By Robert S. Becker
Here's showered leg skin examined by geologist James Kirby. Under regular light, the skin seems clean, but ultraviolet light reveals orange blotches --dispersant-mixed oil muck. Tampa Bay Times/James Kirby photo
If you care about salt water only when gargling, or annual beach parties, might as well skip this piece. Finicky readers will depart anyway, not drawn to environmental catastrophes, here the potential collapse of the Gulf ecosystem. Right off, two years of research proves the causal catch-all phrase, "BP oil spill," drastically underplays the enormity of effects: the damage from double pollutants (oil + dispersant) carried by waves, deposited on seascapes, then absorbed by an incredible variety of living masses.
Phrasing more consistent with real ends: "BP's toxic sludge inundation," or "BP's fatal frothy flood," even "BP's contagion of contaminated crude" -- crude and indiscriminate indeed when this glut of gunk continues its death march. Even bacteria called upon to consume oil slicks are nixed, slain by two million gallons of the solvent concoction Corexit. Keen observer of the Gulf tragedy, I'd be downright remiss to withhold scandalous news about oil stuck to human skin, eyeless shrimp, fish-scale infections, or rising mortality for marine mammals and previously endangered sea turtles. As famed ocean expert Sylvia Earle teaches, "You don't have to touch the ocean for the ocean to touch you."
If misguided greed makes for business stupidity, like BP "saving" pennies on cut-rate oil platforms only to fork over $60 billion for liabilities and penalties, then moral stupidity denies blatant, eye-popping lessons from this painful experience. My take: research now proves the infamous trickle-down theory -- laughable when applied to job growth or economics -- is working with a vengeance on the entire Gulf region, decimating industries, adding to unemployment, and bringing millions new, hard-to-treat diseases.
Drill, baby, drill, Obama-style
For this one-time food cornucopia, ecologically compromised long before 2010, trickle-down is no metaphor. Crude slicks plus dispersants banned by rational nations will for years trickle onto lagoons and beaches, wetlands and mangroves, infecting whatever they touch. Want irony? This trickle-down KILLS jobs and economic growth, often permanently, with this exception: "Gulf Oil Drilling To See Busiest Year Since 2010 BP Spill." See, our re-electable president's administration re-opened drilling, even for BP, pandering with its own take on "drill, baby, drill."
The political logic works, for three-six months. If local oil production rises, that MUST reduce "high" gas prices (a blatant fallacy), let alone face down our perennially wicked dependency on "foreign oil" (a bigger fallacy). There is no "American" oil, and once contained, world markets, not patriotism, determine where it's consumed. Another dose of BP drilling on a budget assures more disasters, promising to leave the nation's most important water treasure bereft, not unlike mined-out, third world wastelands. Nothing trumps under-regulated oil miners (and powerful cousins in chemical-plastics-fertilizer production) because their unified lobbyists outmuscle less affluent, disorganized shrimp, fishing, boating, dining, recreation and tourist interests.
It's a simple trade-off, and a dreary story wherein our national wealth (the kind that made America great) migrates from historic small businesses around waterways to huge energy/commodity conglomerates. The Gulf is poster child for venture capitalism run amok, especially now immunized from federal intervention. A region plagued with trickle-down pollution is what the few pay so everyone else has cheap oil products, orchestrated by the world's richest profit centers (Exxon, Chevron, Dow, and Dupont).
Countless casualties, visible or not
Thus, who's surprised the Gulf eco-system continues to absorb body blows? Independent research confirms, even IF we started redemption today, returning to pre-spill conditions could take decades. Some species, like sperm whales and bluefin tuna, escaped the worst poisons, but not the less mobile:
- extensive habitats of deep sea and shoreline plant species;
- incalculable zooplankton species, sustaining the entire ecosystem;
- reduced seafood catches, pockmarked by deformation or worse;
- dying coral stands, plumed by BP's fatally "frothy gunk;"
- fish small and large, even 300 lb. sturgeon found with corrupted DNA, presaging "cancers, tumors, and immunological-reproductive disorders;"
- air-breathing sea turtles (whose juveniles require Gulf nurseries); and
- mammals, surface breathers with susceptible, toxin-absorbing skin and lungs, like ours.
