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Precautionary Principle – Number 193

Precaution and the Deepwater Horizon

May 2010


Nothing more clearly demonstrates the need for the precautionary principle than the ongoing disaster in the Gulf. Each article we present here--a sampling of the millions of words written in the past month--emphasizes one of precautionary lessons we should be learning from the disaster:

  • In today’s world, each environmental insult pushes fragile systems closer to the point of no return. The Gulf marshes have already been weakened by development, farm runoff, and hurricanes. They may not survive the oil spill.
  • This catastrophe would not have happened if all parties had practiced the precautionary principle.
  • We cannot change what has taken place but we can learn from it.
  • Precautionary policies are cost effective, even for industry, if they can prevent disasters too big to contain.
  • Emergency measures to deal with disasters should not override precaution.
  • Precaution means not only preventing disasters waiting to happen but also stopping those that are already happening. Just look north to the Canadian oil sands. . . .


I. Gulf Coast Towns Brace as Huge Oil Slick Nears Marshes

by Leslie Kaufman and Campbell Robertson, The New York Times

"The questions that haunt this region are how much more can the wetlands take and does their degradation spell doom for an increasingly defenseless southern Louisiana?"

II. Precautionary Tale in Gulf of Mexico by Stephen Bede Scharper, Toronto Star

"As is becoming painfully clear, the precautionary principle was a no-show both in the decision to expand coastal drilling and in the specific case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig."

III. Gulf Oil Spill--More than a Sea Change by Jean-Michel Cousteau, AOL News

"We need to implement the precautionary principle, which requires the user to prove that any action taken will not cause harm. If we are not convinced, then the project should not be allowed to proceed, whatever the profit."

IV. Can We Install Precaution in the Corporate Operating System? by Sanford Lewis, CSR Wire

In the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, can BP and other corporations follow the precautionary principle?

V. BP Spill Responders Told to Forgo Precautionary Health Measures in Cleanup by Riki Ott, Huffington Post

BP is assuring local fishermen working on the gusher that they don't need respirators or other special protection from the crude oil.

VI. Oil Sands Riskier than Gulf Spill, Say Investor Groups by Matthew O. Berger, Interpress Services

Oil sands development is like the Gulf disaster playing out in slow motion.

I. Gulf Coast Towns Brace as Huge Oil Slick Nears Marshes

by Leslie Kaufman and Campbell Robertson, The New York Times

"The questions that haunt this region are how much more can the wetlands take and does their degradation spell doom for an increasingly defenseless southern Louisiana?"

COCODRIE, La. — Oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico unabated Saturday, and officials conveyed little hope that the flow could be contained soon, forcing towns along the Gulf Coast to brace for what is increasingly understood to be an imminent environmental disaster.

The spill, emanating from a pipe 50 miles offshore and 5,000 feet underwater, was creeping into Louisiana’s fragile coastal wetlands as strong winds and rough waters hampered cleanup efforts. Officials said the oil could hit the shores of Mississippi and Alabama as soon as Monday.

The White House announced that President Obama would visit the region on Sunday morning.

Adm. Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, who is overseeing the Obama administration’s response to the spill, said at a news conference Saturday evening that he could not estimate how much oil was leaking per day from the damaged underwater well.

“There’s enough oil out there that it’s logical it’s going to impact the shoreline,” Admiral Allen said.

The imperiled marshes that buffer New Orleans and the rest of the state from the worst storm surges are facing a sea of sweet crude oil, orange as rust. The most recent estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20 and sank days later, was gushing as much as 210,000 gallons of crude into the gulf each day. Concern is mounting that the flow may soon grow to several times that amount.

The wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta have been losing about 24 square miles a year, deprived of sediment replenishment by levees in the river, divided by channels cut by oil companies and poisoned by farm runoff from upriver. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took large, vicious bites.

The questions that haunt this region are how much more can the wetlands take and does their degradation spell doom for an increasingly defenseless southern Louisiana?

Many variables will dictate just how devastating this slick will ultimately be to the ecosystem, including whether it takes days or months to seal the leaking oil well and whether winds keep blowing the oil ashore. But what is terrifying everyone from bird watchers to the state officials charged with rebuilding the natural protections of this coast is that it now seems possible that a massive influx of oil could overwhelm and kill off the grasses that knit the ecosystem together.

