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Deepwater Drilling Resumes Despite Unclear Impact of BP Spill: “It is All about Hiding the Oil, Not Cleaning It Up”

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Many scientists remain concerned that chemical dispersants used during the BP oil spill recovery effort may have damaged marine habitats, affecting many endangered species. “You’ve got this unbelievable chemical soup out there on the order that’s never been seen before,” says our guest, Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Meanwhile, the federal government has awarded its first permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since lifting a moratorium imposed in the aftermath of the BP spill. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 20, 2011Death Toll from BP Spill Still Rising as Residents Die from Spill-Related Illnesses
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about the environment and how it’s been affected, we’re also joined by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Can you talk about this first anniversary and what we’ve seen since the massive explosion in the Gulf one year ago today, Kieran?

KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, the impact on wildlife has been devastating. We’ve estimated that over 6,000 sea turtles were killed; 26,000 marine mammals, including dolphins and porpoises, were killed; and on the order of 82,000 seabirds. And one of the worst things is, is that the death is still happening. The disaster is not over. So at this very moment, dolphins and sea turtles are still washing up onshore dead and covered with oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the dispersants that were used.

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, the dispersants are particularly disturbing, because the oil was bad enough, then we sprayed this highly toxic dispersant on it, which is actually four times more toxic than the oil to many of the wildlife. And so, the oil did not disappear, but it was broken down into smaller parts, where it sunk into the water column, in some places onto the bottom of the sea. And so, now you’ve got this unbelievable chemical soup out there on the order that’s never been seen before. There’s never been an oil disaster where we’ve sprayed this much dispersant into the ocean not knowing its impact on wildlife. And so, the dispersant we sprayed out there is also killing wildlife. And indeed, my group, the Center for Biological Diversity, just filed a lawsuit challenging the continued use of dispersant in future spills, because it’s a horrific way to address these oil spills. It’s all about hiding the oil, not about cleaning it up.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have litigation pending around the dispersants, right?

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yes, that’s exactly right, because despite all the horror that was caused by the dispersants, it’s still the government’s position that they would use those dispersants on the next spill coming up. The American public don’t know what all the chemicals are in the dispersants. There’s never been an environmental analysis of their effects on wildlife and on people. And we’re saying to the government, “You cannot go forward and use this again, minimally until you at least figure out what the environmental effects are, but preferably not to use it at all.”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s — looking at ProPublica, which just won the Pulitzer Prize in another exposé, they write, “Two types of dispersants BP is spraying in the Gulf [of Mexico] are banned for use on oil spills in the U.K.,” which is interesting — BP is British Petroleum. So they can’t use it there, but it’s used in the Gulf. “As EPA-approved products, BP has been using them in greater quantities than dispersants have ever been used in the history of U.S. oil spills.” Kieran?

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, it was really just spectacular that — what happened out there with the dispersants. I think the government was really playing Russian roulette in letting BP go forward with this. And you mention the dispersants that they were using were actually banned in Europe. So one of the issues they had is they had a large amount of this dispersant, they were banned from using it in Europe, and they had to move it. They had to ship it, and this was their chance to actually sell it, make some money on a product that they can’t use anywhere else. And so, they poured millions of gallons of it into the ocean.

And dispersants, in particular, have a very damaging effect on the small wildlife and the invertebrates. So, for example, the oyster beds were hit really hard by this. And unfortunately, just as the sea turtles and dolphins are still dying today, if we go out and use this dispersant again, this disaster is going to just keep rolling and rolling and rolling. And it points to the fact that we have not addressed the fundamental problems with offshore oil drilling. We still do not have a method of containing or cleaning up further oil spills, but yet we’re going forward with new drilling all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: David Pham, the compensation process, how has it been conducted overall, and has it differentially affected the people you represent, the South Asian community of Mobile, Alabama, and the whole Gulf?

DAVID PHAM: Well, the process is — we see it’s always been a little bit complicated. You know, just for the regular community member, the mainstream American community member, it’s hard for them to understand. So you can imagine how a community that has very limited English skills — some probably don’t have any kind of educational level higher than second grade — to understand a system that pretty much their livelihoods depend on right now, because other than that, government assistance is not really helping out. So we had a situation where we were relying on British Petroleum and GCCF to provide adequate translation or interpretation of the process, but we — that was lacking. In Bayou La Batre, for example, we had one claims adjuster that was Vietnamese. So, the days that he was out of the office, a lot of our clients sat around waiting or were even told to come back another day when he was there. And for our Laotian and Cambodian communities, there was never an adjuster that was from their community working there to assist them. So you can imagine, they were — went through way more problems than the Vietnamese American community in Bayou La Batre did.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Tracie Washington also about the issue of claims and play a clip for you on this issue of the government, of BP, being involved with claims. Louis Bayhi is a Louisiana charter boat captain who suffered from various health problems after he served on an oil spill cleanup crew. Louisiana Environmental Action Network documented how he also failed to receive compensation from BP.

