|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
SS: Dr. Susan Shaw
MF: Beth and I are thrilled to be joined by our next guest, Dr. Susan Shaw, who is President and Founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. She’s a Doctor of Public Health. She’s an amazing woman who has done a lot of education, a lot of public speaking. She’s one of those individuals who is not afraid to take an issue by the horns. For example, right after the Deep Water Horizons spill in the Gulf of Mexico when they were dumping all these Corexit dispersants into the water to try to cover up the spill, she took it upon herself to dive into the water.
BN: To see what was going on.
MF: Underneath the surface. She’s just a remarkable woman. She’s recently published; I think it was in December …
BN: Of 2013 …
MF: A TEDx talk on the aftermath of that, which you can find linked to at the Animal Wise Radio Facebook page. We’re just thrilled to have you, Dr. Shaw. We would like to talk about what we have learned from our experience since the Deep Water Horizon spill.
BN: I’m going to jump in quickly Dr. Shaw and just add this – I do periodically check in with the work at the Marine Environmental Research Institute because we were so fascinated about what you’ve been doing up there with respect to toxins in the waters and the ocean waters, how it relates to animals that live in the water and people who live in the world, but when you were involved with the Gulf you joined us on Animal Wise Radio, and we’ve been curious about the work since.
It was kind of coincidental that I saw your TEDx talk not long after it was posted. You’re a busy lady now. It seems like it’s hard to get you on our calendar, and I’m thrilled, because I think that means that there’s a bigger audience for what you’re offering to the work, and some of the information that you have to share.
With respect to all of the commercialization around the recovery in the Gulf, you don’t hear as much about what’s been happening to the people, what’s been happening to the sea creatures there. It’s harder to find that news. With that being said, we genuinely welcome you back to Animal Wise Radio.
MF: Can you start by giving us just a quick history of your early introduction to the Deep Water Horizon spill, and then we’ll take the conversation from there?
SS: I’m thrilled to be on the program. I love what the program is doing. Let me say that at the beginning of this. I used to be a media person before I was a scientist, and I believe that scientists can tell the truth, but the media is really needed to make change happen.
With that said, I was just pulled into the Gulf right after the spill occurred, the explosion of the Deep Water Horizon rig. I was asked by several agencies to go down there. There was just panic going on, if you remember. The wellhead was gushing, and there seemed to be no fix for it. They were starting then to apply the Corexit dispersants in very large volumes into the water.
Scientists were worried about this, because those dispersants contain petroleum solvents, so on its face, you’re putting petroleum into a petroleum spill. I went down. I went out about 40 miles with a colleague when the oil was thick in the water. Planes were overhead. Dispersants were raining down in the heavily affected areas. There was a lot of confusion there on the ground. I at first didn’t really want to get into that water.
MF: I can't imagine why!
SS: People said, “Why did you do it?” Usually I say, “I have no idea.” I thought that I would be able to see what was happening on top of the water on the boat. There were just terrible fumes coming from the release of the hydrocarbons in the oil and in the dispersant. Within about 10 or 20 minutes of clinging to the boat, I decided that I really just had to go in. It was an opportunity to see what was happening in the water column.
I dove not very far. It was not a deep dive. I was in scuba gear, basically, but extremely covered up. I had Vaseline all over any skin. I went down, and as I got down into the water, I started seeing what dispersants do, which is break up the oil. You have tiny pieces of oil floating around, which become like a cloud in the water.
I noticed that as I was in there, I started seeing dead things floating around me. Then, more dead things. I realized that that was a cloud of death, actually. I got out very quickly, but I understood then what was happening in the water column.
BN: Susan, at the time there really was some talk about, “What else can we do? This is the best choice given the situation.” Like you alluded to, scientists were concerned at the moment it was decided to use Corexit, that it was a bad idea. You’ve tracked beyond that moment when it was being used. You’ve been tracking, watching, and observing data that’s been collected along the way. What were some of the first things that you saw after just this cloud of death? What were some of the first concerning things that were being talked about amongst your colleagues?
SS: I was appointed to the strategic scientist working group of 14 scientists that were asked to convene and assess the consequences of the spill. We were multi-disciplined. I was the wildlife toxicology person and also public health expert on the group. We examined and investigated every aspect of the spill – what was going to happen, what might happen, and how certain we were about each consequence.
