Monday began with a bang. On my way to work I learned that Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Jeff Landry were at it again – planning to meet with officials in the regional office of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The news report stated that these congressmen were going to urge BSEE (which is part of the Department of the Interior and was previously the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE) to relax oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Based on public statements from the congressmen, I felt sure the subject of oil industry accidents was not going to come up in their meeting. Yet it should.
Oil industry accidents are an epidemic in this state, not only offshore but on shore in refineries as well. The BP Oil Disaster is the worst example of problems in the industry, yet every week brings a new example. Just a few days ago, ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining released so many chemicals that residents on the West Bank were impacted. In usual fashion, the industry stuck its head in the sand and downplayed the problem: “The official insisted that most of the chemical release is being burned before it reaches the air” (Fox8 News). This is rarely the case, as we’ve found facilities rarely monitor combustion rates at the flare. But the bigger indicator? The news reports detailing foul air and concerned residents talking about the health effects as a result of the emissions.
With our state’s politicians – Democratic and Republican alike – ignoring these accidents and the threat to public health, the industry can utter false statements and feel confident of getting away with it. After all, they always have.
But that needs to stop. We need more oversight and enforcement, not less. According to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center, there have been 3,740 accidents in the Gulf of Mexico in the last year (September 2010-September 2011). On shore, refineries’ reports to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality detail that, since 2005, the state’s 17 refineries have averaged nine accidents a week. The bottom line is that – according to reports that come largely from the oil industry – there have been more than 4,000 oil industry accidents in Louisiana in the last 12 months.
Something is drastically wrong.
There is so much compelling evidence about why we need more oversight. The last month has seen copious justification:
- BOEMRE’s final report about the BP Oil Disaster found that BP, TransOcean and Halliburton violated seven federal regulations in the period leading up to the oil spill;
- Scientists, including LSU’s Andrew Whitehead, released findings that the cocahoe minnow, a base of the Gulf of Mexico’s food chain, has been seriously impacted by the oil spill. Does this presage the decline of our fisheries?
- The high accident rate in the Gulf of Mexico, as detailed by a report by the Riverkeeper Alliance.
Vitter and Landry, as usual, spoke about the jobs provided by the oil industry. But, also as usual, they did not address the economic cost of the industry. What about the jobs lost on the Gulf Coast because of the oil spill? Other costs include destruction of our coast, our fisheries, oyster leases and shrimping grounds as well as ongoing pollution that sends people to the hospital and keeps them home from work and school. How can a child with asthma reach her potential when the refinery next door makes her too sick to do her homework?
Instead of going to BSEE to complain about oversight, our congressmen might have taken actions to serve their constituents. How about spending time with Andrew Whitehead, the LSU scientist, to learn about his findings? Or how about a visit to the BP claims facility? On the day of their myopic mission, the Times Picayune ran a story entitled “BP says claims facility is overpaying.” Did Landry and Vitter follow up on this story?
It’s bad enough that our congresspeople do not encourage oversight. What is tragic is the public cost of their misspent time.
But I am not discouraged. Common sense and the facts are on our side. So is what is right. More than 3,500 oil industry accidents and counting. I plan to keep counting.