LOUIS BAYHI: I don’t know if anybody else didn’t get their money, but I didn’t get my money. And at the end of the deal, they owed us, you know, a month of time, which is a good chunk of change, and two boats that are on standby that we couldn’t use to do anything else but BP work. So, in other words, BP right now, according to their contracts, not mine, they owe me about $225,000, which I call that retarded. But I mean, I didn’t make the deal. They did.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington —


AMY GOODMAN: — from BP to the federal government, the compensation and the whole process, how it has worked, particularly in the communities you work with?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: You know, it’s absolutely insane, and it’s just beyond frustrating. Your last guest talked about the fact that the boat people, you know, the Southeast Asian community, with limited English-speaking abilities and education issues, have a problem navigating the system, Amy. Well, I have a bachelor’s, master’s and law degree, and I still have problems. And I am representing many of these individuals who have claims. First, you have problems, as the person on your last clip indicated, with folks who were not paid for doing direct work for BP with the cleanup after, you know, the spill, but working on the cleanup. And then, unfortunately, we have this massive group of people who are still waiting to be paid through Ken Feinberg, our czar, with their income claims, be it small businesses or individuals. These people now seem to be far more concerned about protecting BP from being ripped off than they are about ensuring folks get paid. $20 billion set aside, and Mr. Feinberg has managed to pay out $4 billion?

Yesterday we received a press release announcing a big payout on one claim. And, you know, I wrote back to Mr. Feinberg, because our organization, Louisiana Justice Institute, is one of the public interest law firms that has been assisting individuals with claims in this process. And I said, you know, “Well, thank you for that press release on the eve of this commemoration of the BP spill. But we need more than just one, Mr. Feinberg. What have you been doing aside from sending people to the U.S. attorney’s office for overbilling BP by $4,000, $5,000, and then putting them in jail? Put the BP executives in jail. You need to pay these.” It’s beyond frustrating, and I know I’m getting upset all over again. But we get the telephone calls, Amy, down here, with people saying, “Ms. Washington, Attorney Washington, please, help us. Help us get our money. We hear one thing from GCCF. We hear another thing when we call BP directly. What are we supposed to do?” I’m an attorney, and I still can’t help them.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that the federal government has improved in its emergency response after Katrina, then after the BP oil spill?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: What I fear most, Amy, is that the federal government has learned and now mastered how to outsource claims adjustment, so that now, and the fire next time, when we get the next disaster, be it a Katrina or be it a BP, we will have 10 Ken Feinbergs versus just the regular federal bureaucracy. I just as soon call someone in the Department of Energy, call someone in Salazar’s office, than have to deal with an outsourced Ken Feinberg. You know, I want to be able to say there’s somebody in the government responsible. Now if you call the federal government, they say, “Call Ken Feinberg.” That’s just not satisfactory.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington, Louisiana Justice Institute, thanks so much for joining us from New Orleans. Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity is with us in Eugene, Oregon. Though we’re talking about this first anniversary of the Gulf, Kieran, it goes to the big battle, that goes well beyond the Gulf, of offshore drilling. In this period, President Obama has announced offshore drilling will resume. Talk about what this means, from the Gulf to Alaska.

KIERAN SUCKLING: Yeah, when the Gulf crisis hit, it had huge reverberations across the country for offshore oil drilling, because we’re also doing just as dangerous, indeed more dangerous, drilling in Alaska, and the President had just decided to open up the Atlantic Coast to drilling, as well. And so, when that crisis hit and the media attention was finally put on this tremendously dangerous practice we do, everything was shut down for a short while. But now, as that memory has faded a bit and folks aren’t paying as much attention, the Obama administration this month began reissuing new deepwater drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico. It began issuing new permits in Alaska, as well. So, it is pushing us back to doing the very same dangerous drilling we did before the spill.

And secondly, it is using some of the very same legal loopholes that were used to allow the BP drilling project to go forward without environmental review. So the administration, for example, just issued deepwater drilling permits to Shell Oil in the Gulf without environmental review. It excluded them by saying the chance of a spill are so small, we don’t have to address it.

They had turned around and ordered new deepwater drilling permits to Shell also in the Arctic, in Alaska. And we’re very, very concerned about the Arctic, because as bad as the spill was in the Gulf of Mexico, at least you had a massive fishing, oil industry, Coast Guard, government infrastructure at hand that you could bring to address that spill. In the Arctic, where Shell is planning to drill, the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,200 miles away. There’s no infrastructure up there. There’s no fishing industry up there to address a big spill. So you would have this oil pouring into this frigid, icy water, and nothing available to clean it up.

And then, meanwhile, to make matters even worse, the Republican Party, especially Doc Hastings, head of the Resource Committee, out of state of Washington, is pressing the government to open up new areas to drill for oil, including the Atlantic Coast, and to say that if the government fails to review these opinions in 60 days, which there’s no way it could possibly do that, these projects go forward without any drilling at all. So, between the Obama administration pressing to have business as usual and the Republicans pressing to have even more oil drilling, we’re poised here to go forward with not only having not learned the lesson of this spill, but very likely to cause another spill to happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’ll be joined by Dahr Jamail, who has been in the Gulf for quite some time, will speak to us from Texas. And we’ll go to the father of a man who was killed one year ago today. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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