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The Government is Dealing with the Oil Spill Like the Soviets Dealt with Chernobyl

Washington’s Blog
Aug 10, 2010

The Soviet Union was famous for covering up its environmental disasters.

As award-winning journalist Dahr Jamail points out in a must-read article about the oil spill:

“It is well known that after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet government immediately did everything possible to conceal the fact of the accident and its consequences for the population and the environment: it issued “top secret” instructions to classify all data on the accident, especially as regards the health of the affected population,” journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya has written.

In 1990 Yaroshinskaya came across documents about the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe that revealed a massive state cover-up operation, coupled with a calculated policy of disinformation where the then Soviet Union’s state and party leadership knowingly played down the extent of the contamination and offered a sanitized version to the public, both in and out of Russia. To date, studies continue to show ongoing human and environmental damage from that disaster.

When the disaster at Chernobyl occurred, it was only after radiation levels triggered alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden that the Soviet Union admitted an accident had even occurred. Even then, government authorities immediately began to attempt to conceal the scale of the disaster.

But it’s not just the communist Soviets …

The U.S. also has a long history of covering up environmental and health disasters, as shown by the following examples.

The Bush administration covered up the health risks to New Orleans residents associated with polluted water from hurricane Katrina, and FEMA covered up the cancer risk from the toxic trailers which it provided to refugees of the hurricane.

The Centers for Disease Control – the lead agency tasked with addressing disease in America – covered up lead poisoning in children in the Washington, D.C. area.

The government’s response to the outbreak of mad cow disease was simple: it stopped testing for mad cow, and prevented cattle ranchers and meat processors from voluntarily testing their own cows (and see this).

The government also underplayed the huge Tennessee coal ash spill. As the New York Times noted in 2008:

A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
***

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

(The former head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy says that the government whitewashed the whole coal ash investigation.)

And the government allegedly ordered Manhattan Project scientists to whitewash the toxicity of flouride (flouride is a byproduct in the production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium). As Project Censored noted in 1999:

Recently declassified government documents have shed new light on the decades-old debate over the fluoridation of drinking water, and have added to a growing body of scientific evidence concerning the health effects of fluoride. Much of the original evidence about fluoride, which suggested it was safe for human consumption in low doses, was actually generated by “Manhattan Project” scientists in the 1940s. As it turns out, these officials were ordered by government powers to provide information that would be “useful in litigation” and that would obfuscate its improper handling and disposal. The once top-secret documents, say the authors, reveal that vast quantities of fluoride, one of the most toxic substances known, were required for the production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. As a result, fluoride soon became the leading health hazard to bomb program workers and surrounding communities.

Studies commissioned after chemical mishaps by the medical division of the “Manhattan Project” document highly controversial findings. For instance, toxic accidents in the vicinity of fluoride-producing facilities like the one near Lower Penns Neck, New Jersey, left crops poisoned or blighted, and humans and livestock sick. Symptoms noted in the findings included extreme joint stiffness, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, severe headaches, and death. These and other facts from the secret documents directly contradict the findings concurrently published in scientific journals which praised the positive effects of fluoride.

Regional environmental fluoride releases in the northeast United States also resulted in several legal suits against the government by farmers after the end of World War II, according to Griffiths and Bryson. Military and public health officials feared legal victories would snowball, opening the door to further suits which might have kept the bomb program from continuing to use fluoride. With the Cold War underway, the New Jersey lawsuits proved to be a roadblock to America’s already full-scale production of atomic weapons. Officials were subsequently ordered to protect the interests of the government.

After the war, … the dissemination of misinformation continued.

These are just a few of many examples showing that the U.S. has long acted just like the Soviets in covering up the magnitude of environmental disasters.

Government Says Oil Has Disappeared

The government is now saying that almost all of the oil has already disappeared, and that the small amounts of remaining oil are not toxic.

Many have pointed out that it is still easy to find oil even on the surface. As National Geographic points out:

In fact, scientists are still finding plenty of spilled Gulf oil—whether it’s bubbling up from under Louisiana’s islands, trapped underneath Florida’s sugar-white beaches, or in the ocean’s unseen reaches. (See pictures of spilled Gulf oil found just under Florida beaches.)

This week, biological oceanographer Markus Huettel and colleague Joel Kostka dug trenches on a cleaned Pensacola beach and discovered large swaths of oil up to two feet (nearly a meter) deep.

Oil gets trapped underground when tiny oil droplets penetrate porous sand or when waves deposit tarballs and then cover them with sand, said Huettel, of Florida State University in Tallahassee.

(Read more about oil found under “clean” Florida beaches earlier this month.)

And see photographer Julie Dermansky’s report.

As the Washington Post points out, scientists aren’t buying the government’s spin either:

But, in interviews, [government] scientists who worked on the report said the figures were based in large part on assumptions and estimates with a significant margin of error.

