Brazen disregard, from the wellhead to the tap
– 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.
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, Brockovich.com, 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