Friday, April 22, 2011

Experiential Journal: The Symposium on the BP Oil Spill

By Virginia DiBianca

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Horizon Deepwater oil well exploded pouring 2.5 million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. The massive oil eruption continued for six months, sparked a fire that took the lives of 11 workers, created the worst environmental disaster in the United States and destroyed the working life of many of the residents along the Gulf of Mexico. One year later, Ramapo College in conjunction with its School of Social Science and Human Services, Sustainability Studies Program and Dean’s Council presented a symposium on the aftermath of the spill entitled Spill Effects.

The symposium included panels of experts who represented various aspects of the spills impact, which were many and far reaching. As pointed out by Thomas Lueck, Ramapo faculty member, the Gulf oil spill dominated major news coverage more consistently than any other tragedy in recent years. Unlike similar disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, which was newsworthy for about one month, the spill’s coverage was long term and included news on environmental, social, and economic impacts with a dose of government and corporate screw ups that, not unlike the sinking of the Titanic, continues to maintain a readership.

The first day was devoted mostly to the ecological damage. Dr. John H. Paul, a biological oceanographer from the University of South Florida, discussed his two toxicity tests in the Gulf region taken on separate occasions. Those performed in July of 2010 indicated a high concentration of oil had affected the plankton (drifting organisms that are the base of the food web in marine and fresh water). Follow up testing was performed in February 2011, which still showed sampling stations containing evidence of mutagenicity even though the appearance of the water on the surface showed no signs of this contamination.

Dr. Harry Allen, representing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Response Team emphasized that changes need to be made to the Oil Pollution Act to better define the jurisdiction between the two factors that govern an aquatic spill, the Coast Guard and the EPA., Additionally, a fast, efficient system of gathering and sharing information in the event of a catastrophe such as this one needs to be structured.

On the social impact, Mr. Thomas Costanza of Catholic Charities of New Orleans spoke on the loss of work on the Gulf fishermen. Hurricane Katrina, while it destroyed the homes and boats of those in the Gulf, did not come close to the devastation felt by those who lost their livelihood when the spilled oil contaminated their fisheries. Oyster beds have been ruined which take three years before they are re-established. Last summer’s harvest of brown shrimp from the gulf was one of the smallest seen in years. Juvenile crabs are in very small numbers. The national perception, whether true or not, is that the fish coming from the Gulf is tainted and not healthy to consume. Fishermen are suffering from depression that is leading to an increase in alcoholism. Claims from the fishing industry to BP go unpaid. The fishermen are asking for help to be re-trained in their profession, to reconstruct their oyster beds and fisheries. Their claims are within a pile of claims waiting to be satisfied.

On the second day, the symposium included a panel on the media’s perspective of the oil spill. Charles Schmidt, a freelance journalist, described the use of dispersants as complex and how their overall affect is unknown. He drew criticism from one or two members of the audience challenging his viewpoint of how the dispersants might have minimized the oil reaching the shores of Louisiana and that dispersants might be considered toxic to some species but maybe less so to another. Schmidt argued that his position was to report his findings accurately and not to satisfy any one group’s agenda.

Finally, David Barstow, who extensively covered the oil spill for The New York Times, talked about the state of investigative reporting. At the scene of the spill, he was participating in several meetings where the press was invited. In these sessions, reporters were outnumbered 100 to one by lawyers and public relations people who represented BP, Halliburton and other corporations attempting to spin the public’s perception in their favor. Barstow emphasized how independent journalism is weakening as a growing population of public relation professionals attempt to control the public’s image of events. The Internet, he added, is overwhelmed with bloggers who provide opinionated views that are unsupported and may or may not be factual. Investigative reporting he emphasized, approaches the topics with truisms and asks the questions of why things happen, how they happened and what can be done about it. They are the true heroes of the American people and need to be supported.

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