitor and map the extent of surface oil on beaches and in marshes. In a best-case scenario, teams should include representatives of local nonprofit organizations along with the usual local, state, and federal government officials and industry representatives. Including citizens at this level builds public confidence and trust in the program and information.

√    Start up baseline monitoring programs to map the extent of dissolved oil beneath the water surface. This subsurface pollution threatens young and adult shellfish, fish, and other sea life. A standard way of monitoring coastal pollution is to lower caged shellfish to various depths, then periodically analyze samples at a a lab. Oyster Watch programs could involve a partnership with local governments and local chapters of active nonprofits to also build goodwill and self-sufficiency.

√    Adopt a position of “No More Harm” and issue emergency orders banning the use of chemical dispersants (and all products with carrier solvents) in near-shore and marsh habitats. Chemicals that dissolve and disperse crude oil typically contain solvents, which means they are inherently toxic to sea life, especially in shallow areas where the toxic impact of the chemical and the dispersed oil cannot be rapidly diluted.

√    Coordinate efforts to find and use nonharmful methods such as hair mats or peat moss to recover oil from sensitive marsh and beach habitats. Establish Mycelium Response Teams in communities to help with composting natural cleanup products. These are important alternatives to synthetic booms , which need to be cleaned (with solvents) and/or discarded with tons of contaminated absorbent materials in landfills or burned in incinerators, which creates secondary pollution problems.

What can local impacted communities, governments, and states do to protect public health and worker safety?

√    Establish an oil-pollution advisory system to warn recreational users of potential pollution hazards on public beaches – perhaps adopting the flag system already in place to warn people of weather or swimming hazards.

√    Establish teams of doctors trained in occupational and environmental medicine to treat people with symptoms of overexposure to crude oil, including respiratory problems, dizziness, nausea, headaches, and even cold and flu-like symptoms, which mimic symptoms from chemical-induced illnesses.

√    Increase protection for spill responders. Ask Congress to remove the exemption for reporting colds and flu under the OSHA regulations 20 CFR Part 1904.5(b)(2)(viii). This exemption effectively allows companies to bypass reporting symptoms of chemical-induced illnesses—exactly what OSHA purports to protect workers from.

√    Take immediate steps to train people to facilitate Peer Listening Circles to mitigate social and individual disaster trauma.

√    Establish seafood monitoring programs to ensure the commercial catch is free of contamination from oil and dispersants.

What can people do to help? Lots. The Obama Administration, Congress, and the states need to hear from all of us.

√    Pressure state leaders and congressional delegates to support the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act to increase the cap on liability from $75 million to $10 billion minimum,  retroactive to the BP Gulf disaster. The Exxon Valdez case eventually paid a total of about $1.5 billion to injured parties, which boiled down to about 7 to 10 percent of actual individual losses in Prince William Sound--and the payment came 20 years too late to help people through the immediate debt and cash-flow crises caused by the spill.

√    Hold President Obama to his promise to make BP pay for damages from its catastrophe. Ask Obama and Congress to withhold all future oil and gas leases – onshore and offshore –until BP negotiates a settlement with injured parties instead of litigating or relying on the Oil Liability Trust Fund. Litigants in the Exxon Valdez case know full well that the U.S. legal system is incapable of holding large corporations accountable for the full monetary damages from large-scale industrial accidents. While $10 billion is chump change for oil giants like BP, it is survival for injured fishermen, local restaurants, resorts, and local communities, among others.

√    Pressure state officials and Congress to establish a Gulf Regional Citizens Advisory Council, modeled after the Prince William Sound council and mandated by the Oil Pollution Act, prior to any further oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

√    Contact Congress and the Obama administration to demand that no more waivers or exemptions to our environmental protection laws be granted for oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico – or anywhere else in the United States. Further, demand full public disclosure of a complete list of existing waivers and exemptions of our regulations and laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, Safe Drinking Water Act, among others, that have been granted to this industry. Exceptions to the rule lead to industrial accidents like mine collapse, coal ash spills, and the situation in the Gulf.

√    Demand a stay on all future oil and gas permitting, pending a full cost accounting of our nation’s oil dependency. Failure to recognize and account for “externalities” such as costs of poisoning drinking water, degradation of air quality and public health, asthma in children, the global climate crisis, and the tremendous environmental cost in the Gulf will only lead blindly to continued dependency on fossil fuels.

√    Lastly, start acting like the sovereign people that we are. Insist that people rule, not property, and that the people’s voice counts more than business in deciding our future energy choice. Join Move to Amend.

Riki Ott, Project Director for Ulitmate Civics
Riki Ott, PhD, directs the ALERT Project, a project of Earth Island Institute. For more information about the EPA rulemaking, please visit the Federal Register. Comments on EPA’s rulemaking must be received by April 22.

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Dear Gulf Coast residents,

The continuing health problems of people involved in cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill present urgent lessons for the Gulf cleanup crews.

By Merle Savage on Sun, June 13, 2010 at 8:13 am

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