We predicted with certainty the fish, like the herring kind of fish that are in the middle of the food web (they feed in the water with their mouths open), they were going through these toxic clouds and taking it all in. We predicted that they would die off in large numbers. I predicted that the dolphins would be affected, and that came to pass. I also knew that the mixture of the Corexit and oil is more toxic than the oil alone or the Corexit alone.
It’s the mixture that you’re concerned about, because the oil has multiplied in its toxicity by more than 50 times. It’s getting into membranes and organisms in the body of people and wildlife more easily after it’s mixed with the Corexit. You have a toxic mixture floating around the Gulf.
I predicted that the deep water corals would also be severely impacted, and that did happen. This mixture is actually dispersing the oil. It’s not just about is that the best answer – it is not; but it has many spin-off effects that are very, very long-lasting and very, very dangerous, and that is that this dispersed oil goes under the water in plumes. They’re clouds of dispersed oil that are miles long. They’re moving around the Gulf under the water, and then eventually that stuff sinks to the bottom.
It coated all the deep water coral. It became like a grave of coral coated in this black, sticky goo. Everything around the coral died, and that was one of the events that was a turning point for, “Is something bad going to happen?” Yes, it did.
Then, the dolphins started dying the next spring. About half of them were little fetuses, immature animals. We knew that meant that the females had taken in the oil and were not able to carry the babies to term. That was another notch on the wall. Is this a bad thing? Is this a good thing? Do we need dispersants in a big oil spill? Is this a good answer? It is not, for so many reasons.
MF: From my perspective from following this, in Exxon they used the dispersants as well. I was intimately familiar with them there, and then watching them in the Gulf, my perspective is they used them for one reason only, and that is to hide the oil so it doesn’t look as bad. They think that if people can't see it, it’s better.
SS: There’s another motivating factor. It was an insider who became a watchdog …
MF: Well, they sell the dispersant to themselves.
SS: You have to follow the money. There was a money factor there. These oil companies are going to be fined per gallon that spilled, and if it’s negligence, it’s $1,100 a gallon. If it’s gross negligence, I think it was $4,400 a gallon. It adds up to billions of dollars in fines under the Clean Water Act.
Just this month in Federal court, a new development is that Judge Barbier found in US District Court that BP was grossly negligent – not just simply negligent in the BP oil spill. He also said in court that the company acted with conscious disregard of known risk and that their conduct was reckless.
My talk at TEDx was “Reckless Endangerment: The BP Oil Spill Revisited.” People thought that was a little bit harsh. It’s turned out now. This ruling by Judge Barbier makes it possible to fine BP $18 billion in civil penalties, which is about four times more under the Clean Water Act than they would have been fined for simple negligence.
MF: In your TEDx talk, you talk about a report that you wrote that “never saw the light of day.” I would like you to talk about that as well as the health effects that people in the Gulf are still experiencing today.
SS: In the strategic science working group, we wrote a very extensive paper. One of the things we predicted with certainty was that there would be a human health crisis in the Gulf that would be long-lasting from the chronic exposure to the Corexit in the oil. Every day we wrote a memo to the federal agencies.
I wrote the agency report on the 22nd of September 2010 that was titled, “It’s Not About Dose.” In that memo, which was on behalf of the whole group, I said these compounds in the oil and some of the compounds in the dispersant are carcinogenic and can get into the DNA. Once you’re exposed, you have the potential of developing cancer, particularly leukemia and many other kinds of cancer. Cancer has a latency to it, but there was prediction of long-term health impacts among people, not just the cleanup workers, but also the residents in the Gulf.
I have been looking at that. I went back to the Gulf last November and talked to some of the people I had talked with a couple years before. To me, it’s a very dark situation down there.
BN: I would encourage people to watch this TEDx presentation. It’s packed full of great information. Given what you knew from being on the ground in the midst of this chaos when nobody knew quite what was going on, how bad it was, and what should be done, you talked about how you almost passed out when you were on the boat. That wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for people who are living on land, was it really?