Healthy wetlands would have some natural ability to cope with an oil slick, said Denise Reed, interim director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. “The trouble with our marshes is they’re already stressed, they’re already hanging by a fingernail,” she said.

It is possible, she said, that the wetlands’ “tolerance for oil has been compromised.” If so, she said, that could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

To an untrained eye, the vast expanses of grass leading into Terrebonne Bay, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, look vigorous. Locals use boats as cars here, trawling though the marsh for shrimp or casting for plentiful redfish. Out on the water, the air smells like salt — not oil — and seabirds abound and a dolphin makes a swift appearance.

But it is what is not visible that is scary, said Alexander Kolker, a professor of coastal and wetland science at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Piloting a craft through the inland waterways, he pointed out that islands that recently dotted the bay and are still found on local navigation maps are gone. Also gone are the freshwater alligators that gave the nearby town Cocodrie its name — French settlers thought they were crocodiles.

All evidence, he says, is that this land is quickly settling into the salt ocean.

The survival of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands is not only an environmental issue here. Since successive hurricanes have barreled up from the gulf unimpeded, causing mass devastation and loss of life, just about every resident of southern Louisiana has begun to view wetlands protection as a cause of existential importance. If the wetlands had been more robust when Hurricane Katrina’s waters pushed up from the ocean, the damage might not have been as severe.

But they were not. Levees holding back the Mississippi River have prevented natural land replenishment from floods. Navigation channels and pipeline canals have brought saltwater into fragile freshwater marshes, slowly killing them, and the sloshing of waves in boats’ wakes has eroded natural banks.

Since 1932, the state has lost an area the size of Delaware. Not all the damage is caused by humans: the hurricanes of 2005 turned about 217 square miles of marsh into water, according to a study by the United States Geological Survey.

Garret Graves, director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, said that since Hurricane Katrina, extraordinary efforts at restoration had been made and, to some extent, had slowed the decline. But, he said, a severe oil dousing would change that.

“The vegetation is what holds these islands together,” Mr. Graves said. “When you kill that, you just have mud, and that just gets washed away.”

A federal judge has affirmed the necessity of robust wetlands for the city of New Orleans, finding last fall that the degradation of wetlands and natural levee banks by the federal government’s negligent maintenance of a navigation channel had created a path for Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge right up to the city.

Oil is likely to take similar open pathways into the marsh. For this reason, the state’s approach to fighting the oil slick is the same as its approach to creating a heartier and more storm-surge-resistant marshland: it is diverting the Mississippi River and its healthy load of sediment to counter a potential influx of oil and strengthen vegetation.

Normally, these grasses have great resiliency. They are similar to a lawn, said Irving A. Mendelssohn, a professor at Louisiana State University who has done studies oil’s effect on the local ecology. If they are damaged only above the ground, they will grow back swiftly. But if the roots die, the plant dies and the ground underneath it sinks into the sea within a year.

A coating with a sheen of oil would do little harm, Dr. Mendelssohn said. But, he said, “if you have oil coming in consistently, the cumulative effect could be severe. If the plants keep getting reoiled, you get a smothering effect. The vegetation could no longer do photosynthesis, and then it can’t sustain itself.”

If the volume of oil does not increase drastically, it is likely to ooze down the saltwater channels, hemmed in by grasses. But then there is the potential nightmare of a tropical storm, even a low-level one, with a surge of several feet that sends oil far into the freshwater marshes, which are more fragile and almost impossible to clean.

That is where the health of the marsh can make a crucial, and possibly fatal, difference. On the way to Terrebonne Bay, which was not yet affected by oil on Friday, Dr. Kolker pointed out signs that the marshes were weak: cypress trees, for example, dying by the side of Route 10. Farther out, local fishermen tell of pelicans whose nests were so crowded onto what remains of sinking barrier islands that they looked like Manhattan co-ops.

“The area can only sustain so many environmental insults,” he said.

Leslie Kaufman reported from Cocodrie, La., and Campbell Robertson from New Orleans.

Original article here.


II. Precautionary Tale in Gulf of Mexico

by Stephen Bede Scharper, Toronto Star

"As is becoming painfully clear, the precautionary principle was a no-show both in the decision to expand coastal drilling and in the specific case of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig."

