Brazen disregard, from the wellhead to the tap

June 14, 2010


— Erin Brockovich is an environmental investigator and activist and Ben Adlin writes social commentary and is a former Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. Any opinions expressed here are their own. —

As the wreckage of the now-infamous wellhead continues to spew oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico, evidence of environmental fallout comes streaming in.

Pictures of oil-soaked pelicans and dying dolphins emphasize our blight on land and sea.

We face the chilling realization that some sheared-off pipe at the ocean floor, a chimney stuck in the mud a mile beneath the dark slicks on the surface, might bleed millions more gallons of crude over months to come.

The world rightly takes pause at such a wound on the face of our planet. A moment of silence is due. But it’s important we see the disaster as a call to action and not merely an excuse for despair. Stewardship was clearly overlooked on the way to this disaster. We must not ignore it again.

The questions raised in the spill’s aftermath are overwhelming. We yet again have an enormous reason to re-think the nature of big business, the role of government, our relationship with oil, or the need to protect our dwindling wetlands and wildlife refuges.

But as much as this disaster forces us to look forward, other efforts are already overdue. Perhaps most pressing is the immediate need to clean up the Gulf.

No matter your distance from it, you will feel at least some of the spill’s impact. But for those who live in Gulf Coast communities, contamination poses a particularly focused threat. Residents who depend heavily on fishing and tourism face the possibility that these industries may never fully recover.

Many others from New Orleans and coastal parishes, Dauphin Island, Pensacola, and other ravaged areas are on boats right now, laying boom and helping map the slicks, shouldering cleanup duty as best they can. Too often we forget these workers’ sacrifice. Worse, BP and other companies seem to have put them directly in harm’s way—again.

On my website,, I invite people to contact me if they suspect environmental contamination. A woman from a coastal parish in Louisiana wrote to me about her husband and other cleanup workers made sick by hazardous conditions.

Hired by BP to survey the plume, they reported the location of oil slicks to company officials. But when airplanes began spraying chemical dispersants above the water, she said, these workers developed unusual symptoms – open sores, high blood pressure, nausea, and high white blood cell counts. Other sources reported headaches, dizziness, and breathing troubles. The workers were never given respirators.

Scientists believe the ailments most likely come from exposure to oil, oil vapors, or chemical dispersants like Corexit. But the companies say that’s impossible.

Nalco Holding Company, the chemical manufacturer that makes Corexit, claims its product is “at least 25 times less toxic than common dishwashing soap.” Never mind that the UK banned the dispersant’s use and the EPA said Corexit is more toxic and less effective than available alternatives. As of this writing, more than 1.1 million gallons of Corexit have been used in the Gulf.

BP has simply shrugged off these complaints. It maintains that its monitors can’t detect anything unusual that could be making workers sick. Tony Hayward, the company’s CEO, suggested the illnesses might be food poisoning.

Unfortunately, withholding information is often in the best interest of corporations. Transparency and openness aren’t always good for the bottom line, even when they’re crucial for public safety.

Shortly after the spill became public, Hayward said BP took full responsibility for the cleanup. “It is indeed BP’s responsibility to deal with this, and we are dealing with it,” he said. But these sick workers demonstrate that the cleanup effort continues to be riddled with misinformation and deceit.

Part of “dealing with it” means properly equipping workers with respirators and protective clothing. It means being timely and forthcoming to the public. With stakes this high, there’s no room for unsafe conditions or PR spin.

Huge catastrophes grab headlines. But despite its prominence, the Gulf spill is emblematic of more widespread, quieter contamination that puts virtually all Americans at risk. Though we can see oil flooding the Gulf from space, we’re often blind to the chemicals we encounter every day.

From elementary school classrooms to backyard gardens, hazardous materials creep into the very places we feel most safe. These invisible bullets assail us daily, raising risks of injury, illness, and premature death. Many are known to cause cancer, the country’s second leading killer.

We should not lose sight of the fact that as bad as the oil spill may be, it’s but one example of the irresponsible corporate behavior that pervades our daily lives.


Composite image shows a handout photo of Erin Brockovich and Ben Adlin. REUTERS/Handout


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I tend to agree — something is very wrong — more at: le-need-to-know-what-is.html

Thank you for the opportunity to comment…

Posted by mckibbinusa | Report as abusive


Any news of Union Carbide and Piper Alpha?

