By Diane Wilson
I’m a fourth generation fisherwoman from the Texas Gulf Coast and I’ve been on a boat since I was eight. In l989, according to the Toxic Release Information, my tiny county was named the number one county in the nation for total toxins to the land, accounting for half the waste that Texas generated. Since that time, I’ve become a self-appointed watchdog and watched the chemical, oil, and gas corporations lay a thousand deaths at the feet of the Gulf. I hate to say it, but what I’m seeing now in the Gulf ain’t nothing new. The releases, the lies, the cover-ups, the skimping on safety, the deaths, the nonexistent documents, the ‘swinging door’ with regulators. Same ole same ole. What is new is the massive nature of the oil gusher and the fact that it can’t be covered up because it’s ongoing and being videoed. This elephant can’t be swept under the carpet, but I’m sure if BP could, BP would.
There are politicians out there– and I’ve heard them– who’ve said that this oil spill is just one accident and one accident does not a case make. Heck, one plane crashes and you don’t stop flying, do ya? Well, this isn’t just one accident. This is the biggest flame of the ten hundred thousand fires set by Corporate America on their Sherman-like march across the Gulf. I hate to tell you folks, but it isn’t just Mineral Management and it isn’t just an agency in bed with the corporation, although they generally are. Sometimes the problem is because an agency doesn’t have the enforcement or the manpower or the political will to do the job that they were mandated to do. Then, too, these corporations are self-regulating. They’ll be sure and let us know when they’ve committed a crime.
I have an injured workers group that is basically thrown out workers that got canned after they got sick, injured, or tried to make changes that the company didn’t want. Some were whistleblowers and companies sure don’t like that. Nobody wants these guys and there’s nobody for them to talk to except me–a high school educated fisherwoman with a pile of kids and a broke down truck. One of my injured workers was a shift supervisor in a PVC unit of Formosa Plastics, one of the biggest chemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast. One night, during his supervision, there was a 16,000 pound vinyl chloride release. Vinyl chloride is a cancer causing and targets the liver, lungs, brain and blood-forming organs. Vinyl chloride can give you liver cancer. The OSHA worker standard is l ppm for an average 8-hour period. If one pound of vinyl chloride is released, it is reportable to the EPA. Formosa’s upper management told the supervisor to lie about the release. Get the numbers down. So the shift supervisor reported that 800 pounds were released and the company reported 2.7 lbs. to the EPA.
Like a nut, I took the worker and his documentation to an EPA criminal investigator. This guy was a US Marshall. He could arrest somebody. The investigator listened to the worker, but took few notes. “Listen,” he said, “there are only two investigators in the whole state of Texas and the US Attorney’s office Southern District in Houston (where BP wants all its lawsuits!) had an environmental prosecution record that had dwindled to zero in 2005. Its last big case was in 2004 when a farmer was fined 500 dollars for killing some doves. Of all the types of cases that Houston’s Southern District prosecuted, the environment was the bottom of the list. Now, he said, if I’m gonna spend all my time on something that doesn’t get thrown out, I’m gonna spend it on DEAD workers. That BP explosion in Texas City, for instance.”
Well, what about the worker and all those lies that the company was telling? What about the releases? Doesn’t the Clear Air Act matter any more? Oh, make a list, the investigator said. I’ll teach you how to be an investigator. Me, the investigator? Sure, he said. You make a list and maybe in a couple of years I’ll look at it.
I had another worker that worked in wastewater. He said his supervisors were sometimes dumping outright or siphoning material out of test samples. In general, the company was manipulating and hiding wastewater data. Sometimes gauge needles were bent to keep the graph from showing what it was showing. A few times, the worker had to wade through a diked wastewater area, the size of two-city blocks, with toxic waste coming over his boots. He lost his hard hat, lost his gloves, maggots were crawling everywhere, and right next to him was high voltage pump setting in water. He said he thought he’d die that day. He thought he’d die a lot of days but telling didn’t do any good. As any good workers knows: You keep your mouth shut ‘cause a good way to lose your job or lose your bonus is to report a worker injury or a safety violation.
