From the Belly of the Beast: Obama's Katrina: Worst environmental disaster in US history

May 25 — The Obama administration, British Petroleum and the corporate media have worked overtime to minimise information and outright lie about the catastrophic impact of the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20. The truth has been coming out in dribbles, when it cannot be denied any longer, or when independent scientists publicise it.

The first victims were 11 workers killed in the explosion on the rig, initially reported as merely “missing”. BP and the US government first said that about 1000 barrels of crude oil a day were spewing from the drill hole 1.5 kilometres below the ocean surface. A week later they said it was 5000 barrels. Government scientists, after reviewing a video of the leak BP reluctantly released, now estimate the figure is at least double — between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day. Independent scientists estimate the figure is at least double this amount. The scientists have to estimate because BP and the White House adamantly refuse to measure the leak although technology exists to do so.

The likelihood is that every fortnight the amount of oil leaked surpasses the hitherto greatest oil spill in the US when the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed and broke apart off Alaska in March 1989. The environmental affects of that spill are still being felt along the Alaska coast. But that was a one-time spill of a definite amount of oil in the tanker. The Gulf leak is a “gift that keeps on giving” by continuously gushing. Even if the leak was capped today, the damage already done and in the offing marks this as the greatest single environmental disaster in US history.

After over a month of denial, in the last few days crude oil has washed up on 240km of Louisiana coastline, where one third of all seafood is harvested in the US. The lush marshes which nurture Louisiana’s oyster, shrimp and crab beds are being destroyed. New Orleans, famous for its seafood, is being hit again, after being smashed by hurricane Katrina and the human-made disaster in its wake in 2005.

The deliberate failure of the Bush administration to address Katrina is being matched by the current adminstration’s failure in the Gulf spill. This is US President Barack Obama’s Katrina. Eighteen days before the BP oil-rig catastrophe, Obama made a sweeping ruling opening up thousands of kilometres of US coastline to new offshore oil drilling. He adopted the “drill, baby, drill” mantra Sarah Palin raised in the 2008 presidential election.

BP was given the go-ahead to start drilling on the rig that exploded after providing “assurances” to federal authorities that any leak would have minimal environmental impact. Associated Press reported on April 30: “In the 52-page exploration plan and environmental impact analysis, BP repeatedly suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish, mammals and fisheries. BP’s plan filed with the federal Minerals Management Service for the Deepwater Horizon well, dated February 2009, says repeatedly that it was ‘unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities’.”

It has also been reported that there had been numerous previous spills and fires on the Deepwater Horizon, which had been issued citations by the Coast Guard 18 times between 2000 and 2010. On May 12, a congressional committee released documents suggesting that BP, Transocean (which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP) and Halliburton (which did the cementing of the well from which the oil spill is originating) ignored tests that flagged up faults in the blowout preventer, a set of valves that should have stopped natural gas from entering the well bore. It is thought that this is what caused the April 20 explosion.

For the fishers along the Louisiana coast, mostly working operators of single boats, the current season is already lost — an economic catastrophe for them. The likelihood is that their fishing grounds will be destroyed for years or even decades.

New York Times columnist Herbert Mathews interviewed a sheriff in Louisiana’s coastal area last week, asking him “if he was at all optimistic about BP stopping the gusher of oil that is fouling the Gulf of Mexico in time to prevent a long-term environmental catastrophe in the southern Louisiana wetlands”. Mathews reported: “The sun was high in the sky, and the day was hot. The sheriff was in a small boat, patrolling the waterways that wend their way through the delicate marshes. He thought for a long moment. Oil was already seeping into the marshes, getting into the soil and plant life and coating the wildlife. ‘I’ll tell you the truth….It may already be too late.’”

Dead birds covered with oil, including pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana, are being washed up. Oil-covered live birds need rescuing. Volunteers, including from the San Francisco area familiar with the techniques of how to clean oil-covered birds, flocked to the Gulf, only to be prevented by the US Coast Guard from helping the otherwise doomed creatures. According to the Coast Guard, only BP employees may help the endangered birds.