Less than two months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama reversed his campaign promise and opened up 800,000 square kilometres of U.S. coastal waters to offshore oil drilling, ending a 20-year U.S. moratorium on new ocean oil rig construction.

"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama stated in making the announcement. "But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we’re going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel . . ."

Today, following a deadly explosion April 20 that killed 11 workers, British Petroleum'sDeepwater Horizon oil well continues to spew life-threatening crude onto the Gulf of Mexico coastline and into the deep ocean currents that swirl toward the Florida Keys, Cuba and the east coast. As more dead marine life washes ashore, the short-sightedness of Obama's thinking is becoming all too apparent.

With oceanographers claiming the gusher will have devastating consequences for marine life and coastal ecosystems, and local shrimp, oyster and other Gulf fisheries severely jeopardized, Obama's comments that such drilling is needed to "sustain economic growth," "secure jobs" and keep "businesses competitive" beg the questions: Whose economic growth? Whose jobs? Whose businesses?

For the fishermen and their families and for the tourist workers in the Florida Keys, the drill and spill approach to ocean oil and gas extraction may well eliminate their jobs, their businesses and their entire livelihoods for years to come. And expanding the areas where such drilling is allowed from the eastern Gulf of Mexico up to northern Delaware, as Obama has authorized, will only increase the risk of such horrific environmental disasters raising their oil-drenched heads in the future.

The notion of the precautionary principle, a type of "pre-emptive prudence," has been invoked in international environmental accords and local decision-making for the past few decades. This principal calls on decision-makers to anticipate negative consequences, even when the scientific data is inconclusive, and to employ measures to prevent them.

As is becoming painfully clear, the precautionary principle was a no-show both in the decision to expand coastal drilling and in the specific case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig. At a recent U.S. federal investigation into the blowout, for example, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, asking about the quality and installation of a blowout preventer on such rigs, learned that the defective device was "manufactured by industry, installed by industry, with no government witnessing oversight of the installation or construction."

As the details of this spill leak out, it is becoming clear that the precautionary principal was ignored. It also appears that basic regulatory oversight was seriously compromised, suggesting a case of ecological "reckless endangerment," one that threatens the livelihoods of thousands of American families as well as countless marine species.

In Canada, an unbowed BP Canada and other firms have been lobbying the National Energy Board to loosen regulations around drilling in the Arctic's ecologically sensitive Beaufort Sea. While individual citizens can recycle, compost, ride bikes and use eco-friendly products, if governments do not put the common social and ecological good ahead of narrow corporate profits, our seas of life might be transformed into oceans of oil.

Present and future administrations, both in Canada and the U.S., must adopt an environmental policy of precaution rather than cleanup if we are to have lives worth living on a life-filled planet

Stephen Bede Scharper is associate professor at the Centre of Environment, University of Toronto. His column appears every fourth Monday.

Original article here.


III. Gulf Oil Spill--More than a Sea Change

by Jean-Michel Cousteau, AOL News

"We need to implement the precautionary principle, which requires the user to prove that any action taken will not cause harm. If we are not convinced, then the project should not be allowed to proceed, whatever the profit."

(May 20) -- In the midst of desperate attempts to stem the flow of oil and the agony of waiting to understand its effects, we are left with simple questions: What damage has already been done to the underwater ecosystem? How quickly can we move from dependence on oil to a sustainable, renewable energy policy?

For now, crude oil and gas are gushing out at a few thousand pounds per square inch of pressure. These very complex chemicals hit ice-cold water and travel to the warmer water of the surface, similar to an oil refinery process where temperature and pressure convert crude oil into other compounds. Which ones are toxic? Which ones dissolve, sink or come to the surface? I doubt anyone knows fully what is happening.

How long will the consequences, still unknown, be felt? I was at the Exxon Valdez 11-million-gallon oil spill and watched rocks being scrubbed and birds cleaned by 12,000 people using paper towels. Over 21 years later, we still hear stories of the ecological impact and lives forever changed, for the worse. Some estimates claim the Gulf spill may range from half that of the Exxon Valdez to the equivalent of the Valdez spill every four to seven days.

Of course we should be alarmed, but the present hysteria angers me. How many times must we be surprised by the latest catastrophe? Will only a Doomsday event motivate us? It is crystal clear to me that we need to look at our attitudes and make fundamental changes. Crisis management is no management at all. Crises are absolutely inevitable if we continue to ignore the fact that nature is far more complex and unpredictable than we can imagine.

