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All Hands on Deck

What can you do about the Gulf oil spill?
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Exxon Valdez oil spill, photo by Jim Brickett

Thousands of volunteers helped clean the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which affected hundreds of miles of coastline.

Photo by Jim Brickett

In the southern marshes and swamplands of Louisiana, local 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, BP will stand for “Better Pay” 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 the oil company to respond to and clean up the mess, and we counted on Congress and the legal system to hold the oil industry accountable for damages to the environment and local communities and economies. In hindsight, these turned out to be bad ideas—for reasons I’ve recounted in two books. Exxon dodged penalties through long court battles,  systematically underestimating the scope of the spill, and leveraging the costs of clean-up to avoid fines and penalties. The company even wrote off the cost of clean-up as a business expense. Where's the deterrent in that?

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—for immediate response, for dealing with the spill's long-term ramifications, and for preventing another disaster of this magnitude.

What can 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's surface. This subsurface pollution threatens 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 in 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) or discarded (tons of contaminated absorbent materials are stored in landfills or burned in incinerators), creating 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 symptoms from chemical-induced illnesses mimic.
  • Increase protection for spill responders. Ask Congress to remove the exemption for reporting colds and flu under the OSHA regulations. 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 that 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. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Exxon 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 from our regulations and laws (including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, and 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 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 the costs of poisoned drinking water, degraded air quality and public health, asthma in children, the global climate crisis, and the tremendous environmental cost of the spill in the Gulf will only lead to continued blind 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 choices. Join Move to Amend and other groups in pushing for curbs on corporate power.

Riki OttRiki Ott, PhD, wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Riki has written two books on the Exxon Valdez oil spill's impacts on people, communities, and wildlife, including the recently released Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. A marine toxicologist and former fisherma’am, she is a national spokesperson with Move To Amend, a grassroots campaign advocating constitutional amendments to restrict corporate power.

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