*Editor's Note: In the time since Francesca wrote this post, federal officials made the first arrest related to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico--a move that the New York Times speculated was "just the opening salvo in the government’s case against the company and the contractors involved in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and oil spill on April 20, 2010."
It’s two years later, and the evidence is mounting that the BP oil disaster in the Gulf is an environmental horror show.
Mutant Fish, Shrimp and Crabs And Plummeting Catch
Fishermen from Louisiana to Florida are seeing grotesque deformities among large numbers of shrimp, fish, and crabs – shrimp without eyes, fish with gaping sores and tumors, and crabs without claws, “that are dying from within … they are still alive, but you open them up and they smell like they've been dead for a week,” as one lifelong fisherwoman told Al Jazeera’s Dahr Jamail.
“We've fished here all our lives and have never seen anything like this,” another shrimper said.
Neither have the scientists. Marine biologist Dr. Jim Cowan told Jamail, “In my 20 years working on red snapper, looking at somewhere between 20- and 30,000 fish, I've never seen anything like this either.”
The catch is down, too – by 90 percent in some fishing grounds. A seafood processor told Jamail that brown shrimp were down by 50 percent and white shrimp were wiped out. The Gulf of Mexico normally provides more than 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US.
Toxic Brew From BP’s Deepwater Horizon Disaster Blamed
Carl Safina, marine biologist and author of A Sea In Flames, a book about the disaster, told CSRwire:
“The fact that you have these developmental problems goes along with the abundance being very low. For every fish without eyes, many simply died in development. It’s very disturbing that the toxicity is still enough to create developmental problems and cause these breaches in the immune system this long after the oil stopped flowing. The water is still toxic.”
A study by biologist Dr. Andrew Whitehead has linked the biological impacts on marine life in the Gulf to the timing and locations of toxic components of oil. But it’s not just the oil. In a perverse synergy, the mixture of oil, the dispersant Corexit, and drilling chemicals released during the blowout have created a super-toxic brew.
“The dispersant and oil together are the worst combination, more toxic together than either one by themselves, Safina said. “It was an enormous mistake to spray that dispersant.”
Safina thinks the decision to use the dispersant was a business decision, not one based on environmental protection. “I thought that BP’s motivation was to hide the oil from view so the company wouldn’t be fined as much,” he said. The amount of fines levied by the federal government are tied to the amount of oil judged to have been released, a figure unlikely to ever be accurately known.
Verbal Corexit: BP Greenwashes The Problem Away
You’d never know about the mutated marine life and collapse of the fisheries in the Gulf if you depended on BP for your information. From the pretty pictures of marshes and beaches – pristine, without a tarball in sight – to the soothing nostrums about ecosystem restoration and fish health, BP’s website is a fountain of greenwashing detergent – a kind of verbal Corexit.
“Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is among the most tested in the world, and, according to the FDA and NOAA, it is as safe now as it was before the accident,” the website reassures the visitor.
It will be a very long time before that seafood actually becomes as safe as it was before the Deepwater Horizon blew up. Here’s Carl Safina’s take on the prognosis:
“Recovery from any large spill of oil takes decades. We’ve already had two years of trouble -- if half of the shrimp and other fish are deformed and it is half of the fish caught from Louisiana and Florida, it’s just beyond belief. It’s a major ecological catastrophe and no one can say how long it will take to recover from that. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that there are some very long term consequences.”
So let’s sum up the toll: 11 workers dead, countless creatures dead, dying or never to be born, an ecosystem in collapse, and the myriad businesses that depended on it destroyed for decades – possibly forever.
BP’s Profits Up, Piper Left Unpaid
Meanwhile, despite some $30 billion in cleanup costs, fines and compensation, BP still pulled in $26 billion dollars in profits in 2011. And no one responsible for the decisions leading to the disaster has faced any criminal penalties.*
ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten thinks it’s the wrong message to send to corporations like BP that have been serial offenders when it comes to health and safety of workers and the environment. In a recent oped in the New York Times, he wrote:
"Two years after a series of gambles and ill-advised decisions on a BP drilling project led to the largest accidental oil spill in United States history and the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, no one has been held accountable."*
The operative word is "no one."
As a company, BP faces up to $45 million in fines, but no executive has been -- or is likely to be -- charged with a crime, in spite of the fact that the Gulf disaster was just the latest in a string of mishaps that indicate a pattern of negligence toward environmental and human health.
Lustgarten points out that prior to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the company was convicted of two felony environmental crimes and a misdemeanor, for the Texas City refinery explosion and for dumping toxic waste and spilling 200,000 gallons of oil in Alaska. More than 30 people died as a result of these and other accidents.
This pattern begs the question: how "accidental" is it when top company management was warned beforehand of the dangers, as it was in these cases? Lustgarten reports, "Documents show that the company had calculated the cost of a human life to be $10 million."
At that rate, $45 million in fines is a bargain. In fact, as Lustgarten says, it just becomes a cost of doing business.
To Make BP Accountable, Make It Personal
Drilling for oil is being expanded in the Gulf, the critically sensitive environment of the Arctic is being opened up to oil exploration, and political pressure to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to go forward is hitting fever pitch. In that context, it should give us pause that levying fines is not working as a deterrent to company negligence toward the environment and human health.
“When you see a company repeatedly pay large fines for large violations with environmental consequences and the fines get larger and larger, and government describes each one as a record fine, yet the company remains profitable and doesn’t skip a beat, we need the leverage to force them to be environmentally responsible,” Lustgarten told CSRwire.
That leverage, Lustgarten says, can only come with a credible threat of prosecuting individuals.
“To change the way management makes decisions, knowing they would be held personally accountable might make them less willing to take risks with their employees lives,” he told CSRwire. “The law is there, so it’s a question for the Department of Justice.”
Critics would point out that prosecuting well-heeled company execs is an expensive and lengthy process – one the government is loathe to undertake in a time of lean budgets and fat contributions from big corporations to election coffers.
And it’s a time when more are beginning to wonder why our lives, our health, and our environment – and those of our children and grandchildren – are light as feathers on the scales of justice, while the profits of BP and other companies like it have the weight of gold bullion.
It’s time for the fish, the crabs and the shrimp – and the fisherfolk – to have their day in court, as those who took their lives and livelihoods away stand in the dock.
Update: While the first arrest in this case did arrive this week (see note at the top), it is notable that officials arrested an engineer, not a corporate executive of any real standing. I highly doubt they will ever charge, much less arrest, top management -- which is the only way the culture of impunity will ever be stopped.