When the Louisiana state government tried to take over idle boats and oil absorption materials lying on the coast to try to stem the oil, Coast Guard gunboats prevented it from doing so. The Coast Guard, which is coordinating the US government’s response to the gushing well, claims it must defer to BP because BP has the “expertise” to deal with it. If one thing is absolutely certain, it is that BP had absolutely no technology or knowledge of what to do, about capping the well, containing the spill, saving the birds, or anything else.

BP is notorious for violating safety in pursuit of profit. In 2005, one of its refineries in Texas exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 180. This hit home to me, since I worked in a refinery for some years. BP paid a paltry fine. BP, with much initial fanfare in the press, has tried one rube-goldberg contraption after another to quell the Deepwater Horizon leak, only to later admit failure.

The coastlands of the other US Gulf states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are threatened. Oil globs have washed up on Alabama beaches, closing them to tourists. It is likely that some of the oil has already been swept up in the loop current that will take it into the Florida Keys, endangering coral reefs home to a rich biodiversity of thousands of plant and animal species. This current may also take the spill up the US Atlantic coast.

In a frantic effort to dampen the bad publicity, BP has deployed hundreds of thousands of litres of the detergent-like dispersant Corexit to try to keep the oil slick off the ocean surface, where it is easily seen. Corexit is banned in Britain because it is toxic to sea life. When this practice came to light, the Environment Protection Agency belatedly asked BP to use a different dispersant, and BP said “No”. The EPA meekly deferred.

The “dispersants” break the oil down into tiny droplets below the ocean surface. What the effects of this will be are being kept murky by BP and the Obama administration. Independent scientists say that microbes that eat such small droplets are using up oceanic oxygen, and that will kill coral reefs on the ocean floor.

More danger lurks below the surface. A University of Southern Mississippi research vessel in the Gulf found that there were huge plumes of oil down in the deep ocean, one 16km long, 4.8km wide and 91 metres thick in spots. These plumes may have developed because the gushing well is so far down — indeed, scientists predicted in 2003 that such plumes could arise. The use of dispersants may contribute to their creation.

When the university ship docked and reported the plumes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quickly tried to minimise the significance of the plumes. NOAA spokeswoman Jane Lubchenco claimed on TV that “more research” was needed to determine whether these plumes were dangerous, or indeed, if they existed at all.

Such collusion between the Obama administration and BP has so infuriated the overwhelming majority of independent scientists that the New York Times printed a long article about it on May 20. “Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the Gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct adequate scientific analysis of the damage and allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope”, the article began.

One aspect, the article reported, was “that in the month since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, the government has failed to make public a single test result on water from the deep ocean. And, the scientists say the administration has been too reluctant to demand an accurate test of how many gallons of oil are flowing into the sea from the gushing oil well.”

The initial damage, itself a catastrophe, is being wreaked by the oil on the surface, killing sealife and destroying coastline ecology. But scientists are now worried that even greater damage of massive kill-offs will happen in the deep ocean and sea floor. This disaster is far from over. The oil is “washing up” on the Obama administration itself. It is not only complicit in the cover-up, but its “drill, baby, drill” policies caused the disaster in the first place.

Update on the Tea Party and Arizona

In last month’s column I reported on Arizona’s new police-state anti-immigration law. Since then, on May Day there were demonstrations on short notice of hundreds of thousands against the law across the country. Successful campaigns have forced some cities to announce boycotts of doing business in Arizona. Organisations which had planned to hold conventions in Arizona have cancelled. The Phoenix Suns, Arizona’s only NBA basketball team, played with new uniforms featuring “Los Suns” on their chests in solidarity with the immigrants.

I also reported on the “Tea Party”. Since then, a prominent Tea Party candidate has won the Republican primary election for senator from Kentucky. Rand Paul defeated the Republican machine-backed candidate. Paul jumped into prominence as the unofficial national Tea Party spokesperson by declaring his opposition to the 1960s Civil Rights law barring businesses from discriminating against African Americans. While he has mumbled and jumbled trying to backtrack, he got his point across to racists who have chaffed under “big government’s” intrusion on their lives by ending official Jim Crow apartheid in the US South (actually won by the massive black struggle).

Paul also attacked Obama for blaming BP for the gushing well. Obama has “talked tough” about BP recently trying to wipe the oil stains from himself. But Paul bridles against even ineffectual and hypocritical talk against “business”.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]