From the Shores of Louisiana – Is gulf seafood safe?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: It’s rare for me to see 67-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist, MacArthur Grant ‘genius,’ grandmother of six – so worked up. But when I asked last week how things were going in the Gulf, where she’s been measuring levels of toxicity in air, water and fish long before the BP gusher began she was adamant that things are still bad out there.
“My biggest concern is that the message is ‘The oil is all gone.’ We are planning on being out in the field monitoring the wetlands, estuaries and beach areas for the impacts of the oil over the next several years,” she says, insisting that only then will we truly know about the impact on marine life, the environment and human health created by the BP mess.
But Subra’s biggest immediate concern is that the seafood coming from the Gulf may not be safe and that the federal agencies, specifically the FDA and NOAA, have cooked the books by adjusting the amount of some of the chemicals allowed in the fish they are testing… as a way to get fishermen back onto the Gulf and to restore confidence in the seafood market.
She forwarded me the criteria NOAA is using for testing, which makes it clear that its first test is smell and second for chemicals. Subra’s main concern is Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, of which the BP crude had large percentages.
In June, says Subra, while the spill was still unfolding “the FDA, in association with NOAA, raised the acceptable levels of PAH, without providing a rationale for why.”

“Here’s part of its statement in the Protocol for Interpretation and Use of Sensory Testing and Analytical Chemistry Results for re-opening oil-impacted areas closed to seafood harvesting by the FDA, published June 18, 2010: ‘The new numbers were developed specifically for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon Oil spill event and will not necessarily be applicable after all fisheries closed due to oil contamination are re-opened for safe harvest. Levels of concern and other factors for any subsequent oil spill event would be independently evaluated based on case-specific information.”

In other words, according to Subra and other scientists, the acceptable levels of PAH in the Gulf’s marine life were raised simply to address the impacts of the BP spill. It smacks less of concern for long-term human health, and more about getting the economy going again.

Subra’s complaints go bigger: “There is no testing for dispersants. In addition the calculations of the meal size used to calculate the consumption quantity is based on things like four shrimp per meal.” Who in Louisiana, or elsewhere, eats just four shrimp at a meal? Which begs another issue, which is that by allowing more chemicals to be in the seafood that is being taken from the Gulf it most-powerfully impacts those who eat it most often … which are the residents of the Gulf.

The bottom line, says Subra, is that “the concentrations of PAHs in seafood, based on the FDA acceptable levels, are inadequate to protect the health of seafood consumers.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, has defended both her agency and the FDA’s approach and that they are doing “comprehensive testing,” which includes a two-part test: A team of sensory experts tastes and smells the seafood and if it” passes muster,” is sent to a lab and tested for 12 types of hazardous compounds. “

Subra is not alone in not buying the agency’s modus operandi.

Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples, said seafood safety could not be guaranteed using those tests. “Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.”Senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina Solomon, concurs, and on September 21 urged federal officials to undertake “more rigorous” testing. She claims “NOAA only used data from 12 samples of shrimp, consisting of 73 individual shrimp for its evaluation. That’s just too small, she said, for an area the size of Connecticut.”Lubchenco, NOAA and the FDA continue to defend the testing and claim “the Gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat” and the reopening of Gulf fishing waters “is another signal to tourists the northern Gulf is open for business.”

[flickr photo via Ms. Gail M Tang]

Could a hurricane still disrupt your vacation?

If you have a vacation planned to the Gulf of Mexico coast between now and the end of November, the odds that it will get screwed up by a hurricane are declining rapidly. Hurricane season ends on November 30, and it looks like it’s going to be remembered as a pretty mild one, with only 16 named storms, nine hurricanes and five hitting Category 3 or higher. There haven’t been any major storms to make landfall.

So, it looks like 2010 will resemble 1951, according to an Insurance Information Institute blog post – the only year to have at least five major hurricanes but none actually making landfall in the United States.

There’s still a chance that a big one could disrupt your travel plans: think Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for example, which followed Hurricane Katrina and was the fourth costliest hurricane in terms of insured losses ($11.3 billion, adjusted for inflation).

[photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr]

From the shores of Louisiana: What fuels energy change?

