Along the Gulf Coast, one can expect to find communities largely distrustful of government. They’ve witnessed the pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina and the continued inadequate response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster. So when government agencies make broad claims that 98 percent of oil from the spill has vanished or, most recently, that a person could eat 63 pounds of Gulf shrimp each day for the next five years and still not reach levels of concern for oil contamination, people are rightly skeptical.
That bold statement, released on Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries website Feb. 10, references more than 1,000 samples the state has tested since May 2010. But nowhere in the press release, or on the LDWF website, do they offer links to the full results of their sampling. Which leaves people asking: Where were the samples taken? How were sample locations determined? Are samples being tested for dispersant and heavy metals? How can we even trust that these statements are correct?
Gulf Coast communities are expected to take this claim — the seafood is safe, we’ve tested 1,000 samples! — as enough to calm fears.
Independent organizations have been questioning government methods for months now, and have produced their own seafood and soil testing results that contradict government information. NOLA Emergency Response, when alerting officials to their own results from whole seafood samples, discovered federal testing methods allowed for cleaning and deveining shrimp before taking a sample. Here are some recent results from Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper showing high levels of soil contamination from BP’s crude oil in the Mississippi River Delta.
Still, the FDA, NOAA and Louisiana agencies have all been consistently mum on independent data, virtually ignoring our information — until now. A recent posting on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board site looked to discredit independent sampling, quoting an FDA official who called it “junk science”:
According to Don Kraemer, FDA’s Deputy Director in the Office of Food Safety, the agency has been surprised by the number of media stories that give credibility to “junk science” and questionable lab tests.
“We’re working now to address independent reports that aren’t scientifically sound. And we’ll continue to test seafood in the Gulf to demonstrate its safety.”
It was a bold statement, and especially telling since it was released the same day as Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries’ press release (and during the same week that Louisiana seafood industry officials and politicians were visiting Washington, D.C. to tout the safety of our seafood).
What FDA’s Kraemer failed to address was that these independent scientists are working through legitimate certified laboratories and have been finding seafood with visible oil as well as volatile chemicals associated with the BP crude. One would think FDA and NOAA would embrace the opportunity to work with these scientists – many of them the leading experts in their fields – to better protect the Gulf Coast and its residents. However, the FDA’s response is instead to discredit and ignore the valuable information offered.
Strangely, also on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board’s website was this contrasting article, in which a researcher who has been sifting through available federal testing results said:
“The more I read, the more questions I had,” says the scientist, who blogs on Deep Sea News. Even with her background in science, it took her five hours to wade through the public information offered by NOAA on 13 different websites.
The researcher ultimately determines that “everything looks like it’s OK,” which, y’know, PHEW! But her comments speak volumes to the struggles community members and independent samplers have in accessing government and state data and even understanding it. On the state level, the Department of Health & Hospitals offers updated seafood surveillance reports on its website, but it’s lacking detail. Still, even this information was never referenced in the LDWF statement that sparked such controversy.
Are coastal residents expected to know that the results of seafood sampling taken in their fishing waters are buried on another state department’s website? Are they expected to decode FDA sample results that look like this?
Thus, the information coming from the government is largely brushed aside. Meanwhile, organizations like NOLA Emergency Response, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and others have been working in coastal communities, training residents and fishermen to test their own seafood and water as well as taking our own independent samples.
We distribute our results in the communities we work in and help residents understand the data. We want state and federal agencies to work with us in this endeavor to bring the best information to communities, rather than ignoring or discrediting our tireless efforts.
Adapting and embracing independent science is crucial to the Gulf Coast. Without the inclusion of independent testing and monitoring, the restoration process will be hindered by the distrust of the public, limited scientific research, and the lack of oversight required to properly restore the faith of Gulf Coast residents and the environment.
Written by Benjamin Leger, LABB media coordinator, and Peter Brabeck, LABB environmental monitor.