Fact: bottlenose dolphin mortality from Texas to Florida jumped from 74 normally to surpass 600 this season, with widespread outbreaks of liver, lung, and immune diseases predicted.
Human maladies abound, paralleling damage to "lower creatures." Drama this week from Tampa: proof that just swimming endangers us, especially with invisible pollutants afloat. A Florida geologist, far from BP's gusher, uses ultra violet to scan legs of graduate students who showered after swimming in the Gulf -- and photographs oil residue. Surf's up, and pollution,too. Think of the softest baby skin immersed in a crude oil bath that doesn't wash off, plus absorbs more readily because solvents split compounds. "If I had grandkids playing in the surf, I wouldn't want them to come in contact with that," said geologist Kirby, notably NOT funded by BP, "the dispersant accelerates the absorption by the skin."
Thank you, BP, not just for countless beach tar balls but carcinogenic toxins invading our largest organ, the skin. No problem, says BP spokesman Craig Savage (savage, indeed) bragging $14 billion was spent on cleanup, "the beaches are open, the tourists are back and commercial fishing is rebounding." Declaring beaches safe, let alone seafood clean, is like saying, weeks after A-bombs hit Japan, "well, the air has cleared, folks are returning, and look at all those corpses and debris getting hauled away." Even if 80% of the five million barrels were neutralized, that still leaves one million barrels slick and at large, with time and opportunity on their side.
War zones, for man and beast
No doubt, nasty publicity triggered the over-reaction that disregarded the human species, especially children. "It was like a war zone," mother of six, Julie Creppel, recalls, with squadrons of military and support planes overhead, spewing forth a smoky, chemical stench: "When we would walk out on the porch, we couldn't breathe. Our eyes and throats would burn." Tons of like-minded anecdotal evidence is legion, ditto the disorders from exposure to burning oil fumes and wafting chemical dispersants.
On Wednesday, BP announced a settlement compensating 100,000 plaintiffs, alleged by the BP shill to resolve "the substantial majority of legitimate claims of cleanup workers and residents of specified Gulf Coast beachfront and wetlands areas." That leaves thousands uncompensated. And this settlement deals with respiratory, eye and skin conditions reported soon-after exposure, with telling exclusions for mental health, potential cancers and birth defects. On future claims, moreover, the burden will be on plaintiffs to prove direct cause and effect. Oh, that's easy.
To cap the miserable legacy, a presidential commission has chastised not the slavishly passive White House (bigtime Obama shortfall for me), nor the myopic, max-this-quarter-profit industry (with BP only the worst). Instead, the commission assailed Congress as the big-time, post-spill culprit, criticizing its defiant refusal to enact new guidelines. No doubt, but they don't stand alone. On the docket are punitive legal ripples that could knock BP for a loop. Collapse of a major resource the size of the Gulf takes a long time, but, like climate change, appears do-able by human blunders. I wonder what it would take to make BP collapse -- $100 billion fine for criminal negligence?
Finally, sociology professor Steve Picou (Univ. So. Alabama) observes that while natural disasters bring people together, man-made or technological disasters (compounded by woeful state responses) breed "distrust in government and other institutions," reinforcing "an "every man or himself' mentality." That will reinforce more "frothy gunk" in unthinking rightwing and libertarian brains, more poison to our political atmosphere. A collapse thus of a major natural resource inevitably expands, well beyond billions of defenseless fish, crab, dolphins and turtles unequipped by evolution against toxic bombs of "frothy gunk." So, what's our evolutionary excuse, then or now, and how do we explain a wasteland the size of the Gulf to grandchildren?