Some outside scientists went further: In a situation in which many facts remain murky, they said, the government seemed to have used interpretations that made the gulf — and the federal efforts to save it — look as good as possible.

“There’s a lot of . . . smoke and mirrors in this report,” said Ian MacDonald, a professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University. “It seems very reassuring, but the data aren’t there to actually bear out the assurances that were made.”

***

But scientists who worked on the report said many of the numbers on the White House’s pie chart had significant margins of error. The estimate of how much oil evaporated was calculated using a formula designed for spills near the surface, not 5,000 feet underwater. The calculation of how much oil would be “dispersed” as it flowed from the well was a new one, extrapolated from data about the way oil is broken by waves.

***

The situation is “being portrayed as ‘the oil is out of the environment; it’s gone,’ ” said Michael J. Blum, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. But, he said, all that’s certain is that “the form of the oil has shifted. Dispersed oil is still oil. It’s just in a different form.”

Indeed, because – according to the US Minerals Management Service and a consortium of oil companies, including BP, themselves – as little as 2% of the oil which spilled from BP’s oil well ever made it to the surface, any formula based on surface spills is worthless. In other words, as much as 98% of the spilled oil may not yet have even made it to the surface, but may have been suspended under the surface the whole time.

And since the government and BP have been using Corexit to sink the small proportion of oil visible from the surface, that means that more than 98% of the oil might be lurking beneath the surface.

National Geographic makes a similar point:

To University of South Florida chemical oceanographer David Hollander, the NOAA estimates are “ludicrous.””It’s almost comical.”

According to Hollander, the government can account for only about 25 percent of the spilled Gulf oil—the portion that’s been skimmed, burned off, directly collected, and so on.

The remaining 75 percent is still unaccounted for, he said.

For instance, the report considers all submerged oil to be dispersed and therefore not harmful, Hollander said. But, given the unknown effects of oil and dispersants at great depths, that’s not necessarily the case, he added.

“There are enormous blanket assumptions.”

***

Oil cleanup is mostly getting rid of what’s on the surface, [Robert Carney, a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge] said. There’s a common perception that “as long as you keep it off the beach, everything’s hunky dory,” he added.

***
Whether microbes munch the oil—the most common way oil breaks down—depends on how much oxygen is available for the tiny organisms to do their work….

“So far, we haven’t seen any rapid degradation in these deep layers,” [biological oceanographer Markus Huettel] said, though he noted oil at the top of the sand has been disappearing within days.

With little oxygen, the buried oil may stay for years, until a storm or hurricane wipes away the upper sand layers.

Previous oil spills suggest that the buried beach oil may continuously migrate not only out to sea but also into groundwater, where it can harm wildlife, Huettel said.

Oil-laden groundwater in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill, for instance, led to “significantly elevated” death in pink salmon embryos between 1989 and 1993, he said….

Another “open question” remains, FSU’s Huettel noted: What is happening to the oil deep in the Gulf?For the first time during an oil-spill response, officials used chemical dispersants to break up oil at ocean depths between 4,000 and 5,000 feet (1,200 and 1,500 meters). The dispersant-treated oil bits may have sunk to the seafloor, Huettel said.

In the cold, dark ocean, this mixture of oil and chemical dispersants may be suspended and preserved, causing long-term problems for deep-sea animals, Texas Tech University ecotoxicologist Ron Kendell said during August 4 testimony before the U.S. Congress.

“We have very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean,” Kendall said.

Some oil fragments are so tiny they can’t be seen with the human eye, said the University of South Florida’s Hollander. Others are big enough to be gobbled up by baby fish that mistake the oil for food….

Predicting what will happen to the deep-sea ecosystem is “uncharted territory,” said Hollander, who’s studying what the oil is doing to deep-sea creatures during a series of research cruises this summer and fall.

***

“We’re getting into something different than the 2-D petroleum spill” on the Gulf’s surface, he added. “All of the sudden you’ve taken this 2-D disaster and turned it into a 3-D catastrophe.”

And the Guardian notes:

“Recent reports seem to say that about 75% of the oil is taken care of and that is just not true,” said John Kessler, of Texas A&M University, who led a National Science Foundation on-site study of the spill. “The fact is that 50% to 75% of the material that came out of the well is still in the water. It’s just in a dissolved or dispersed form.”

Would I Lie To You, Comrade?
Florida State University oceanographer Ian McDonald points out that the government scientists claiming almost all of the oil is gone are the same folks who said that only 5,000 barrels of oil were leaking a day, and who denied that there were underwater plumes:

The bottom line is that the government’s entire response to the oil spill is to try to cover it up, just as the Soviets tried to do with Chernobyl, and just as the U.S. government has done with the financial crisis, torture, 9/11, the anthrax attack, and every other crisis.

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