Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“A corporation cannot be ethical; its only responsibility is to turn a profit.”

Milton Friedman

Out of sight, out of mind

Will BP get away with murder — again?

BP’s petroleum volcano in the Gulf of Mexico — which erupted from the 20 April 2010 explosion that destroyed its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig until the leak, a mile under water, was capped in August of that year — has been likened to a “biochemical bomb,” and many of those who live and work within its influence have been called “the walking dead” because of the chemical witches’ brew to which they are being exposed and the range of serious and potentially lethal illnesses they are suffering as a result. In fact, some news reports suggest that the disaster could eventually shorten the lives of millions.

BP's biochemical bomb may be poisoning millions

BP’s ‘biochemical bomb’ may be poisoning millions.
[ Image Source ]

Fearing bad press, BP took aggressive action to keep the full impact of the blast and its aftermath out of the public’s ken. This involved direct news suppression, in which the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and local law-enforcement agencies colluded with BP in keeping reporters and photographers away from the Gulf and contaminated beaches; the result was compared to the effects of a police state.

'Permission Denied'

"Move along! Nothing to see here!"
[ (Base) Image Source ]

But this was not enough. The company also felt the need to hide the evidence that would show the full scale of the leak, so, in the name of “dispersing” the oil, BP applied a million gallons of a solvent called Corexit, which has been banned by the EU and which the EPA told BP on 20 May to stop using within 24 hours; BP, however, continued using the solvent, claiming it was safer than the alternatives — a dubious assertion that the EPA disputes. This was a success from BP’s standpoint: Most of the leaked oil dissolved and sank out of sight, and BP obviously counted on its also sinking out of mind. There was only one slight cost: The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are now far more toxic than they would have been without the dispersant. In particular, Corexit is reportedly cytotoxic (poisonous to cells) and it enables oil to dissolve in body fluids including the blood, abetting it in attacking organs that would otherwise be safe.

It now appears that BP got its wish. On 9 November, a presidential investigating commission concluded that the company had not “made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” according to commission head counsel Fred Bartlit. Although this is a contested conclusion, it is probable that the company is effectively exonerated.

This is essentially standard fare in cases of gross corporate negligence and malfeasance: A commission is appointed, finds just enough fault to preserve its appearance of impartiality, and then goes on to conclude that no one has done anything seriously wrong. And, of course, this whitewashing is eased when a malefactor succeeds, with full governmental complicity, in concealing the evidence of its crimes.

So there we have it: a happy ending for BP and its stockholders, and an easy out for the government that failed to regulate it. Too bad this dream finish is more of an unending nightmare for the people who live and work along the Gulf Coast.

By this time, BP should be accustomed to getting away with murder, having committed many of them in the process of overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. Our one faint hope is that when, inevitably, someone dies from the poison in the Gulf, a legal avenue will be found to try BP’s executives and sentence them to the prison terms appropriate for mass murder.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, nearly five years on, it remains hard to evaluate or quantify human health effects from the leak, but it is ominous to note that, according to Wikipedia, “A study that investigated the health effects among children in Louisiana and Florida living less than 10 miles from the coast found that more than a third of the parents reported physical or mental health symptoms among their children. The parents reported ‘unexplained symptoms among their children, including bleeding ears, nose bleeds, and the early start of menstruation among girls,’ according to David Abramson, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness.”

This may be regarded as inconclusive, consisting as it does mostly of anecdotal reports; at best, it establishes a correlation but does not prove causality. However, we will follow up on these studies as they progress; typically, the sort of long-term health consequences discussed above do not appear for five years or more after the precipitating event.

Meanwhile, there is considerably less doubt about the effects on marine life, where sea turtles, birds and mammals experienced an “exponential increase” in death rates following the leak.

Originally published as a review of a article on BP cleanup workers sickened by chemical exposure. Updated 10 January 2015 to account for new findings of long-term consequences.

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