Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Liveblogging Oil & Water

Loyola University New Orleans is hosting "Oil & Water: Spotlight on the Gulf" as part of the 2011 President's Forum Series.

Participants include Virginia Burkett, Ph.D. of the USGS; Amy Harmon of the New York Times; Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network; and the panel is moderated by Robert Thomas, Ph.D., Loyola Center for Environmental Communcation.

8:55pm Questions.

Q. Are you finding oil in the water these days?
A. (Greco) No. Hasn't seen the first drop of oil where he works.

Q. Several companies producing bacteria-eating oil felt stymied by government.
A. (Sarthou) In the days after the spill, Gulf REstoration Network was contacted by hundreds of technologists with ideas, but those ideas had not been tested. BP created a number, but besides the Kevin Costner solution and the Whale, no one seems to have gotten through. Agents appeared uncomfortable with biological agents and preferred mechanical solutions.

Q. How has this affected oysters?
A. (Sarthou) Many oyster beds unaffected. Some areas were devastated. It depended on where you were.

Q. Government telling people oysters are safe, but some folks are saying they aren't safe.
A. (Sarthou) Again, it depends on where the oysters were. Oysters are filter feeders, if there was stuff in the water they take it in.
A. (Thomas) When you see studies, make sure you check sample sizes and where the areas were.
A. (Greco) Has checked on oyster leases and eaten dozens of oysters since the spill, and they've all been OK.

Q. What studies are examining the dispersant, and what have they found?
A. (Sarthou) Studies haven't really been finished yet. Have spoken to toxicologists finding disturbing information on whale autopsies, but studies have not been comprehensive. Using FOIA to find information. EPA has not complied with Oil Pollution Act over the last 20 years, so studies have not been conducted to determine a baseline or determine ingredients in some dispersants.

Q. Why haven't national media (NYT, LA Times) been ignoring human health impacts, only hearing about it in local papers.
A. (Harmon) Can't speak for all media. NYT has people looking into it, but she'd be receptive to evidence.

Q. Points of clarity: Louisiana had good luck in that oil didn't get into many oyster beds, and tests have proven they're ok. Many federal studies ongoing, but being held up by funding issues.

Q. Is Gulf Future plan working for true mediation, what is being done to promote new technologies to remove and neutralize oil and corexit?
A. (Sarthou) GRN does not promote technologies, if there are technologies available, you can go to the Feds. Examining dispersant and the claims that it is still being sprayed. Biggest problem in terms of technology is that many people have come to GRN and asked to promote technology, but there is a lack of expertise on technological issues. Sarthou is an attorney not a chemist or a bio-scientist. Try to refer technologists to Congress to institute a system to test technolgies. Congress is not very friendly to this issue since this last elections, and congress has Gulf fatigue - think the Gulf has too much money and too much attention.

Q. Entire Louisiana delegation is against oil industry accountability. What strategies or tactics does GRN use to get stakeholders involved?
A. (Sarthou) Partners of oil industry will talk to them. If you have long-term plans for diversions, you're talking 10 - 15 years. Trying to come up with short-term components that can be cost effective to "stop the bleeding." Try to talk to people about things, in addition to suing people.

Q. If they're building new canals, are they putting any back or filling any in?
A. (Sarthou) Sometimes, usually when it does happen, they put a block at one end of the canal instead of filling it in.

Q. Will you swim in the Gulf of Mexico this summer?
A. (Sarthou) Probably. I ran through DDT when I was a young child, so whatever damage it would do would already be done. There are tarballs all over the Gulf, but not sure the water is contaminated.

Q. What about privatizing the Gulf restoration, especially if the government refuses to help.
A. (Sarthou) Own opinion, not organizations. Everyone wants privatization, but when some disaster happens, folks ask where the government is. Where states have privatized prisons, treatment gets worse while costs go up. With restoration, you have to take private land and shut down industry, private businesses might not be able to make the changes necessary. In the central wetlands, they're having trouble figuring out who owns the land. Sometimes only the government has the ability to make the hard choices.
A. (Burkett) Louisiana wetlands are privately owned. Benefits of restoring the wetland aren't gained by the people that owned the land. Shrimp come in and out on tides, a land owner who restores his land doesn't get all the shrimp. Benefits of restoring the coast go to the city and the nation and the public. Private land owners may be able to lease land for duck hunting or camping.
A. (Thomas) Ownership comes out of mineral rights. That's where the money is. 90% of land privately owned by families or companies. Trying to set up Louisiana Wetland Trust so owners can donate surface rights to trust, but maintain mineral rights. Trust would manage surface areas. Right now, private interests own it and look at what it has become.

