Saturday: Wonk’s Big Easy Reads

Morning, news junkies.

I’m going to start this Saturday with my history pick first:

La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha.

Click thumbnails for HQ views at Photography by Alfonso Bresciani.

I know we’ve had the perfunctory “Gulf oil spill: one year later” press coverage over the last few weeks, but since today marks the anniversary of New Orleans’ founding, I thought it would be prudent to take time out to dig deeper and get beyond the soundbytes. So this Saturday’s link dump is going to focus exclusively on the Gulf.

So how are NOLA and the Gulf Coast really doing?

Vanity Fair has posted a web exclusive from New Orleans-based photographer and CBS-affiliate videographer Jackson Fager, documenting the faces of shrimpers, fisherman, and oysterman along LA’s coastline, many of whom had their livelihoods snatched from them when the oil spill struck. Please check out Fager’s observations, thoughts, and photos. Here are the faces of the two women included in his slideshow (click for HQ and descriptions at the VF site):

Next up, from an interview (posted April 27th) with an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club:

BETWEEN THE LINES: And the Vessels of Opportunity, that was what BP set up to hire local fisher folks to clean up the spill, right?

DARRYL MALEK-WILEY: Right, that was funded by BP to hire people to go out and do clean-up work. A number of problems with that…No. 1, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network actually purchased safety gear and gave it to a number of fishermen to wear — respirators and things like that — because the environmental community knew about the dangers of the health impacts. And BP basically told fishermen and Vessels of Opportunity that if they wore the protective gear, they would no longer be working for BP.

In the interview, Malek-Wiley discusses a new organization called GO FISH (Gulf-Organized Fisheries in Solidarity and Hope), which is mobilizing fishermen and their families all the way from Alabama to Texas to fight for fair compensation from BP. Here’s what Malek-Wiley says these fishermen on the frontlines have to say about the official government spin that the oil has mostly disappeared:

DARRYL MALEK-WILEY: Yeah, what they say is that the oil is still here. We see it daily…tar balls are washing up all along the Gulf Coast. Just the way the winds blow…in the wintertime, the wind blows offshore so it’s blowing out into the Gulf; in the summertime we start getting southern winds blowing stuff back on shore. So we’re starting seeing tar balls come in; some of the oil come in. Because all the dispersant did was put it on the bottom of the Gulf, and so we’re starting to see some of that oil and dispersant coming back up and impacting a number of different coastal areas.

And, on dispersant:

DARRYL MALEK-WILEY: There is still a wide range of opinion. You know, the environmental community and fishermen basically agree that the use of dispersants without the needed scientific data on the long-term impacts of the stuff was not a smart thing. One point eight million gallons of dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico — nobody’s ever put that amount of dispersant anywhere in the world, so we don’t know what the impact of that is going to be. Some of the people who are sick, they’re taking samples of their blood and they’re finding the chemicals that make up the dispersants in their blood, as well as Louisiana sweet crude, and having serious health impacts.

Check out the rest of the interview to read more about those serious health impacts. It’s rather alarming, especially when you consider we’re talking about a population that has been out of work and lost their health insurance.

Dispersants: Questions remain

Last week the FDA declared seafood safe in Barataria, the coastal area hardest hit by the BP oil spill. The Miami Herald/AP article at the link says that means 99% of LA’s waters are open for fishing. The only meat I eat is seafood, and down along the Gulf we’ve gotten repeated “assurances” that our food supply isn’t tainted, but even all the way here in Houston a local chef who serves seafood still has unresolved concerns about dispersants:

“The thing that scares me the most about the oil situation is the dispersants, and from everybody that I talked to — from scientists to fisherman that’s the one thing that sit there and they hold onto,” he said.

Government scientists say their tests show no trace of any oil or dispersant in any seafood. They say the dispersant breaks down faster than oil in the water. NOAA says dispersant is simply not a concern, and for now, Caswell says he believes them.

“I eat it,” he said.

I eat it too, though I have cut back and still find myself wondering whether our public and private institutions are leveling with us on just how much they don’t know about the long-term impact of having these chemicals in our ecosystem and food supply and how far the reach of these effects might be. How many people have to get sick before they’ll admit anything?

Take for example this report out of Raceland, LA on fisherman Brandon Cassanova, who has mysteriously fallen ill, possibly due to exposure to dispersants. For months, Cassanova has been experiencing seizures, abdominal pain, memory loss, racing heartbeat, and elevated blood sugar, and his symptoms appear to be getting more acute. His lifelong primary-care physician, Dr. Mike Robichaux, believes Cassanova’s illness matches a “bizarre cluster” of symptoms experienced by people who say they have been exposed to dispersants and other toxins related to the oil spill. Robichaux, a former state senator and longtime advocate for locals exposed to pollutants, has written to Sen. Landrieu and others demanding the government for answers. He isn’t buying the line that the Gulf seafood is safe to eat, either.

