It’s hard to tell the truth from well-spun fiction when it comes to BP’s intentions to restore the Gulf of Mexico following the April 20, 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing flow of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
One thing’s for sure. The state of Louisiana, the workers and residents who say their health has been ruined by the disaster and the seafood industry workers who are hanging on to their livelihood by a very frayed string cannot compete with the resources BP has to spend on public relations responses to every complaint that the oil giant’s response is too slow or non-existent.
After the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) held a news conference Friday (See “BP’s Broken Promises” filed on Friday, April 15), saying the state was adding $2 million dollars in emergency funding to prepare oyster seed grounds because BP had not come up with the money it had promised the state to restore the coast, Mike Utsler, chief operating officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, responded that BP isn’t responsible for the condition of the oyster beds because the state decided to turn on freshwater diversions to keep the oil from entering coastal wetlands — when the Coast Guard said it wasn’t necessary and the action wasn’t approved by the Unified Command overseeing responses to the oil gushing into the Gulf. Utsler also said the spill hasn’t adversely affected oysters themselves, pointing to an article the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published last week that says oysters haven’t retained any of the oil that poured from the well that remained uncapped for weeks.
Garret Graves, who as chair of the CPRA is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coastal advisor, refuted Utsler’s claims. He said the diversions, which began 10 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, are part of the state’s normal oil spill contingency plan and were coordinated with the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. He said neither BP nor the Coast Guard opposed the freshwater diversions at the time.
Graves also pointed out that the state isn’t asking for extra money from BP to restore oyster beds, and that the oil company should know that. According to Graves, the state more than once informed BP it will use part of the money BP already is required to pay the state under the federal Oil Spill Act’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. Utsler says it could take years for the NRDA mitigation process to be finished.
In November 2010, BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay said at a new conference that BP was giving Louisiana $218 million for barrier island restoration and tourism and seafood promotion. Gov. Jindal also announced BP agreed to pay another $15 million to seed oyster grounds and build new fisheries. In March, Jindal announced BP had reneged on those agreements.
BP also apparently is distancing itself from claims the spill is causing health problems for cleanup workers and other Gulf Coast residents exposed to the oil and chemicals used to corral it. (See Alex Woodward’s cover story “Sick” in this week’s Gambit) In a Facebook Q&A session originally published on April 12, Utsler answered pre-filed questions from the public. Here is a part of that transcript:
Question: The next question we've seen often: What is BP doing to support the Gulf recovery?
Mike: BP’s efforts in the ongoing support to the Gulf is focused in four critical areas. The first is continuing to complete the response as we have committed. The second is to support the environmental restoration efforts through the process of Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) which involves experts from federal, state, local and industry levels. Third, BP continues to support the economic restoration. And fourth, BP is working to support the reputation of the Gulf Coast by providing seafood and tourism grants to promote confidence in the Gulf Coast. Across all of these areas, BP continues to support responsible science to understand the environmental and economic effects associated with this spill.
Question: We received several questions from Kris Kutack Perez, starting with "What does BP plan to do about all the oil that still is on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico?"
Mike: Thanks for your questions, Kris. I have reached out to our science team for support in answering them. BP is continuing to support research and testing of the sediments and water column from deep water to shoreline. This is in addition to independent research that is ongoing by many differing groups of academia, and federal and/or state scientific communities. The data (which has been published and scientifically peer-reviewed to date) has not indicated oil in the sediments anywhere except within a 3km area around the Macondo well. Oil in the water column levels are below detectable limits and have been since Fall 2010. Research continues to ensure that these findings remain accurate and consistent across the Gulf.
Question: Kris, you and several others have asked questions about worker health concerns and, again, I have reached out to our medical and industrial health teams for help responding to them.
Mike: I can tell you that data from extensive monitoring of response workers performed by OSHA, NIOSH, USCG and BP indicates that almost all breathing zone samples for chemicals of concern were below government established (mandatory and voluntary) limits. The extensive data collected indicates it is very unlikely that there were any significant inhalation exposures. For example, the EPA collected over 1.4 million air samples throughout the response, which did not indicate levels harmful to human or wildlife. In addition, BP — in consultation with several governmental agencies — analyzed the potential risks of the various tasks the response workers performed and used that information to carefully select appropriate protective equipment and training provided to them. Given the large number of response workers deployed, BP arranged for acute medical care to address injuries or illnesses that they may have experienced during the response. (BP also encouraged anyone with exposure concerns, or health complaints of any kind to seek prompt and proper medical care, and access to such care was facilitated across our various work locations.)
Question: Again, we have received a number of questions with regards to health concerns, and I have reached out to our medical and industrial health specialists for support. Let me share their input:
Mike: First, it is very important to understand that establishing the work-relatedness of chronic medical illnesses typically requires an understanding of long-term exposures and a thorough assessment of pre-existing conditions, often involving several medical experts. Second, regarding exposures, we can say that data from extensive monitoring of response workers (more than 23,000 individual monitoring devices) performed by OSHA, NIOSH, USCG and BP indicates that almost all breathing zone samples of air and what might be in it were below mandatory and voluntary limits making it very unlikely that there were any significant inhalation exposures. Furthermore, analyses of environmental air samples for volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, along the Gulf shore found air concentrations that were unlikely to result in potential long-term health effects to residents of Gulf Coast communities During the response, BP arranged for acute medical care to address injuries or illnesses that workers may have experienced. BP encouraged anyone with exposure concerns, or health complaints of any kind to seek prompt and proper medical care, and access to such care was facilitated across our various work locations. However, individuals with unexplained symptoms or new medical conditions not known to be associated with workplace exposures must be properly evaluated and diagnosed, so that appropriate treatment can be considered. It is important that individuals seek proper medical care including evaluation and testing in accordance with accepted medical community practices. Questions about testing for VOCs in blood have been addressed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and physicians must know the limitations of such tests when trying to help patients understand whether illnesses are related to past chemical exposures:
- The presence of a volatile chemical in blood does not generally indicate any adverse health effect, even at levels multiple times higher than reference ranges.
- Exposure to low-levels of VOCs is common and comes from multiple sources, and laboratory testing cannot distinguish among the many possible sources of exposure.
- VOCs tend to rapidly leave the body, so typically no treatment is necessary to remove VOCs from the blood and no follow-up testing for laboratory blood VOC is generally recommended.
- Exposure history to other sources of VOCs and elapsed time from exposure to sampling may likely influence the interpretation of the laboratory results, since the blood half life of most VOCs is typically a few hours.
Later in the post Utsler writes about Corexit, the dispersant used to break up oil in the Gulf:
Question: Finally, Priscilla asked, "Can Corexit be removed if so, how does BP plan to remove it?"
Mike: Again, thanks for your questions. Corexit degrades quickly in the Gulf of Mexico environment. None of the thousands of water samples collected after August 3, 2010, contained levels of Corexit that exceeded EPA’s benchmarks for human health or dispersants. In the few samples where water contained detectable levels of any compound that is also found in Corexit, the amount was too small to harm human health or aquatic life, and too small to be removed.