We cannot change what has taken place, but we can learn from it.

We must embrace a completely different perspective of how we work in, exploit and manage the natural world, far beyond simply the search for new technology. We need a new philosophy about the appropriate use of technology and our relationship with nature. We need to come to terms with the fact that nature is far more complex than we understand, and technology is far more limited than we want to believe.

Knowing the world is unpredictable means that our technologies need to be designed with multiple safeguards and back-up systems. We need to anticipate the worst, plan everything to prevent it and then prepare another plan for when that prevention fails. Constantly being surprised by catastrophe is stupid because unpredictable events in nature are totally predictable.

We all know that for now, we must stop the leak, clean up the mess, monitor the impacts, stay calm and stick to the facts. We need to take care of the thousands and thousands of people whose lives are being destroyed in a domino effect, and make sure the people who were incompetent are held responsible economically and politically.

Finally, we need to accept the fact that some areas of our planet are too valuable and too risky for us to meddle in. I have spent much of my life on and in the sea. I know it well enough to know that I don't know it at all. It is unpredictable and powerful.

Working in the ocean is dangerous business. At great depths, like a mile below the surface, it is beyond challenging. The pressure is otherworldly. The temperature approaches freezing, cold enough to make methane gas combine with water in the consistency of a smoothie. There is zero sunlight. This is close to an impossible environment in which to work.

Agencies responsible for giving permits and overseeing technological security and back-up systems, and BP itself, knew these challenges; sadly, the ultimate test of any proposed fail-safe system is the reality of a disaster. I believe drilling for oil in these regions is inappropriate across the globe, period.

Why would we treat the alien and hostile environment of the deep ocean with any less caution that we treat space, where we go only with multiple back-up systems?

We need to implement the precautionary principle, which requires the user to prove that any action taken will not cause harm. If we are not convinced, then the project should not be allowed to proceed, whatever the profit. The Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm," must be applied a priori to our natural environment. When it comes to any action to the environment, we must assume an industry is guilty until it proves itself innocent.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill will be a tragedy of massive proportions to the natural world no matter what. Our only redemption is to make it the catalyst for a philosophical change that will protect us in the future. For starters, we need an across-the-board inventory, from businesses and industry, to do what we can to reduce our need for oil.

No one has been harmed by extracting energy from sunshine and wind, tides, waves, currents, or from the temperature differential between warm surface and deep ocean water. In comparison, these seem risk-free. I, for one, am willing to take the chance.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is an environmentalist, an educator and the founder and president of Ocean Futures Society. He is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of the new book "My Father, The Captain" about his father, the legendary undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Original article here.


IV. Can We Install Precaution in the Corporate Operating System?

by Sanford Lewis, CSR Wire, May 10, 2010

In the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, can BP and other corporations follow the precautionary principle?

We don't yet know the full toll on regional and global ecosystems and economies from the unprecedented BP Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe in the Gulf Coast.  But it is not too soon to draw one lesson — the need for a dramatically different decision-making principle to operate whenever a corporation threatens what is most valued by humanity.  Now is a good moment to ask whether there is more we can do to install such a principle in the corporate "operating system."

For over a decade, there has been a mostly quiet and scholarly discussion about thePrecautionary Principle.  This is essentially a common sense notion that when an activity may pose the potential for severe or irreversible damage to the things we hold dear, businesses and governments must take all reasonable precautionary measures to avoid the damage.  The principle demands action even in the face of uncertainties, such as how likely it might be for such severe damage to occur, or whether the acting entity may be held legally accountable for the resulting damage.

Despite its common sense, the Principle does not drive relevant decisions in most corporations today. In the case of the Gulf Coast disaster, BP reportedly saved $500,000 by omitting a remote acoustical emergency valve. The company had fought regulations in the US, similar to those already effect in Norway and Brazil, which require such a valve. And while other companies voluntarily install the valves even where not legally required, BP and its contractors did not do so. We will probably never know whether the valve would have stopped the current disaster. But the uncommon sense of the Precautionary Principle would dictate that the valve should have been in place.

This raises the question of whether it is possible to install this principle in corporate "operating systems" in a way that would lead companies to make more precautionary decisions.

