New Orleans, Louisiana is, hands down, my favorite U.S. city. I have visited this city more times than I can count and I just returned from a week in the Big Easy. The city is seemingly vibrant and rebuilding itself from the destruction of Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levees. There are new restaurants in new and upcoming neighborhoods and streetcar routes have been expanded. But New Orleans, and the entire Gulf coast, continues to suffer from the unseen and unquantifiable damage of the BP Gulf oil disaster.
As we all recall, on April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded. Eleven men were killed and a seabed well ruptured, which allowed approximately 210 million gallons of oil to enter the Gulf’s saltwater churn. In addition to the oil leaked from the well, an additional 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants were introduced into the coast’s ecosystem to break up the heavy crude oil.*
Two years later, monitoring and research on the Gulf coast have yet to make clear scientific links between health concerns, food safety, and the oil spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that it monitored for a range of air pollutants during the oil spill and cleanup. The EPA states that its analysis “did not detect levels of air pollution higher than what is normal on the Gulf coastline for that time of year.” However, critics question whether the government has gathered enough data to be able to declare the air safe, and noted that poly-aromatic hydrocarbon levels were not measured for days after the spill. There is also concern that the health effects of the chemical dispersants are understood even less, and may have magnified in toxicity when combined with the crude oil. Residents, specifically those involved in the clean up efforts, have reported exhaustion, headaches, stomach pains, and chronic coughs.
In addition to human health impacts, many scientists believe that the chemicals used to clean up the spill have induced ecosystem-wide changes, such as an increase in toxic algal blooms or interference in the absorption of arsenic by oil-coated marine rocks, which has increased the levels of this toxin in seafood. According to a survey led by the University of South Florida, after the spill between two and five percent of fish in the Gulf have skin lesions or sores, compared with data from before the spill, when just one-tenth of one percent of fish had any growths or sores.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially deemed Gulf seafood safe for eating. Yet the FDA’s findings assume that the average adult eats the equivalent of about three jumbo shrimp per week. After spending a significant amount of time in New Orleans, I can say with confidence that locals’ diets traditionally rely on Gulf fish, in an amount much greater than three shrimp per week. Today, however this reliance on local foods is changing. I understand that many Gulf residents are refusing to eat the fish from their local waterways, choosing instead imported or farm raised fish, or other protein sources altogether.
Despite the repeated safety claims by federal agencies and BP, on April 18, 2012 (two days shy of the second anniversary of the spill) BP sealed an out of court settlement for $7.8 billion, representing thousands of individuals and businesses. Of this sum, the Gulf seafood industry is slated to receive over $2 billion for economic loss. Needless to say, even this significant monetary compensation is a long way from addressing the true economic costs of the disaster’s damage to the Gulf region’s ecosystem and cultural food traditions.
*Portfolio 21 Investments’ clients invest in a company that produces these chemical dispersants and our research team is monitoring concerns about the impact of these chemicals.
Beth is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments. She has 8 years of environmental and social investing research experience.