Communities on the Horizon

Sep 08

Inquiry from German TV

Dear Sir or Madam,

we are currently planning a documentary for a German Television program called “Galileo” about the effects of the deepwater horizon desaster in the Gulf region. We would like to get in contact with people affected by this desaster as well as doctors volunteering to help them with their health issues. We would very much appreciate if you could help us to get in contact with these people to discuss further details.

You can reach me at our L.A. based office at: 310 658 7397 or by email:

Thanks and best regards,

Kimmo Wiemann


By Stuart H. Smith ~ Sept 5. 2012

BP’s $8.7 billion attempt to put the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill behind it continues to come undone.
In the latest unraveling of the oil giant’s proposed settlement with thousands of Gulf residents and businesses harmed by the offshore disaster, key rig contractor Halliburton has filed court papers (here and here) slamming the deal as unfair and lacking transparency, and urging a judge to reject it.

Halliburton’s plea to U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier to ditch the settlement is largely based on its findings from an expert in damages — Marc Vellrath, the CEO of the Finance Scholars Group — who attacked the sprawling settlement as failing to distinguish from the wide variety of the claims against BP.

“An upscale seafood restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana, does not suffer the effects of an oil spill in the same way as a golf course in Mobile, Alabama,” according to the legal brief filed this week by Halliburton. “Likewise, an oyster fisherman operating off the coast of Louisiana has a claim that is very different from a hotel on the coast of Florida.”

Halliburton’s objections come just days after stinging briefs in the case by the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Alabama tore into BP for misrepresentations in its defense of the settlement. The federal lawyers — who are pursuing its claims against the oil giant in a separate case — said that BP is trying to ignore its “gross negligence” that caused the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion as well as the deep and lingering environmental devastation in the Gulf.

News of the U.S. government’s legal assault on BP — a story that was broken on this blog Tuesday — has caused a sharp decline in the company’s stock price, which was off 4 percent in early trading Wednesday. That’s because the government’s pursuit of gross negligence by BP could quadruple punitive damages against the firm, raising its potential loss in the federal case to $21 billion.

The case of Halliburton is a complicated one. The massive oil-patch contractor once captained by Dick Cheney is worried about its own future liability in the explosion that killed 11 workers and ultimately spewed 5 million barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Halliburton’s lawyers and their expert Vellrath put out the argument that the $8.7 billion deal is too hasty and too generous. That argument is at odds with the facts laid out by the U.S. government — that pollution from the 2010 spill is far from over — and by this week’s news that BP’s oil is again fouling beaches across four states with oil churned up by Hurricane Isaac.

However, Halliburton’s brief also makes a compelling argument that the $8.7 billion falls short in a number of critical and important areas. For example:

– A rush to settle: The contractor’s lawyers argue that BP’s expert defense of the settlement “offers nothing more than an oversimplified and conclusory analysis to substantiate his claims.” They state that flaw is keeping with the approach by BP, as well as some eager plaintiff attorneys, ”to submit only conclusions without facts and without showing their work in reaching those conclusions.”
– Unfairness: Consultant Vellrath finds that, in lumping together so many spill victims with such differing claims, the settlement class is “arbitrary and does not delineate a cohesive and coherent collection of similar situated persons or entities.”

The deadline for filing objections or other briefs is Friday. Judge Barbier will hold a hearing in early November on the fairness of the settlement. One thing is already clear: Parties to this case with very divergent interests agree that BP has rushed the process, failed to offer transparency and glossed over the shocking extent of its own negligence in the Deepwater Horizon case.

Don’t be surprised to see more bombshells between now and Friday’s deadline.

Aug 01

Study: Oil spill dispersants may have hurt Gulf food chain

POSTED: 09:20 AM Wednesday, August 1, 2012
BY: The Associated Press from The New Orleans City Business

A study on possible effects of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill indicates dispersants may have killed plankton — some of the ocean’s tiniest plants and creatures — and disrupted the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the nation’s richest seafood grounds.

Scientists who read the study said it points toward major future effects of the spill. One called its findings scary.

For the study, Alabama researchers pumped water from Mobile Bay into 53-gallon drums, then added oil, dispersant or both in proportions found during the oil spill to simulate the spill’s effects on microscopic water-life in the bay.

Over more than 12 weeks in 2010, BP’s well spewed nearly 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The company used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants — more than 770,000 gallons of it at the oil’s source on the ocean floor — to break up the oil into tiny droplets. Earlier research hadn’t found significant problems for the environment and marine life, but dispersants had never before been used a mile underwater or in such large amounts.