Here are a few ideas for reader input.  Do these ideas strike you as worth pursuing as part of corporate social responsibility and socially responsible investment initiatives?

Integrate the Precautionary Principle to Enterprise Risk Management?

Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) is a widely used process by which a company reviews and manages its "risk profile." See Enterprise Risk Management Framework of the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) (2004).  Financial and reputational risks are typical drivers of decisions under ERM. In contrast, integrating the Precautionary Principle to ERM would mean requiring action when  the environment or other core social values such as human rights are seriously threatened, regardless of projections of whether  the related costs will be internalized to the corporate bottom line. Some forward-looking companies such as DellSamsungand Bristol-Myers Squibb  have  already adopted the Precautionary Principle.  One wonders whether and how those companies are already integrating the Principle to ERM.  Where else are there opportunities to advance Precaution as a decision-making principle within ERM?

The  Precautionary Principle and human rights? The Deepwater Horizon disaster is not just an environmental catastrophe. Because it threatens the right to livelihood of  many coastal people who rely on the ocean for fishing, and the right to a  healthy environment,  it also is a human rights disaster. The Precautionary Principle is relevant to protection ofhuman rights as well as to the environment.  Shouldn't society require that businesses operationalize the idea that if their actions may trample fundamental human rights, even if there is some uncertainty, they must consider and apply measures  to avoid such harms?   The opportunity to instill such a principle may exist now.  Professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, has proposed a framework that would, among other things, encourage corporations to "respect" human rights by exercising "due diligence."  (The framework is due to be refined and finalized by June 2011.)  At a recent gathering to discuss the framework, lawyers asserted that getting their corporate clients to engage in "due diligence" is difficult because "human rights" are  so amorphous.  How can they know with certainty when such rights are about to be violated?  Could integrating the Precautionary Principle, or something like it, into the UN framework help to ensure that corporations respect human rights even in the face of uncertainty?

Integrate the precautionary principle to  corporate charters, perhaps beginning with emerging "green" and "sustainable" corporate models?

The deepest place to install the Precautionary Principle would be in the "DNA" of the corporation, the corporate charter.  At least theoretically, efforts could be undertaken to amend corporate charters to require the application of the Precautionary Principle. But an easier place to begin may be through the new efforts to provide mechanisms to incorporate  and  certify companies as "green" or "sustainable." For instance, on April 14, 2010, the state of Maryland established a new law allowing companies to incorporate as "B Corporations," integrating societal benefit goals to their charters and missions, and backing this up with review and certification by respected third-party certifiers (much like Underwriters’ Laboratory reviews safety).  Other states are also considering such laws. The incorporation and certification programs that are emerging are an attempt to overcome widespread greenwash, as a result of companies like BP attempting to self-certify or brand themselves as green.  Could a litmus test be whether the new "green" corporations have adopted and operationalized the Precautionary Principle?

There are many other potential opportunities and strategies for integrating the Precautionary Principle to corporate decision-making, such as shareholder resolutions, legislation, and directors' fiduciary duties.  In the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, the time is ripe to begin the work of integrating the common sense of precaution to corporate decision-making systems. Which of these opportunities do you find most promising, and why?

About Sanford Lewis

Sanford Lewis is an attorney who represents investors and nongovernmental organizations on matters of socially responsible investment and corporate social responsibility.   One of his clients is the Investor Environmental Health Network, a coalition of investors concerned with the risks and opportunities associated with toxic chemicals in corporate products and activities.

Readers, let us know your thoughts on the questions Lewis poses? Give us your feedback on Talkback! CSRwire is the leading source of corporate social responsibility and sustainability press releases, reports and information.

Original article here.


V. At What Cost? BP Spill Responders Told to Forgo Precautionary Health Measures in Cleanup

by Riki Ott, Huffington Post, May 17, 2010

BP is assuring local fishermen working on the gusher that they don't need respirators or other special protection from the crude oil.

Venice, Louisiana -- Local fishermen hired to work on BP's uncontrolled oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico are scared and confused. Fishermen here and in other small communities dotting the southern marshes and swamplands of Barataria Bay are getting sick from the working on the cleanup, yet BP is assuring them they don't need respirators or other special protection from the crude oil, strong hydrocarbon vapors, or chemical dispersants being sprayed in massive quantities on the oil slick.