While formal data collection by the LA Dept. of Health & Hospitals and long-term NIEHS research are underway, the task of proving causality between exposure and symptoms remains a hurdle. According to Tulane’s Dr. Luann White, most of the cases being reported are of a short-term and mild nature and dilution by the Gulf waters makes detecting chemicals and pathway of exposure to the public difficult. Anecdotally, however, Lafayette-based toxicologist Wilma Subra–who researched the chemistry of dispersants and came up with a list of possible effects–says she’s seen 600-700 people exhibiting this cluster of symptoms after being exposed to dispersants and crude, and that each of these cases seems to know of yet others going through the same thing.

A Thought Experiment on the Gulf Coast

This next one is interesting food for thought. Via geekosystem: What if the Gulf Oil Spill Never Happened? It’s a 2-minute animation clip by Chris Harmon, entitled Oil’d…please give it a look if you haven’t seen it yet:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Gulf Coast Oil Spill and Climate Change

I want to touch on the impact of the spill in terms of the broader environmental challenges for the Gulf…it seems like disaster capitalism struck this region and went into overdrive right at the time when it was most vulnerable and needed improvements in infrastructure and conservationist attention more than ever. Funny timing, that.

Over at, Chelsea Cooley paints a bleak picture with this headline… Last Days of Louisiana’s Bayous:

The 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico harmed Louisiana’s coastal eco-system in some obvious ways and in many other ways yet undiscovered. One unsettling truth is that the diminishing state of the wetlands actually aided the widespread effects of the oil spill, as the wetlands might otherwise have provided a protective barrier, preventing oil seepage into the bayous’ central regions. Barataria Bay, for example, a popular nesting ground for Louisiana’s pelicans, was one of the areas most polluted by the spill. The crisis compounded problems faced by an already delicate ecosystem.

However, the wetlands are also suffering due to a dramatic rise in sea-level associated with Global Warming. According to one professor of earth science from Tulane University, the sea-level rise in the Gulf Coast is occurring at a rate five times faster than it did in the 1000 years preceding the Industrial Revolution. The implications of human activity are on the table for all to see.

Also take a look at this SciAm/Reuters headline the other day that Dakinikat passed along to me… Seas Could Rise Up to 1.6 meters by 2100:

OSLO (Reuters) – Quickening climate change in the Arctic including a thaw of Greenland’s ice could raise world sea levels by up to 1.6 meters by 2100, an international report showed on Tuesday.

Such a rise — above most past scientific estimates — would add to threats to coasts from Bangladesh to Florida, low-lying Pacific islands and cities from London to Shanghai. It would also, for instance, raise costs of building tsunami barriers in Japan.

“The past six years (until 2010) have been the warmest period ever recorded in the Arctic,” according to the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), which is backed by the eight-nation Arctic Council.

And, this piece at Huffpo brings it altogether. Pre-Spill, Coastal Threats Cannot Be Ignored, Environmentalists Say…It’s breathtaking to read the entire piece and the extent of the challenges the Gulf region is up against. I’m just going to quote a few snippets:

Dr. Virginia Burkett, senior science advisor for Climate and Land Use Change at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the spill contributed to Louisiana’s wetlands loss, which was already well underway because of multiple stressors. And, she said, a year after BP’s rig explosion, cumulative effects of climate change and the spill are still poorly understood. Climate change itself, however, has been well studied.


Louisiana is in the grip of global, environmental change. “Temperatures and ocean waters are rising because of increased greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, like carbon monoxide, in the atmosphere,” Burkett said. “Glacial mass and annual snowcover are declining more rapidly than many scientists had predicted.” Ocean temperatures and acidity are increasing, and rainfall volume has grown. But spacing between rain events has expanded so droughts are more frequent in some regions of the world, she said. And in several ocean basins around the globe, hurricanes have become more intense.

As much as our government tries to pretend like the oil that gushed out into the Gulf last year just disappeared, they cannot wipe away the consequences of the larger pattern of environmental destruction that the BP oil spill has contributed to in the area. The spill last year wasn’t the first domino to fall, and it won’t be the last:

Burkett said events that hastened coastal erosion in recent decades won’t be the last.”When I was a child, Hurricane Camille was the big benchmark event, then it was Katrina.” And in the current decade, the Gulf oil spill is the gorilla.

What can we do?

Burkett offers these suggestions:

“Barrier islands and wetlands can be restored for hurricane protection,” Burkett said. “River sediment can be used to build marsh, instead of letting sediment wash out to sea.” Preparations can be made for more intense drought and wildfires.