That wasn’t my first dance at that rodeo. I’ve had a Texas wastewater investigator pass me information because he couldn’t do anything with test results showing extremely high levels of priority pollutants like vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride in the water. He said every time he tried to pass it up further in enforcement, something blocked it. It just so happened that his boss, the director, had a job application at the plant. He sure didn’t want to think what that was all about. Made him sick just thinking about it.
Made me sick, too. Made me want to get on a boat and go out on the bay and forget all of it. Last time I was on the bay, however, a seismograph crew breezed in. You might ask what a seismograph team was doing in the bay? They were looking for oil and gas deposits. Yep, there are approximately 4,000 oil and gas rigs out in the gulf but there are a sizable number in the bays, too, and to find these oil and gas deposits, a seismologist team sometimes uses dynamite. The dynamite blasts produce sound waves that pin point deposits. Generally, dynamite charges aren’t allowed near the reefs and they’re not supposed to be so powerful that they blow up fish. That’s the law anyhow, but who’s listening. I was trot lining for black drum and I had a string of lines near an oyster reef that black drum love to hang around. I picked up my line and there, hanging off the hooks, was a very long line of dynamite charges. Things really got messy when the dynamite blasts started rocking the fishermen’s boats and blowing fish out of the water. To stop the obvious show of dead fish, the company brought in a three airboats. Now an airboat can generate the equivalent decibels of a jet plane so imagine three giant airplanes ripping and running up and down the bay to scare the fish out of the bay. Well, they accomplished their goal. All the fish ran out of the bay and there went our fish for the entire season. It was nothing but a bleep on an oil company’s corporate work sheet, but for our family-based inshore fishermen, it was devastating.
You might think I could get in my little trailer or stilted shack on the river and finally get left alone. Oh no. Just listen. The oil industry dumps over a billion pounds of mercury-contaminated drilling mud wastes into the Gulf each year. Drilling muds are used to cool and lubricate drill bits as they bore into the while plumbing for oil and natural gas. The mercury is present in an element called barite, the main ingredient in the muds. In l996, the EPA limited the amount of mercury that could be present in the drilling muds to l part per million, which could still allow l,000 pounds of mecury to be dumped from the Gulf platforms each year. For 50 years, prior to the EPA rule, there were no limits on mercury in barite. A report published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers suggested that, in the past, barite with mercury up to 30 parts per million could have been used. Using information supplied by the oil industry and the EPA, hundreds of thousands of pounds of mercury have been dumped in the Gulf—via drilling muds—since the l960s.
So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that the mercury contamination at some oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico appear to be so severe that the rigs could qualify for the National Priorities List Placement and lead to a federal ‘Superfund” clean-up effort like that of Love Canal in New York. Also, the mercury concentrations in many fish and shellfish sampled around at least one of the rigs were high enough to qualify the area as a contaminated fishery and frequent use of the rigs by commercial and recreational fishermen meant that the contamination around the rigs represented a ‘human food chain threat’.
But nothing is likely to happen here. Federal officials have said there’s little chance that any agency would attempt to put any of the 4,000-odd Gulf rigs on the Superfund priorities list, regardless of the level of contamination and regardless of the health risk, because the contamination occurred as a result of on-going, federally permitted releases of pollutants. And the same goes for when these very same oil companies, who for whatever reason, decide to ship their contaminated drilling mud into cargos that in turn, pump them into tanker trucks, that in turn dump the mud wastes into marshes along small fishing villages on the Gulf Coast. I’ve seen these tankers dump 200 loads into a marsh outside of Seadrift and another load dumped a half-mile from my trailer. My frequent calls to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) were answered with ‘its harmless.” I guess I should tell that to my son who is autistic.
The bottom line is that the Gulf dies a little every day from the tens of thousands of chemical plants, oil refineries and oil and gas rigs that pockmark the gulf coast. It’s a death of a ten thousand cuts and all of these offenses, small and large, are self reported– or, perhaps, not at all. We, the public, really have no way of knowing. The company or the agency certainly isn’t going to tell us. They’ve proved that time and time again. The truth of the matter only becomes clear when something monstrous like the BP oil spill comes along and wakes us up to the nightmare.
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