Amy Harmon. Discussing the Greco family from Delacroix Island - son chosing to become a fisherman in the family tradition. Will be the first full fishing season this year. Their story demonstrates why traditions for fisheries are important, and where America gets its seafood.

(New York Times video)

Today most Americans eat farm raised seafood from overseas. Only 5% of shrimp eaten in America is wild caught in American waters.

Buddy and Aaron signed up to help lay boom and clean up oil, which allowed Aaron to buy his own boat.

Prices of wild shrimp have been falling for decades.

(Back to the talk)

NYT sent many reporters to the Gulf for the oil spill. Image that sticks in everyone's mind was the underwater oil gusher. Media wrote a great deal about the gusher. "Everyone" writing about threatened livlihood of Gulf coast fishing industry.

Editor wanted a "narrative" a story that followed certain individuals. Harmon came to Gulf, met up with a photographer who was already working on a photo essay, and then met up with Aaron and Buddy. Aaron was 19 and could have chosen another profession or college, but chose to become a fisherman even though millions of gallons of oil and dispersant were threatening his ability to pursue his chosen livlihood.

Editors may have been looking for a story of lives ruined by oil, but she found one of the last vestiges of American life.

Cynthia Sarthou and the Gulf Restoration Network. Four priority issues: clean and healthy water; protected species; Gulf future post oil disaster; defend wetlands.

Focus on impacts of oil & gas industry to state of Louisiana. By 1980, LA had lost 46% of its wetlands, 8.8 million acres. Problem for New Orleans. Bigger problem for Houma and Thibbodeaux.

Causes of wetland loss.

Started in 1927 when USACE adopted "levees only" policy. Levees from St. Louis to mouth of Mississippi kept river water out of wetlands. Spring floods had renourished coast.

Oil and Gas Development has cut 10,000 miles of canals cut into environment starting in the 1940's. Canals were necessary to extract oil. As pipelines were built, mud dredging created small levees that cut off wetlands from water (spoil banks). Web of waterways allowed salt water to move from Gulf into salt-sensitive freshwater wetlands. LA has lost 40 - 60% of wetlands due to these canals.

Urban development in the wetlands - slab on grade housing. Deforestation - cypress mulch is created by cutting down forests. Agricultural use.

Then came the BP disaster. Estimate 5 square miles of direct damage to wetlands. No good options to clean up. Raking the marsh destroys marsh. Air cannons used to keep wildlife out of the marsh. Beach cleaning disrupting beach life. Uncertain that cleaning oil is actually helping.

Oil and gas canals still being built and dredged. Back filling oil canals would stop indirect destruction. $14 - 50 billion will be required to fix wetlands.

How do you ask America to fix something state isn't willing to fix itself? Oil and gas industry needs to be held accountable. Not going to stop drilling, but it will require industry to clean up after itself. Oil companies need to give a percentage of revenues to Louisiana to restore wetlands.

Restoring the Coast:

River diversions - reintroducing river and sediments. Need to capture sediment of the river and put it into the wetlands. Pipeline sediment delivery, increase connection to river and new sediment.

Multiple lines of defense strategy for communities. Infrastructure and houses need to be elevated. Creation of healthy wetlands. Have to effectively evacuate. Learn to live with flooding. Has been "adopted" by State of Lousiana but not implemented.

Current assault on coast by oil industry not the first assault, just the latest. But oil industry is part of this community, and needs to start acting like it.

Dr. Virginia Burkett on Climate Change.

Climate change has been happening throughout the geologic record. There is a regularly occuring cycle of CO2 increase, temperature increases, followed by decreases.

Over a period of last 150 years, CO2 has increased beyond all records in the geologic record.

Cycles tend to correlate to the elliptical orbit around the sun. Orbital eccentricity affects temperatures on earth.