“Home owners and communities can elevate houses, and cities can adapt infrastructure to the rising sea. In some areas, however, retreat may be the most effective option.” Her parents, for example, moved inland when they lost their home in Biloxi, MS to Hurricane Katrina.

So how much ‘ruin there is left in a nation’ may very well depend on just how much ‘retreat’ there is in it.

And, our ability to retreat depends on us even knowing we’re in danger in the first place. We saw the failures to get people out in time during Katrina and the several weeks it took for the current Administration to really respond to the BP oil spill, but what about the mini-disasters that build up cumulative damage yet go virtually unnoticed, leaving people unaware of the true extent of the daily threat they’re up against and how unsustainable their living spaces are becoming. had a really interesting read recently on what can be done to better track crude leaking into the Gulf using satellite imagery… Gulf Oil Shouldn’t Spill Beneath the Radar:

A year after the Deepwater Horizon blowout sent 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, smaller leaks still bubble across the Gulf — but unlike big spills, they’re largely ignored.

A nonprofit organization called SkyTruth, which uses public and commercial satellite imagery to assess environmental damage, recently added airplanes and ships to its Gulf monitoring. But the group can still investigate just a tiny fraction of spills and leaks that may be reported, underreported or not reported at all by oil companies.

SkyTruth founder John Amos, a geologist and a former oil-company research scientist, thinks roughly $3 million per year could buy the necessary data and provide the first continuous, accurate assessment of Gulf oil pollution.

“The oil industry has done a great job convincing the public that modern drilling pollution is nonexistent. But we’ve discovered wells damaged by hurricanes in 2005 that are still leaking,” said Amos, who may have caught an oil company grossly under-reporting one of its leaks. “We have some tools available to do investigations, but in many cases it’s just not enough. For smaller spills, we need an up-close look from satellite imagery.”

On the proactive side of things, over here at Houston’s Reliant Center, the Offshore Technology Conference this past week has yielded some interesting results:

A possible tool for preventing oil spills like last year’s Gulf disaster arrived on the floor of Houston’s Reliant Center this week, courtesy of an auto industry refugee and a jackknife can opener.

The Latest Threat

As mentioned earlier, the BP oil spill isn’t the first or last threat the area is facing. Here’s the latest trouble, via the Daily Comet… Flood will deal blow to struggling oystermen.

Via the Sun Herald… Another slam for the Gulf:

GULFPORT — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway on Monday, sending a flood of fresh water through Lake Pontchartrain, through a strait and into the Gulf.

It’s something officials don’t do often, because of the effect it has on the marine life and the Mississippi Sound.

But the Mississippi River — already high at 1.6 million cubic feet per second flowing past Natchez — is expected to increase to 2.45 million cubic feet per second by May 22.

Knowing that volume is coming down the river, opening the Bonnet Carre is an attempt to divert some of it before it gets to New Orleans.

But scientists who study marine life in the Gulf cringe.

“It will change things, that’s for sure,” said Bill Hawkins, director of USM’s Gulf Coast Research Lab. But how much change depends on the volume and duration of the diversion.

Jay Alford has more — The Coming Waters (h/t Dakinikat):

There’s more water on the upper Mississippi River right now than any time in history, period, in any time in history,” said Garrett Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “This overwhelms the volume of water that was in the river in 1927, 1937, 1997, 2008. An extraordinary flow is coming down the river.”

That water levels are expected to be above crest for seven to 10 days doesn’t inspire much confidence. Graves said there are “vulnerabilities everywhere from the levees in Baton Rouge to the levees in south Louisiana.”

Final Thought

I’ll close with the WSJ’s review this Saturday, of Rowan Jacobsen’s Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland.

The headline says a lot in itself… A Gulf Requiem:

Click to view on Amazon.

“Most of the Gulf Coast has not been touched by the oil spill,” Mr. Jacobsen reports, “and is beautiful and vital as ever.”

Yet these early avowals of glass-half-fullism notwithstanding, it’s hard not to hear the mournful sounds of a pipe organ on nearly every page. And you have to wonder why all the people—oystermen, oilmen, shrimpers, tourists—are so grim-faced, as if shuffling past what appears to be a Gulf-sized casket.

It’s a true shame that we’d let an area that is one of our national treasures become a laboratory for climate change and disaster capitalism in this fashion. Take a good look, because what’s happening to the Southern Louisiana area and the rest of the Gulf is foreshadowing of the rest of our country’s future, if the interests of profit continue to be put before people, unabated, and people get pushed off further to the margins of the margins.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if our president would have responded to the death of OBL by using the new presidential force behind the bully pulpit to restore our attention to the Gulf Coast and all that has been neglected over the past decade… too bad any reminder of the Gulf and the struggles of ordinary people conflicts with the fierce urgency of Obama’s permanent campaign.

[originally posted at Let Them Listen; crossposted at Sky Dancing and Taylor Marsh]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: