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Update 5: Talk About..

May 6, 2010

A couple of days ago I experienced the whiff of turps-like solvent from the fence stain can in my hand. Not pleasant. And makes the brushing on etc troublesome… Nuff said.. do small sections at a time.. And time-for-breathers often..

Thoughts that came to mind when guest bloggers Drs Tom Webler, Seth Tuler and Kirstin Dow filed their take on a larger report at Climate Progress. They are at seri-us.org.. Here’s a summary of the topic. I found it interesting, instructive, and hope you do, too.

It is difficult to anticipate what the full range of impacts will be from the Deepwater Horizon leak. To be sure, the response effort is large and many experienced and dedicated personnel are focused on the problem. Federal and state spill response managers have considerable experience from past spills, and will no doubt consider a range of potential social, economic, and health impacts associated with this event. However, much is also uncertain, including the duration and amount of leaked oil, weather and sea conditions, the success of novel response approaches such as injecting dispersants deep underwater, and even responses of local communities. Impacts will emerge and be felt over a long time horizon. Cordova, Alaska is still feeling the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill after 20 years. Even during these early days of this disaster, we are beginning to see some of the contours of the impacts to the people who live along the Gulf coast.

Massive and dangerous amounts of oil and dispersants are in the water. Although some claim that the biological richness of the Gulf region can rapidly breakdown the oil, it is unclear how long oil from this leak will remain in the environment. There are certain to be impacts to people’s livelihoods, directly and indirectly. Impacts will be felt by cleanup workers, residents, families, neighborhoods, schools, and businesses. The biological productivity of the wetlands is under threat. Local governments will see a decline in tax revenue from a loss of the fishing industry. Communities will change dramatically as an army of spill workers descends upon these towns. The seafood sector has already started addressing issues of stigma of seafood products in the entire Gulf region, as perceptions of contamination can wreak economic loss as much as actual contamination.

People will be exposed to oil, dispersants, detergents, and degreasers. While exposures will not necessarily lead to adverse health outcomes, much is unknown about the toxicity of the oil, its byproducts, dispersants and the exposures that people will receive. More worrisome is the possibility that these exposures might last for weeks or months. This is highly unusual because most oil spills are usually resolved on much shorter time scales.

Stress is already being felt in the communities nearest to the slick. The newspapers are full of stories about people’s anxieties about their jobs and their communities. Anger at the government and the oil industry is rising. Comparisons are being made to Katrina, which trigger a whole set of psychological associations that people outside of New Orleans can only faintly understand.

President Obama stated “We’re going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged, and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before.’’ BP’s David Kinnaird said, “We are here for the long haul. We are here to help. We are here to do whatever we can, to make this as right as we can.” These are big and expensive promises. It won’t be easy to figure out how to compensate whom for harm and, in fact, the law may not even provide a way to do so.

We are in uncharted waters with this disaster. Sadly, it is likely to become an exemplary case study in how badly people and communities can be injured by an oil spill and its response. Experience with oil spills inside and outside the United States demonstrates that oil spills produce dramatic consequences for people’s lives. To better prepare for responding to spills, it is wise to learn from experience and be pro-active about planning for how to deal with impacts to humans. Hopefully, a broad understanding of the human dimensions of oil spill hazards can help these responders make wise decisions.

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