Born in the Natal province of South Africa, Ivor van Heerden has been an adopted Louisianan for more than thirty years. During his years here he’s been head of the state’s coastal restoration program, on the staff at LSU, co-director of the state’s hurricane center and a head of Team Louisiana, which investigated the hows and whys of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

Also along the way he’s been branded everything from an expert to a gadfly, an egomaniac to a Cassandra. While he predicted the damage a Katrina-like storm would have on New Orleans several years before it happened – thus his charge to investigate after the hurricane – when he came out very publicly pointing fingers at the Army Corps of Engineers for “shoddy engineering” his job at LSU was suddenly eliminated (“budget cuts” said university officials; he’s still suing to get his job back).

He’s stayed in Louisiana since he was let go from LSU more than a year ago because he’s invested so much time studying its coastline and because he truly loves the state and its wildernesses. Since the Gulf spill he’s been up and down the coastline and in the air above it, consulting with clean-up efforts.

When I find him in his gravel drive in a small town outside Baton Rouge he’s packing his car for Houma, home of one of the spill’s command centers. Despite a reputation as a nature lover he’s no fuzzy romantic and is calmly outspoken on everything from big hurricanes to big oil. He’d spent the day before on two flights over the Chandleur Islands, where oil had just come ashore.

%Gallery-95432%”This is absolutely the last thing we need, being the most important part of the year in Louisiana ecologically. Our wetlands are already in such sad shape and now we’ve got hurricane season approaching. It’s the growing season for the grasses and wetland plants that suck energy out of the surge, which help protect us from storms. And of course this is the time of year when the birds are breeding and the fish larvae are starting to enter the bays and estuaries.”

How bad was the view from the air? “It was truly impressive. Some of the slicks are huge – one we looked at was 10 miles by 2 miles, about a mile off the coast. If something like that came ashore it would be devastating.

“A worst case scenario would be that a tropical storm spins out next week and we have five, six, ten feet of surge and it drives that oil in and totally fouls a huge part of coastal Louisiana. In some ways we’re lucky it’s happening now rather than during the height of hurricane season, which is when we expected such a catastrophe to happen because a drill rig had been knocked over.”

Given his ongoing fight with LSU over his job – his request for a trial was turned down just a week ago, though he is appealing – I wonder if he might temper his outspokenness regarding assigning blame for the spill.

“Obviously BP, or Transocean are at fault since it’s their equipment that failed. Whether it was malfunction of equipment or human error, they are ultimately responsible. But we Americans share a fair amount of the blame. Most of us are in denial about the whole energy situation in this country so it is our fault as much as anyone else’s.

“But BP or Exxon or whoever else is not going to go drill in one-mile deep water if they can’t make money. It costs them billions of dollars to sink just one well. But they can make money because of our energy policy. If we could suddenly change it so that we all had solar panels on our roofs, use solar heating and so on, we would reduce the demand for this oil and it would become uneconomical to go into these deep waters and we could eliminate some of these problems. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, I honestly don’t. I think we’re just going to continue down this road until we have a major energy catastrophe when we are all of a sudden forced to change.”

From the shores of Louisiana: through the eyes of an environmental chemist

New Iberia, Louisiana — Traveling around southern Louisiana with Wilma Subra can be both enlightening and depressing. A chemist by training and environmental activist by choice, on every corner, at every railroad crossing, each empty lot and even in the air she sees – rightfully! – either a toxic wasteland or one on the verge. Better than anyone in the state she understands the long-term effects of putting chemicals into air and water.

During the past five-plus weeks her limits as both environmentalist and human have been tested on a variety of fronts. She’s appeared before dozens of community groups trying to explain the health risks of the spill, been interviewed by journalists from around the world, participated in high-level talks with government officials, all with the goal of trying to help them understand just how bad the ongoing spill is for both the environment and human health.

When I find her at home on a Sunday she is clearly happy to see an old friend, but exhausted from more than 35 long days and sleepless nights. Sixty-six years old, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant a decade ago for her work on community environmental fights.

“You never get used to this level of emergency. When you come home at night you can’t separate the science from the social impact on these communities.

“But you take it day to day. You get up in the morning and start again, no matter how many hours of sleep you get. Because so much of what I can do helps those communities … so I need to be there when they need me. And right now they desperately need me.”

When the Deepwater first exploded she was as caught by surprise as most in Louisiana. “We always suspected something like this could happen, but assumed there would be enough preventive measures that it wouldn’t turn into something this major . We could never have predicted something this huge.

%Gallery-95432%”When the rig sank, on Earth Day, it quickly became clear the spill was going to wreak havoc all along the coast. How bad is it? It’s just unbelievably bad. Decisions are being made now – the burning of oil off the surface, the spreading of chemical dispersements – that will have huge, long-term impacts. And not just on the marine environment.

