BP oil spill: noteworthy information and a court decision

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Tomorrow’s anniversary of the BP oil spill should spark recognition that the nightmare from the worst environmental calamity in our nation’s history is far from over. We can’t ignore the damage rained down on the environment in general, fellow boat dealers and marina operators in particular, and the million of families living along the Gulf Coast. Their problems keep coming.

One example: Reports last week came from fishermen who have been fishing the Gulf for decades. They’re bringing in red snapper with dark lesions on their skin. In some cases the lesions have eaten through to the muscle tissue. They also have enlarged livers, gallbladders and bile ducts.

“These fish have a bacterial and parasite infection consistent with a compromised immune system,” oceanographer Jim Cowan at Louisiana State University told St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman. “No doubt it’s associated with a chronic exposure to a toxin.”

His guess is exposure to oil, and he’s expecting confirmation from toxicology tests that are under way. The red snapper is a popular sport fish and seafood that eats shrimp, crabs and other small creatures on the Gulf floor. They’re usually caught from 10 to 80 miles offshore in 60 to 200 feet.

“It’s not as bad as it might have been,” says Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.

While tracking the 206 million gallons of oil that poured into the Gulf is a huge challenge, federal officials want us to believe nature eliminated much of it — a quarter of the oil evaporated or dissolved into the water, they say. Flaring burned 5 percent at the surface. Skimming got 3 percent. Another 13 percent was blown into fine droplets. These dispersed with natural gas and remained deep in the Gulf as a thin drifting plume.

The chemical dispersant Corexit 9500, sprayed at the well head, dispersed another 16 percent into fine droplets, which joined the plume. Then, natural oil-munching bacteria swarmed the plumes and ate up the stuff. Wow — even Jules Vern would love that story!

The truth is there’s still a lot of oil unaccounted for. NOAA estimates between 11 and 30 percent, or tens of millions of gallons. Many scientists believe that figure falls woefully short. Plus, no one knows what impact the 1.8 million gallons of poorly studied chemical dispersants are having. Perhaps red snapper will tell us?

The growing mountain of data clearly indicates problems ahead. It’s the government saying things aren’t bad vs. the scientists who say they are. One former federal fisheries official even suggests: “We’re hiding information because of political and economic interests that don’t want you to say anything because it would affect economic interests.”

Well, here’s a good note. The Florida Supreme Court isn’t hiding. It recently ruled that commercial fishermen can sue polluters for economic damages. While the case dealt with fishermen, the “ruling will assist fishermen, property owners and everybody who makes a living related to the coastline,” says attorney Andra Dreyfus, representing the fishermen.

If a company pollutes, plaintiffs need not prove that their own property was damaged, nor even that the polluter was negligent, the court said. Economic damages are sufficient grounds for a suit, and nothing “prohibits any person from bringing a cause of action,” was the ruling.

Whether in Florida or elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, dealers and marina owners should take note of this Florida court ruling. It could widen BP’s legal liability for oil that impacts a state’s waters and the ongoing economic damages suffered because of it.


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