Posted by Bluenose3 | Report as abusive

You are right, it is so bad. And people are living longer than ever with all these poisons around us. Just think how much longer we will live if the poisons are doubled! This cannot be allowed to go on.

Posted by AmericaninCan1 | Report as abusive

and people who drive cars dont share the responsibility?

Posted by ilaboo | Report as abusive

Posted by AmericaninCan1:
You are right, it is so bad. And people are living longer than ever with all these poisons around us. Just think how much longer we will live if the poisons are doubled! This cannot be allowed to go on.

AmericaninCan1, don’t be so ignorant. We are living longer than ever because, over decades, we have systematically been identifying and eliminating toxic poisions from our food supply, air supply, water supply and general population exposure. We’ve come a long way, and it has demonstrated a lot of benefit (as you point out), but we still have a long way to go as well.

Posted by jennbarry | Report as abusive

iloboo..from your post I assume you don’t drive a car. The rest of us rely on our vehicles to get to work to support our families. Public transportation isn’t available or feasible for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that we are responsible for the actions of companies that supply the products we need to run our cars. Let’s try and keep the ball on the playing field.

Posted by justanotherjoe | Report as abusive

jennbarry, I completely disagree. Toxicants and toxins are still very prevalent today. What has really changed over the centuries has been improvements to sanitation and successful diagnosis and treatment of illness… Penicillin was one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

Posted by scientist11 | Report as abusive

Erin Brokovich – So she really does exist? Gee, I always thought she was just a movie title. No matter, judging by her overinflated sense of importance and almost laughable sense of dramatic statement, it’s clear this whole Hollywood thing has gome straight to her head.

‘The world rightly takes pause at such a wound on the face of our planet.’

‘A moment of silence is due.’

I doubt any Hollywood hack could come up with worse boiler plate than what’s represented by those two lines.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

Am…1, sci…1 and especially Gotth…

I’m going with the three of you. Why are we even bothering with this editorial? Oh yes right, “American Idle” wrapped for the season so we need to express our ignorance in another forum. Thumbs up to all three of you! That’ll show ’em!

Posted by lsismor | Report as abusive

Erin! What about Union Carbide? It seems human Indian lives counts for less than wildlife.

Posted by SurajZ | Report as abusive

BP is going to pay over $50 billion when this all said and done. We just launched a Facebook competitor at

Posted by Storyburn_has | Report as abusive

“Tony Hayward, the company’s CEO, suggested the illnesses might be food poisoning.”

Tony, why don’t you supervise one of the spraying rounds and see what kind of food poisoning you can get?”

Just shut your big, lying, gaping hole.

Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive

As per todays newspapers, High levels of uranium,metals turn Punjab-Indian state into toxic hot spot.
Many children became physically and mentally trouble due to environment pollutions.
Many Indian rivers and side areas are facing industrial wastes,garbage dumbing to nearby water spots,over usages of fuel products for riding steam boats in famous water areas,Union Carbide!s last environmental and human disaster in Bhopal, an Indian Town.
Still, people are silent suffer and knocking the doors for economic and social justice.
Recent oil spills and its effects had already made world countries to ponder new methods and to protect nature and environment at the earliest.
BP may pay over $ 50 billion dollars for some immediate benefits and some solace to nearby oil locations.
Many world bodies are still talking,meeting but no immediate stoppage of pollutions in air,water and in lands.

Posted by mdspatsy | Report as abusive

Isismor, thank you for your response. I eagerly await your next witty comment.

Posted by scientist11 | Report as abusive

Seriously, we are all responsible for this mess. We are the consumers that demand extravagant amounts of oil for cheap. None of us are concious about what we use energy for and how much of it we use (It’s a hot summer day, let’s turn up the air conditioner, or, let’s take a ride down the shore). We all waste energy more so than any other nation. And now we are going to judge a company who attempted to provide this necessary commodity? Mistakes happen, BP should pay, but they should hike prices (Not that they can, the market prices commodities) and pass it on to the people who got them in the Gulf Coast to begin with- we the people of the global economy.

Posted by charlesv | Report as abusive