According to Wilma a combination of heavy winds and high seas whip the floating oil into an aerosol of hydrocarbons, which when blown ashore are making people as far inland as New Orleans very sick, complaining of headaches, vomiting, rashes and burning eyes.

Her immediate concern post-spill was the health of the fishermen being hired to help with the clean up. “At first BP tried to get them to sign an agreement which basically took away all their rights to protection of human health, their rights to sue, their rights to get damages. They were basically saying ‘If you are going to apply for damages then you can’t apply for this job.’ So we took them to court and got all of those clauses thrown out. The following day we took them to court again because they weren’t providing the fishermen with protective gear. We’d taken it upon ourselves to give the fishermen respirators with replaceable, organic cartridges, goggles, gloves and rubber sleeves protectors because when you pick up a boom covered with oil you get it on your skin. But we wanted BP to provide it to all their workers out there.

“We don’t want the fishers, glad to get the job, to go out there and get poisoned and for the rest of their lives have human health issues because they desperately needed this job to take the place of the fishing jobs they lost because of the spill.” She likens it to the workers who helped clean up after the World Trade Center collapsed and later got sick from the toxins in the air.

I ask who she blames for the mess. “You have to start by looking at who’s in charge. And apparently BP is in charge. The MMS, EPA, Department of Interior are all saying ‘We are at the command center, we’re making decisions,’ but the truth is if BP wants to try something or not try something no one can tell them no. BP is running the show and the people along the coast are the ones suffering. Right now the oil industry is clearly winning, not the communities.

“You understand, this is the end of the fishing communities in south Louisiana, for many, many decades to come.”

It’s swim with the manatees time

There’s only one place in the U.S. where it’s legal to swim with manatees and that’s Crystal River, Florida. The friend of mine who recently moved to Florida, told me this while pulling up a Web site to Crystal River.

Yep, sure enough. The manatees arrive in droves at Kings Bay along Florida’s west coast via the Gulf of Mexico starting the end of October. Picture 60 miles north of Tampa and 30 miles west of Ocala Oscala and you’re there. This pristine spot is the winter home for one of the world’s largest manatee herds that will frolic here until the end of March when they start heading north again.

A warning though, along with the manatees, people herd themselves here on the weekends. According to this one Web site with info on Crystal River, there are enough snorkelers in Tarpon Tampon Springs, (also called Kings Springs) that you could almost walk across the water on their backs. That sounds like an interesting sport. I wonder if you have to pay?

For this reason, the author suggests that you visit during the week, or head to one of the less visited springs. One, Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park is mentioned has an environmentally friendly twist. Here, besides just seeing the manatees, there are educational programs about them, as well as, the other wildlife in the area. Bird walks are monthly occurrences up until the end of May. If you head here June, July and August, no guided bird walk for you.

This month Lu’s Birthday Party is a featured event. Lu is the park hippo and a reason for a party each January. Here’s the link to the park’s events page that gives the details of all the happenings through the spring. The hippo pictured is Lu.

If you do plan to swim with manatees, check out the Web site Save the Manatees Club, first. Swimming with the manatees provides a thrill, but be careful how you go about it. The activity doesn’t always bode well for the manatees. Motor boats have motors, for example.

At Homossassa Springs there is an environmentally, manatee friendly excursion that sounds divine. For $40 bucks you head out in a kayak on a guided 3-hour tour. (The theme-song from Gilligan’s Island just popped into my head for a moment.) The photo to the left was taken at Three Sister Springs, another option.

For more manatee info from the Save the Manatee Club, click here. Also at the site, for $35 you can adopt a manatee and get a stuffed animal as a thank-you. Put a red bow around it’s neck, fasten a small box of chocolate in a heart-shaped box to it’s flipper and you have a Valentine’s Day present for a child. Hmmmm. Now, that’s an idea.

There are several swim with the manatee tours around Crystal River, but, like I mentioned, I’d keep the manatees in mind before heading out on a motorized boat. Although, since another major spot to view the manatees is at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and it is only accessible by boat, make sure you head to an establishment with reputable folks running it.

There are rules for where motorized boats can be used and where they can’t be. My general feeling is that people who make their money off wildlife do a pretty good job of taking care of it. They’re not likely to ruin their money tree.

To help you be in the know about appropriate manatee interactions, here’s a link to guidelines from the refuge. Also, here’s a Gadling post from Dolores Parker who had a personal experience swimming with the manatees last June. Even though she and her family went off-season, they did have some luck.