Fishermen have never seen the results from the air-quality monitoring patches some of them wear on their rain gear when they are out booming and skimming the giant oil slick. However, more and more fishermen are suffering from bad headaches, burning eyes, persistent coughs, sore throats, stuffy sinuses, nausea, and dizziness. They are starting to suspect that BP is not telling them the truth.

And based on air monitoring conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a Louisiana coastal community, those workers seem to be correct. The EPA findings show that airborne levels of toxic chemicals like hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds like benzene, for instance, now far exceed safety standards for human exposure.

For two weeks, I've been in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama sharing stories from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated the community I lived and commercially fished in, with everyone from fishermen and women to local mayors to state governors and the crush of international media.

During the 1989 cleanup in Alaska, thousands of workers had what Exxon medical doctors called, "the Valdez Crud," and dismissed as simple colds and flu. Fourteen years later, I followed the trail of sick workers through the maze of court records, congressional records, obituaries, and media stories, and made hundreds of phone calls. I found a different story. As one former cleanup worker put it, "I thought I had the Valdez Crud in 1989. I didn't think I'd have it for fourteen years."

In 1989 Exxon knew cleanup workers were getting sick: Exxon's clinical data shows 6,722 cases of upper respiratory "infections"--or more likely work-related chemical induced illnesses. Exxon also knew workers were being overexposed to oil vapors and oil particles as verified through its air-quality monitoring program contracted to Med-Tox. The cleanup workers never saw results of this program. Neither did OSHA, the agency supposedly charged to oversee and independently monitor Exxon's worker-safety program.

Alarmed by the "chemical poisoning epidemic," as expert witness Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum would later call it when he testified on behalf of sick workers, Exxon created a partial release form to indemnify itself from future health claims. Exxon paid its workers $600.50 to sign it, as I discovered in court records.

Sick workers were left to fend for themselves. Merle Savage was a foreman on theBering Trader during the cleanup and supervised 180 workers. She described a persistent headache and "bronchitis" symptoms in 1989 that "wouldn't go away." Her medical doctors didn't connect her symptoms to her hazardous waste cleanup work. She is now completely disabled. Richard Nagel, a master captain, supervised the workers who sprayed the dispersant Inipol. Exxon called Inipol, a "bioremediation" agent, but the Material Safety Data Sheet listed the solvent and human health hazard, 2-butoxyethanol. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knows the Product Schedule is rife with abuse and products are used interchangeably - and that "misuses may cause further harm to the environment than the oil alone," but the charade continues. Nagel outlived most of his crew on the Pegasus. He was fifty-three when he died in 2009 of complications from systemic illnesses that his medical doctors never connected to his cleanup work.

Unlike the Exxon Valdez tragedy, in more recent oil spills human-health studies were conducted by independent qualified personnel. After the 2002 Prestige oil spill, medical researchers reported that fishermen and residents of Galacia, Spain, suffered identical symptoms to Exxon Valdez and now BP Gulf responders when cleaning up off their coast - or just from breathing air laced with oil vapors, driven by hurricane force winds. Similarly, after the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill off the coast of Taean, South Korea, medical researchers documented respiratory damage, central nervous system damage, and even genetic damage in volunteers and fishermen who worked on the cleanup.

There is no excuse for sick people. BP and the federal agencies charged with worker safety know that the risks of working on a hazardous waste cleanup are extraordinarily high and that it will take a concerted effort to keep workers safe and healthy. Further, it will take an equally extraordinary effort by BP and the federal government to protect public health in coastal communities downwind or downstream from the toxic stew in the Gulf.

Yet I don't see either BP or the federal government taking sufficient--or any--action to prevent human tragedy in the form of acute and likely long-term illnesses from its uncontrolled leak.

Years after the Exxon Valdez human-health tragedy, Eula Bingham, who was assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health in the Carter Administration, said of the federal OSHA inaction, "Quite frankly, they should have been more aggressive, but the government just folded."

I am in Louisiana as a volunteer to help make sure that, this time, the no one just folds. We need independent medical researchers to monitor health impacts. We need the Obama Administration to take aggressive steps to protect public health and worker safety and stop this unfolding tragedy before it gets worse.

Original article here.