The researchers found that, within days, the numbers of plant-like phytoplankton and ciliates — plankton that use hairlike cilia to move — increased under an oil slick. But they dropped significantly in the drums with dispersant or dispersed oil, while the numbers of bacteria increased. The study was published Tuesday in PLoS ONE, one of the peer-reviewed journals in the online Public Library of Science.

“In those tanks, all of the energy seems to get trapped in the bacterial side. There were lots of bacteria left but no bigger things. It’s like the middle part of the food web is taken away,” said lead researcher Alice Ortmann of the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

Microbes are too small for fish to eat. Ciliates, on the other hand, “graze” on microbes. Phytoplankton and cilates both get eaten by larger zooplankton, which are fodder for tiny crustaceans that, in turn, get eaten by small fish.

Brian Crother, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, called the findings scary, though limited because the experiments spanned only five days.

“If these guys are on the money, they have pointed to something really disastrous happening in the Gulf,” he said.

The study was extremely well done, said Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla.

“You’ve got to look at the impact on the ecosystem as a whole, rather than individual species,” he said.

It is also, he said, more evidence for what he has thought all along: that the Gulf of Mexico’s food web is in danger.

“If you go a couple steps beyond their findings, I think we’re going to see these things happening and it’s going to take years for them to be seen,” he said.

Ortmann said she and her colleagues, including scientists at Auburn University, were surprised that dispersant alone had such a big effect on plankton.

Carbon is a basic part of most life on earth, and an earlier study at Dauphin Island Sea Lab found that plankton quickly gulped down oil from the spill.

Crother said the new study makes clear that the damage to plankton was from dispersant, not oil. “These guys have shown … that the carbon available from that dispersant is not easily utilized for energy at the bottom of the food chain,” he said.

Still, other research indicates that “fish did very well in 2010,” Ortmann said. There’s no indication that the food web was completely disrupted, but it might have been interrupted in certain areas, she said.

More research is being done to try to understand the spill’s actual impact, she said.

Crosby said some environmental effects weren’t seen for years after the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and broke open off Alaska in 1989, causing what was then the nation’s largest spill, 11 million gallons.

The late 1980s had been marked by record commercial harvests of herring, but by 1993, the number of spawning adults had dropped by three-quarters. Disease, ocean changes, contaminants, competition from other fish and increasing numbers of humpback whales are being studied as possible reasons that the species has never recovered.

“The herring population in Prince William Sound didn’t collapse until four years after the Exxon Valdez,” Crosby said. “It has never recovered. Never.”

Jul 13

Gulf of Mexico oil spill health study seeks more volunteers

July 12, 2012 ~ by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune

Nearly 25,000 people who worked on recovery and cleanup after the 2010 BP oil spill have volunteered for a National Institutes of Health study on the long-term health effects of exposure to oil and chemicals used to disperse it. But NIH researchers want another 15,000 to come forward, and that’s not an easy task.

Some people have moved or changed phone numbers, making it hard for researchers to find them. And then there’s the issue of trust. Some have rejected requests to participate because the study is run by the government and partially financed by BP, and neither enjoys a high level of confidence these days, researchers said.

"But I hope we can reach out and show people that we really do care and want them to participate so we can address many of the health concerns by those who worked on the spill," said Dale Sandler, chief of the epidemiology branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Volunteers who agree to join the research project take a phone survey about their exposure to oil and dispersants and their health conditions. Most are then given a follow-up medical exam at home. After the exam, participants receive a gift card worth $50.

Sandler said it would be a mistake to develop any preliminary findings because researchers must determine whether health problems are a result of the exposure to the oil from the stricken BP rig, from dispersants used to remove the oil or perhaps related to other causes or are pre-existing.

"That takes time,” she said.

Researchers are finding medical and mental health problems with many of the cleanup workers, according to Sandler. Hypertension is a frequent problem, and many interviewed complain of depression.

Continued high unemployment rates for people who had worked in the seafood and oil industry add to the stress many people feel, Sandler said.

The hope is that the study will draw enough participants who had varied exposure to oil and dispersants so researchers can draw conclusions on how to protect people working on future spills. They want to be able to reach conclusions on the specific kind of work, and exposures to oil and dispersants, that leads to the most severe medical problems, Sandler said.

The study, which is budgeted for more than $30 million and is described as the largest health-related oil spill study ever, is expected to run for 10 years.

People interested in participating in the study can call the toll-free number at 1-855-6444853 or visit

For now, Sandler hopes to complete the telephone interviews by the end of December, with home visits and exams expected to run through April. The plan is for regular follow-ups with some of the study volunteers to update their health conditions over time.

Sandler said NIH researchers are looking for volunteers with a wide variety of involvement with the spill. They must be at least 21 years old and have done oil spill cleanup for at least one day or supported the cleanup effort in some way.

Jul 06

Oil spill dispersant-spraying drill took place without notice, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser complains

July 4, 2012  ~ The Associated Press

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser is upset that the parish wasn’t notified before an apparent drill for pilots who would spray dispersants in case of an oil spill. And he doesn’t believe that the planes used during the drill were spraying only water, as he was told. P.J. Hahn, the parish’s director of coastal zone management, said Tuesday that fishers working off of Venice called him and Nungesser on June 13, saying low-flying planes were spraying something that turned to foam on the water and made their skin itch or burn.

Hahn said the fishers told him that “whatever it was was burning their skin, causing like a rash to their skin when they were out there pulling in their nets.”

Hahn said he called the Coast Guard and was told it had no reports of any activity in the area. When he relayed that to the fishers, he said, they — and the crew of a plane looking for menhaden — sent him photographs which he forwarded to the Coast Guard. The photos show long white streaks covering an expanse of water, interrupted by blue Vs where boats or other objects are at the surface.

That was when he was told that planes flying out of Kiln, Miss., were spraying water during an oil spill dispersant drill for the Marine Spill Response Corp., a petroleum industry nonprofit for spill cleanup, Hahn said.

Nungesser said, “Look at the pictures. It appears there’ something more that they’re spraying in that. We just want some answers.”

MSRC spokeswoman Judith Roos said there was a drill in June, spraying water from clean tanks. “They haven’t been used in two years. So they are absolutely clean,” she said.

She also said, “To the best of our knowledge it was not anywhere near any fishermen. Because they have a spotter who searches for that.”

Roos said the organization has sent information to the state and the Coast Guard.

"I can’t comment on the photos. I don’t know what the photos are of," said Roos, who looked at them on her cell phone while on vacation.

She said MSRC notifies the FAA and Coast Guard before every drill, and would have no problem adding the state and parish to the list.

Hahn said the complaints came in during the evening. The parish had planned to go out the next day for water samples, but seas were too high because of a tropical depression, he said.

Nungesser said he had given the Coast Guard a July 3 deadline for more information, and sent out a news release Tuesday because he wasn’t satisfied.

"People in our parish are gun-shy when they see activity like this on our coast, especially with all they have been through the last two years. We need to know about things like this so we can inform our people," he said.

Jun 18

Trouble Under the Gulf Coast Sand

June 11, 2012 ~ by: The Times Picayune Staff

Beaches that looked clean after the BP oil spill harbored disturbing evidence of damage, according to researchers who dug below the surface of Dauphin Island.

Oil Fouls Grand Isle Beaches ThursdayJohn McCusker/The Times-PicayuneA crew scrapes oil off the beach at Grand Isle in May 2010. Scientists have found evidence of dramatic changes in microorganisms underneath beaches that looked clean after the spill.

What they found, according to a study published in the online scientific journal PLos ONE, was a dramatic change in the communities of microorganisms. Before the oil spill, life was rich and diverse. But the variety of life forms dropped dramatically several months after the spill and was dominated by a couple of fungal species. That was true for Grand Isle, too, which showed more visible evidence of oiling.

The change could be the result of the oil or mechanical cleaning of the beach, said Holly Bik, lead author of the study. She said additional research is needed to determine if there is a long-term effect, and there ought to be an effort to study the beaches over time.

"Even though the oil’s gone, it might lead to some very long-term and severe implications for the Gulf ecosystem,” she said.

That’s troubling and warrants continued scrutiny.

May 25

Gulf Fisherman Reel from Seafood Troubles

POSTED: 10:25 AM Thursday, May 24, 2012
BY: The Associated Press LAFITTE —

Gloom infects the hard-working shrimp and crab docks of this gritty fishing town as the second full year of fishing since the catastrophic 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill kicks into high gear.

Usually folks are upbeat and busy in May, when shrimpers get back to work in Louisiana’s rich waters. This spring, though, catches are down, docks are idle and anxiety is growing that the ill effects of the massive BP oil spill may be far from over.

An Associated Press examination of catch data from last year’s commercial harvest along the Gulf — the first full year of fishing since the spill — reveals merit in the fishermen’s complaints. According to the analysis of figures obtained through public records requests, seafood crops hit rock bottom in the Barataria estuary, the same place where some of the thickest waves of oil washed in when a BP well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Detailed data from “trip tickets” fishermen fill out when they unload at docks reveal steep drops in Barataria, though it’s far from bleak everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Fishermen are making money that is pretty equal to before the spill, according to the 2011 data not officially released yet by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Part of the reason is that though the fishermen aren’t hauling in as much, prices are up so people are paying more for seafood from the Gulf than other sources.

In Barataria, the number of shrimpers in the water has remained steady, yet the fall season was off by about 7 million pounds from an average of 18.1 million pounds between 2006 and 2009. It wasn’t a pretty picture for blue crabs either in Barataria: the crab catch was off by 2.7 million pounds from an average of 9.5 million pounds between 2006 and 2009, the data showed.

Fresh water from a historically high Mississippi River could have been the culprit for some of the drop off in productivity, marine experts said. Another factor may be that some areas in the estuary were closed because of oil contamination. One such place is Bay Jimmy, where oil is still gooey and thick on the shores.

Fishermen blame the spill. In Lafitte, they said the new shrimp season was off to a slow start.

“I’m afraid that oil spill has ruined us,” said Ken Lee, a shrimp dock owner. “We’re hardly unloading any brown shrimp at all.”

For now though, a range of government officials, scientists and seafood experts say it’s much too early to make any definite link between the oil spill and one-year declines in catches. Seafood harvests, while generally predictable, are subject to fluctuations even in the best of times.

But Lee shook his head as he looked over a sheet tallying recent shrimp loads in the past few days. It was slim pickings. Moments before, an 18-wheeler pulled away from his dock with just seven vats of frozen fresh shrimp. The truck has room for more than 40, he said.

“That’s pitiful!” he said. “We usually load a truck full.”

While catches were off, though, prices were high. The Louisiana data shows fishermen actually made as much or more in 2011 than they had in previous years. The total values of the blue crab and oyster harvests were higher than the six-year average.

Taken as a whole, the volume of seafood harvested last year in Louisiana for shrimp, crabs and oysters showed only modest drops from averages for 2003-09, according to
the AP analysis. Catches for 2010, the year of the spill, were excluded because much of the Gulf was shut down. Meanwhile, in Texas, the oyster and crab hauls were down slightly from 2003-09 averages, the AP analysis showed.

Drought could have been a cause there, a Texas official said. The state did not have figures on its shrimp catch. Florida’s data showed no major swings in harvests of oysters, crabs and shrimp. Mississippi’s shrimp haul was down about 13 percent from 2003-2009 averages and its small-scale crab harvest was down 52 percent. From the 2003-09 average, Alabama’s brown shrimp catch was off 12 percent, blue crabs were off 27 percent and oysters down by about 50 percent, the state’s data showed.

Fishermen say economic conditions were tough before the BP spill due to imports, high fuel prices and hurricanes. But now they say they’ve reached a low point since the blown-out well spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil.

In Bon Secour, Ala., Mike Skinner, a third-generation shrimper whose entire family works in the business, said last fall was the worst season he had ever seen.

“Hopefully it was a fluke thing. We’ll find out this year,” he said as he piloted his trawler across Mobile Bay.

In Alabama, seafood sales are down about 10 percent to $146 million in the two years since the BP gusher, according to an Auburn University study obtained by the AP. The downturn represented nearly $16 million in lost sales and has left few fishing boats in industry hubs like the Bon Secour River.

To ease the hardships, BP has given $48.5 million to Gulf states so they can market their seafood industries on websites, TV commercials, billboards and print ads that say the catch is healthy.

BP spokesman Craig Savage said the Gulf seafood industry was strong. “The fact is, the data show that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe and abundant, according to numerous government reports,” he said.

Truly identifying any effect of the spill — if any — on marine stocks won’t be possible from landings data for several years, said Chuck Wilson, executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, a university-based group of agents and researchers.

Still, there’s reason to be wary, said Olivia Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“We are seeing a number of anomalies in the Gulf of Mexico,” Watkins said. “We should not attempt to draw premature conclusions.”

The long-term prognosis for the Gulf’s health remains uncertain.

Recent studies have found higher numbers of sick fish close to where BP’s well blew out and genome studies of bait fish in Barataria have identified abnormalities. Meanwhile, vast areas of the cold and dark Gulf seafloor are oiled, scientists say.

And many fishermen are convinced something’s amiss.

“I think the oil can kill the shrimp eggs. That’s why there was no shrimp to catch last year,” said Tuna Pham, a 40 -year-old Vietnamese-American shrimper docked in Lafitte. He said the catch this year was bad again.

“We was there to work, but couldn’t,” said Lawrence Salvato, 49, as he stopped for lunch on a dock where he moors a shrimp skiff he runs his wife, Lisa. “Usually people are excited and they can’t wait to get out there. This year, there’s no real incentive.”

