Is BP Learning the Wrong Lessons From Exxon Valdez? A TFT Special Report
When I caught her by phone near Venice, Louisiana on Friday, Dr. Riki Ott had just returned from a boat tour of some of the coastal area’s marshes and bayous — guided by one of the local fishermen she’s met since arriving in the area earlier this week.
The Marine biologist and activist was supposed to be spending time at home in Alaska on break from a speaking tour, but, after the oil spill, she decided to visit the Gulf Coast instead. She and her assistant, a fellow commercial fisherman who experienced the Exxon Valdez spill, are offering advice and encouragement to locals “frustrated by the lack of information and not knowing what’s going to happen.”
“There are many parallels to Exxon Valdez,” Ott told The Faster Times. Among the commonalities, she said, is BP trying to limit its liability at every turn. ”It’s as if they’re playing off Exxon’s game sheet,” she said.
One example: the liability caps in the contracts for those recruited to help with the clean-up. Ott said that while several challenges in court had resulted in a federal judge striking down those caps, those who had already signed contracts had waived their rights.
BP spokesman Robert Wine told The Faster Times in a phone interview on Friday that this clause was designed to indemnify BP from certain contracts. “It wasn’t intended for an oil spill. We apologized to the fishermen. It was a slip; it was unintentional. It’s one of those funny things that pop up and takes everyone by surprise, but it was absolutely unintentional.”
Ott’s book on the Exxon Valdez spill, Sound Truth and Corporate Myths, details the long-term environmental and health repercussions of a major oil spill.
Ott noted in Friday’s phone interview that Exxon refused to cover costs associated with “Valdez crud” because the Occupational Safety and Hazards Act (OSHA) has an exception for colds and flus. This is a problem because the symptoms of chemical poisoning can mimic those of colds and flus, she said.
“Exxon … fought workers who sued, claiming their respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses were chemical poisoning,” Ott wrote in a September 29, 2009 post at the Huffington Post. Ott also noted that sickness resulted from workers being told that clean-up products weren’t toxic and from the lack of adequate protective gear.
Asked by The Faster Times how she would advise clean-up workers to prepare for the Gulf spill, she said that they should take a full 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training course on oil spill clean up and wear protective gear at a minimum. BP is providing training courses to those involved in the response, according to websites dedicated to the oil spill.
Response was too little, too late
Ott said of the response: “It’s inexcusable to me that we’re experimenting. The oil industry shouldn’t be allowed to drill if it can’t control the technology it’s using.”
Jonathan Henderson with the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) reacted similarly to BP’s response in a phone interview with The Faster Times on Friday.
Referring to the containment dome currently being guided to cover the leaking pipe, Henderson said: “How come there aren’t a hundred of these ready to go in case of an accident like this?”
BP’s spokesman Wine told The Faster Times Friday that the containment dome was constructed according to the exact specifications of the site. “It’s not something that’s ever been tried or considered before,” Wine said. “To go from a blank piece of paper and now on site and all the engineering and to work out any challenge that we’re going to face on this…it’s been fairly quick.”
Another “glaring example of massive failure of the response” according to Henderson is that there wasn’t nearly enough boom available. “There’s just miles and miles and miles of precious wetlands that are critical spawning ground of much of the habitat — wildlife that are completely exposed and vulnerable.”
Henderson said that at one point they ran out of boom and more wasn’t available in the U.S. And he noted that the boom is rather ineffective since it’s designed for two feet of wave action and water is lapping right over it.
Henderson also said that the media had falsely reported that oil had reached the shore of Louisiana’s Chandeleur islands on Friday. He said that GRN overflights had seen oil there on May 5 and as early as the previous week they found oil impacting the Delta Natural Wildlife Refuge near the Louisiana coastline.
“I can’t tell you what BP should have been doing. Everything they’re doing they should have been doing faster. There should be a massive response capability in place already. I’m confident that they are trying everything they can. But, I’m perplexed at how slow they’ve been responding. The opportunity to mitigate against this has already passed. That’s a tragic implication for the whole Gulf Coast,” Henderson said.
Henderson continued: “It’s excruciatingly painful for us — and we’re continuing our oil accountability campaign that we’ve had for years and acting as an independent watchdog over the cleanup. We’re very concerned about the marine life.”
Wine said that BP is also not happy with the reaction time. “We’re doing everything we can to deal with an unprecedented incident. There’s never been an instance where the blowout preventer has failed so completely.”
He added that there is a very large response in place to protect the shoreline. The BP Deepwater Response website includes daily updated details of the response (as of May 8, 2010), including 12 staging stations, 1.3 million feet of boom available, 2.1 million gallons of oily water recovered, and 10,000 personnel and 2,500 trained volunteers.
“All of this happens because there’s a plan. You can’t do this if you’re struggling to react,” Wine said.
Ott also said the dispersants will have a serious environmental impact, especially because it’s spawning season.
“BP is completely misguiding the public. Dispersed oil is more bio available, meaning it is more easily absorbed by fish. By breaking up the oil, it increases the volume in water,” Ott said, adding that this year’s white shrimp, which should be ready in four months, are dying. This will not only affect shrimp, but other ecosystems as well because shrimp is food for such marine life as red snappers.
Ott said that the damage can’t be assessed until the leak is capped and all the oil is out. And the full impact won’t be known for years.
“BP is maintaining that we’re winning, but the oil is in the water column at an incredibly sensitive time in the year,” Ott said. “In Exxon Valdez, there was a delayed ecosystem collapse four years later. Those who grew up couldn’t reproduce. You might not see the full implications this year. You still see the herring population not fully recovered 21 years later.”
Ott is organizing a day of solidarity to support the proposed increase on liability for oil spill damage from $75 million to $10 billion, which legislation introduced in Congress last week would do. But, as the Hill reported, a spokesman wrote on the White House blog that in the case of gross negligence, the $75 million cap on damages under the Oil Pollution Act would not apply.
Bayou Photo by Tony the Misfit
Photo of Riki Ott used by permission from Hotshot977 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hotshot977/)
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