Marine toxicologist and Exxon Valdez survivor


VI. Oil Sands Riskier than Gulf Spill, Say Investor Groups

by Matthew O. Berger, Interpress Services, May 17, 2010

Oil sands development is like the Gulf disaster playing out in slow motion.

WASHINGTON, May 17 (IPS) - As the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico destroys habitat and livelihoods, the extraction of oil from Canadian oil sands deposits is having a similar impact on fragile ecosystems and communities deep in the North American interior. The dramatic impact of oil sands expansion should give the companies involved and their investors pause, cautions a new report commissioned by Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental groups, and authored by the financial risk management group RiskMetrics.

Oil sands development is "kind of like the gulf spill but playing out in slow motion", said report co-author Doug Cogan, director of climate risk management at RiskMetrics. He called it a "land-based" version of the gulf disaster.

The value in the oil sands is bitumen, a thick, heavy form of petroleum with a tar-like consistency that requires energy-intensive processing to separate it from clay and sand. The bitumen is not drilled for but mined, and that mining has led to the razing of boreal forests and fouling of water supplies in parts of the 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta in which the oil sands are found.

Cogan drew the connection between the huge amount of seawater being polluted in the Gulf of Mexico and the huge amount of freshwater that is polluted in the course of extracting oil from the oil sands.

It takes up to four barrels of water to obtain one barrel of oil, as opposed to one barrel of water to one barrel of oil for more conventional oil extraction.

That water is then left in tailings ponds that currently cover 80 square miles. Those toxic ponds pose a hazard to migrating birds, risk contaminating nearby soil and water resources, present health problems to downstream communities and, the report notes, pose the risk of "a catastrophic breach".

The particulates in the mining waste take decades to settle out in the ponds. "After 40 years of production, no oil sands companies have yet fully reclaimed tailings ponds created by development," says the report.

The report also notes how expansion of oil sands in Alberta is turning one of the world's largest carbon sinks - the province's vast boreal forests - into a fast-growing emitter of carbon dioxide.

It argues the water- and energy-related risks - combined with the added costs of emerging climate change regulations and the potential for litigation from affected communities - should make expansion of oil sands development unappealing to investors.

The argument is not a new one. While environmental and indigenous groups have campaigned against the impacts of oil sands development, numerous reports from institutional investors have pointed out the risks to shareholders in the companies involved.

Ceres' report, titled "Canada's Oil Sands: Shrinking Window of Opportunity", comes in the midst of a slew of company annual meetings. Like in past years, a number of shareholder resolutions calling for greater disclosure of the financial risk tied to oil sands investments have been filed with companies including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.

These companies, said Cogan, "may need oil prices approaching 100 dollars a barrel to justify [oil sands] expansion, but not more than 120 dollars a barrel in order to sustain consumer demand".

This financial fine line is difficult to walk, especially given the huge capital commitments that developing the oil sands requires. These large initial investments can lock shareholders' investments in for decades, leaving that money vulnerable to future lawsuits and regulations.

As in offshore drilling, then, an increased thirst for oil has brought an increased potential for disaster - environmentally and financially.

In the wake of the explosion on one of its offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico Apr. 20 - and the ever-ballooning oil slick that has resulted - BP has lost about 30 billion dollars in market value and seen its share price dip to a six-month low.

Ceres says that oil production from the Gulf of Mexico and Canada's oil sands has doubled in recent years to 3.9 million barrels a day, and that it now supplies nearly a quarter of total U.S. oil needs.

"All oil is getting dirtier and more difficult to find, as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates," noted Bob Walker, vice president of sustainability at Canada-based Northwest and Ethical Investment.

His firm has criticised companies like BP and Shell in the past for doing a poor job of disclosing to shareholders the risks tied to oil sands investment.

"Producers are optimistic that they can double oil sands production over the coming decade, and more than triple output by 2030 to produce more than 4 million barrels per day. That is more than double current oil production in the Gulf of Mexico," says the Ceres report. They are already producing 1.3 barrels a day.

The long-term impact on the people and environment in Alberta are "arguably greater" than the headline-grabbing disaster still unfolding in the gulf, it says.

Andrew Logan, director of Ceres' oil and gas programme, said the gulf spill "underscores that all oil development carries risk and potentially large costs...These risks will only grow" as companies turn to increasingly risky oil development opportunities.

"The report's findings are our wake-up call," he said.

Original article here.