He said he made about $10,000 in seafood sales last year compared to $75,000 in 2009. He said his family made do with a $40,000 interim payment they got from BP. Fishermen who haven’t settled legally yet with BP over damages continue to survive on periodic payments from a $20 billion trust fund set up by BP.

“We’re afraid,” Salvato said. “A lot of people are getting out of fishing. They’re afraid.”

Apr 22

Troubled Waters: Southern Studies Institute Index of BP Disaster

INSTITUTE INDEX: Gulf recovery two years after the BP disaster

Date on which BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and burned: 4/20/2010

Number of rig workers killed: 11

Number of days the oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico: 87

Gallons of crude oil spilled: about 200 million

Gallons of chemical dispersants applied to the slick: 1.8 million

Peak length in miles of Gulf Coast shoreline where oiling from the BP disaster was apparent: 1,096

As of late February 2012, length in miles of Gulf Coast shoreline where oiling was still apparent: 450

Estimated percentage of BP’s spilled oil that remains unaccounted for: 60

Thickness in inches of deposits of BP’s spilled oil uncovered near Port Fourchon, La. by Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011: 18

Factor by which dolphin strandings in the spill-affected area between April 2010 and March 2012 exceed the historical average for a similar time period: 4

Percent by which some Gulf fishermen report their catches were down as of October 2011: 80

Date on which the National Institutes of Health announced the launch of a health study of cleanup workers and volunteers exposed to BP’s oil: 2/28/2011

Rank of this study among the largest ever conducted of oil spill cleanup workers: 1

Amount BP paid out for damage claims under its Gulf Coast Claims Facility: over $6 billion

Number of individuals and businesses that had their claims paid: over 220,000

Date that claims payments switched to a court-run process as part of a proposed settlement of a lawsuit against BP: 3/23/2012

Factor by which the processing of claims payments increased after the transition: 4

Amount BP expects to pay out in claims under the settlement: $7.8 billion

Amount BP has already agreed to pay for early ecological restoration projects as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment continues: $1 billion

Total amount in fines BP could end up paying under the Clean Water Act: $5 billion to $20 billion

Profits earned by BP in 2011: $26 billion

Troubled Waters: Gulf Communities Still Realling Two Years into BP Disaster

Facing South is your weekly source for in-depth coverage and fresh perspectives on the South, published by the Institute for Southern Studies.

Troubled-Waters-2-years-after-BP-disasterOn April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. For three months the well gushed unchecked, sending 200 million gallons of crude oil into Gulf waters.

Two years later, BP insists the Gulf is well on the road to recovery. A PR blitz rolled out in late 2011 titled “Best Season” called on tourists to visit the Gulf, without even mentioning the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “The sun’s out,” the narrator says, “and the water’s beautiful.”

But a new report by Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies finds that the Gulf Coast is far from recovery — and many communities are still reeling from the aftermath of the disaster.

"The oil is not gone," says Derrick Evans of Gulfport, Miss.. "The general perception is that BP made a mess and BP did a big cleanup and everything is all fine. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Local Gulf Coast groups have launched a variety of innovative efforts to cope and rebuild after the spill. But the scope of the recovery will require stepped-up federal and state action: Congress has yet to pass into law a single piece of legislation that directly addresses the BP disaster, and the issue of Gulf recovery has been absent from the 2012 political debate.

The report by Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm, produced in partnership with the Bridge the Gulf Project and the Gulf Coast Fund, finds three areas where Gulf communities were hit especially hard by the BP disaster:

MAKING A LIVING: The BP spill idled thousands of fishing boats, pushing many into debt or out of work entirely. In places like Biloxi, Miss. and New Orleans East, local groups are re-training workers and trying to create new jobs, but struggle to meet the need.

RESTORING THE COAST: Louisiana loses a football-field sized chunk of coastal land every hour, in part due to energy industry activity. Gulf advocates say federal fines collected from BP should be steered back into restoring and protecting fragile coastal land.

PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH: Gulf residents still report a range of illnesses stemming from exposure to spilled oil and chemical dispersants. Organizations like the Louisiana Environmental Action Network are running free clinics to help, but say bigger efforts are needed to provide medical care, track the health impacts and prevent toxic exposures in the first place.

The report also outlines seven immediate steps Gulf Coast leaders say can jumpstart the recovery, from funding coastal restoration plans to creating a meaningful Citizens Advisory Board for community input.

Troubled Waters: Two Years into the BP Disaster

Facing South is your weekly source for in-depth coverage and fresh perspectives on the South, published by the Institute for Southern Studies.