Past 10,000 years, temperature of planet has been relatively stable. This is when civilization as we know it developed. This is also when coastline that we recognize developed. Including the Mississippi Delta formation.

Over the last 100 years, C02 increased 35%, methane increased 150% compared to pre-industrial levels. Atmospheric water vapor increases - increased volume and intensity of rainfall, but the time between rainfall has increased. Temperature of the ocean has increased, hurricane activity has increased, ocean acidity has increased, and global sea level has risen (1.7 mm/year during the 20th Century; 3.1 mm/yr during 1993 - 2003). Gulf Coast sea level rise has occurred even faster than the global average.

Future changes in temperature based on emissions - all models predict warming at different rates. Expecting fewer frost days, increase in heat waves, and an increase in growing season. Canada will have a longer growing season. Precipitation expected to increase as well as increase of dry days - spacing between rain events.

Nutria increasing range due to milder winters. Increase of invasive species. Chinese tallow is pretty, but it isn't good for local wildlife.

In the South, less rainfall in the Spring and Summer growing seasons, more rainfall in the Fall.

As you heat water, it expands. Ice cover decreases. Sea level rise will accellerate as water becomes warmer.

Greenland ice sheet disintegration would raise sea levels 6-7 meters.

Louisiana coast already sinking. Add subsidence and sea level rise.

Lower soil moisture leads to intense, frequen and widespread wildfires. Brown marsh events due to low fresh water inflows and increased evaporation speed marsh degredation and erosion. Bald cypress become stressed at higher salinity levels; loss of bald cypress increases erosion and removes natural protection from hurricanes. Old cypress swamps become open water.

Land loss will accellerate based on environmental stress. Expecting to see increase of water intrusion onto human infrastructure. Threshold of community sustainability will be crossed in low-lying areas.

Things that can be done to reduce affects of climate change. Mitigaton & Adaption. Reduce non-climate stressors: canal cuts. Reduce catastrophic fires. Prevent and control non-native species. Maintain connected, genetically diverse fish & wildlife populations so they can adapt to change.

Adapt infrastructure - raise houses. Do not rely on historical projections without considering climate change in fish and wildlife management. Adjust harvest models for fisheries. Establish corridors for species migration. Retreat from low-lying coastal zones; in some areas retreat is not cost effective, however. Factor understanding of natural processes.

Focus on water - with more intense droughts water becomes more valuable. Stop damage to coast, put Mississippi back into the Delta. Sediment is vital to health of Louisiana's coast. More dynamic view of systems. Education.

Dr. Thomas starts off with some of the facts on the ground. 11 people dead; 6 million gallons of oil, 1.8 million gallons of dispersant; the spill happened in one of a few spawning grounds for blue fin tuna; human health is degenerating without much empirical data; we have no idea how much oil still remains in the environment or how long it will be there.

It is frustrating to keep saying "we don't know." Thought we would have seen 2 feet of oil coming miles into the marsh. That didn't happen. But we aren't sure what did happen.

How do we plan for a future accident?

Louisiana's economy is dependent on shipping, fishing, and the petrochemical industry.

Explore 3 aspects of the health of Gulf of Mexico

1. Affects of Climate Change
2. Effects on Environment
3. Impact of Oil Gusher on Local Citizens

The room is still about a third empty. This is a good turnout for a panel at Loyola (it is more robust than the New Orleans education panel I came to recently), but the topic is the damn oil spill. You'd think with emotions so high about this issue, it would be standing room only.

This event is sponsored by the Center for the Study of New Orleans, the Center for Environmental Communication, the Environmental Studies Program, and the Women's Studies Program.

Loyola President Kevin Wildes, S.J., is introducing the panel. These forums are designed to elevate discourse on urgent issues on our time. Wildes mentioned impacts on human and environmental health, as well as regional dependency on dangerous industry.

Dr. Burkett is an expert on climate change. Amy Harmon has been covering the oil spill since it happened. Cynthia Sarthou and her partners filed a lawsuit against the EPA because of the use of dispersant chemicals.

People are still filing into their seats. There are two video cameras recording the proceedings. Many, many faculty in attendance; a bunch of students. Some individuals who live on the Gulf Coast made it up. I know because I was behind them as they showed up and introduced themselves to the moderator as such. You could hear Southeast Louisiana in their voices.

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