SS: No, it wasn’t. Grand Isle, Louisiana is a narrow, little island. It’s very long. It has white sand beaches. It sticks out almost 20 miles. It’s very close to where the rig and the explosion was. They were heavily impacted. All the residents, all the schoolchildren were impacted.
Those are the people I interviewed. The first thing I noticed was almost everybody I spoke with was shaking uncontrollably. Their hands would shake. They were twitching. One woman was in a wheelchair because she had fallen off of her porch, and she couldn’t maintain balance. A lot of them had memory loss and very acute neurological symptoms.
As I spoke to people, I realized a lot of these people had the same symptoms. They had heart palpitations. They had twitching of the muscles. They have liver damage, memory loss. Several of them talked about having internal bleeding and having bloody urine.
A really tragic case was a girl who was 14 years old. She had a menstrual period that didn’t stop, and she had bleeding from her ears. She said, “I’d be sitting in class and my ears would start to bleed.” I said, “Oh my God! Is that unusual?” She said, “No, a lot of the kids had that.”
BN: A lot of the kids have bloody ears. Wow …
SS: Blood dripping from the ears. Those are the people that the spraying was going on at night, and they would be sitting out. They told me they’d be sitting out on the porch in the evening and the planes would come. There were all these claims that they were not spraying Insure, but they did spray Insure. People would run into the house when the planes came and they were spraying over the house. People were just heavily exposed for months.
I think there’s tragic outcomes, not only for those people, but for people around the Gulf. One of the reasons is that this dispersed oil is now in the ecosystem. It’s in the mud, it’s in the sediment of the ocean, and it’s everywhere. It’s turning up as tar mats all over the place. Last year just on Louisiana beaches there were three million pounds of tar mats turning up. Apparently, that tar is not getting less toxic – it’s getting more toxic. It’s identified as BP oil. What we predicted early on is coming to pass, and that is tragically that you have this dispersed oil in the system, and you never get it out.
BN: Here’s another thing you’ve already predicted, and I have no qualms with this prediction – it will happen again, and it will happen because we continue to do extreme extraction of oil in increasingly harsh conditions. The plan as it stands today looks a lot like the same plan that was implemented in Louisiana.
MF: When we started this interview, you started the conversation by mentioning the media. One thing that the media has covered a lot in this conversation is all the money that was set aside to help people who were affected by it. Can you talk a little bit about how the insurance claims have been handled for all these people who are suffering from severe medical problems? We have about four minutes left.
SS: There was a $28 billion fund, and before all that was paid out, they stopped paying the claims. They started quibbling and saying that people didn’t have adequate documentation. This is what they always do. It’s just the industry playbook. They stopped paying claims. Then there was a multiple claim that gave people a little bit of money for thousands of people. Thousands of people got a little bit of money, but for people that have cancer, $50,000 is not much.
MF: That won't even cover the medical bills.
SS: A lot of foot dragging, delaying, quibbling. Now they’re going to fight this really in court, of course, but they really don’t have much chance. The experts say it looks like they’re going to have more civil damage in court.
I know we’re ending, but I would just say that there are thousands and thousands of people down there who are desperate, who have no recourse. I think it underlines the fact that our government … where’s the leadership in our government? We seem to be wetted to favoring industry over health and the environment, and we really need leaders. We need to get control of regulating toxic chemical exposure among people.
It’s just all over the place. That’s what I think societally we’re going to be known as, that we poisoned our own people. We poisoned ourselves. We are still I think in cowboy mode with this frontier mentality that we can just keep expending resources, expending that toxic chemicals are a minor issue as long as the corporations are doing well. It is not a minor issue when you’re talking about thousands of people in a region.
MF: Absolutely, Dr. Shaw. Absolutely wonderful work. We admire your work so much. If people want more information, they can find her at www.meriresearch.org. The TEDx talk that we’ve been talking about is on the Animal Wise Radio Facebook page.
BN: And on the front page of the MERI Research website as well. Dr. Shaw, we want to thank you again for helping draw those correlations, not just between the health of animals that live in the ocean but those of us who rely on the health of our oceans for our own survival and wellbeing as well.
MF: Which is pretty much all of us.
BN: It’s all of us.
MF: Thank you so much for your work.
SS: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time on the show. I love your show.
MF: Thanks so much.