From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject After Wrecking the Gulf, Big Oil Is Worsening the COVID-19 Crisis
Date May 12, 2020 12:00 AM
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[But oil industry pollution doesnt hurt human health in times of
disaster only. It turns out that a common type of pollution emitted by
the oil industry during normal operations may be making exposed people
more vulnerable to the COVID-19.] [[link removed]]

AFTER WRECKING THE GULF, BIG OIL IS WORSENING THE COVID-19 CRISIS  
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Sue Sturgis
April 24, 2020
Facing South
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_ But oil industry pollution doesn't hurt human health in times of
disaster only. It turns out that a common type of pollution emitted by
the oil industry during normal operations may be making exposed people
more vulnerable to the COVID-19. _

Response to the 2010 BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast included
setting controlled burns of the surface slick. These fires added to
heavily industrialized Gulf region's high levels of particulate matter
pollution, which worsens COVID-19 infections., U.S. Navy photo of a
controlled burn in the Gulf of Mexico on May 6, 2010, by Petty Officer
2nd Class Justin Stumberg via Wikipedia.

 

The last week of April 2020 marked a decade since the Deepwater
Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles
off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers
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and injuring 17 others and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S.
history. From the initial blast on April 20, 2010, until the well was
sealed four months later, 200 million gallons of crude oil poured into
Gulf waters and contaminated over 1,300 miles
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of coastline stretching across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and
Florida. BP was found to have been "grossly negligent"
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led to an ecological crisis in the Gulf that continues today, with
species including bottlenose dolphins and the endangered Kemp's ridley
sea turtle struggling
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because of it, and widespread contamination
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of fish.

The air and water pollution from the spilled oil and the response also
created a long-term environmental health crisis for the almost 50,000
cleanup workers, many of them local residents who lost their regular
jobs due to disaster-related closures of fisheries and beaches.
Because the private contractors in charge of the spill response
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failed to provide adequate protective gear, cleanup workers were
directly exposed to the oil and its fumes, to the chemical dispersants
used to break up the slick, and to smoke from the fires set to burn
oil off the water's surface.

The workers tell
[[link removed]]hair-raising
stories of hearing fellow employees screaming as their skin blistered,
of suffering burning eyes and collapses and long hospitalizations, of
neurological disorders that left them paralyzed but wracked with pain
"like snakes were crawling up" their legs, of being left unable to
work but buried in doctors' bills. After their medical claims against
BP led to payments that even for the most severely afflicted didn't
come close to exceeding four digits, thousands of former cleanup
workers are suing the company — but they have not had their day in
court yet thanks to U.S. oil spill law, which requires that financial
claims be heard first.

"BP has devastated my life, it really has," cleanup worker James
"Catfish" Miller of coastal Mississippi told
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Huffpost. "I'm still going through it."

These pollution-exposed workers continue to suffer medically. A
recently-released long-term follow-up study
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researchers with University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers in Houston
tracked 88 BP oil spill cleanup workers over time and found that, by
seven years after the spill, most of them had developed chronic
inflammation of the nasal sinuses as well as a respiratory condition
similar to asthma. It also found persistent changes or worsening of
their blood, liver, lung, and heart function, and it observed that the
workers experienced prolonged or worsening illness symptoms.

But oil industry pollution doesn't hurt human health in times of
disaster only. It turns out that a common type of pollution emitted by
the oil industry during normal operations may be making exposed people
more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus now sweeping the nation —
yet another blow to suffering cleanup workers, and a threat to the
predominantly low-income communities and communities of color where
the industry operates across the South and nation.

'People are dying'

Along with combustion engines and coal- and gas-fired power plants,
oil refineries and plants that turn natural gas into industrial
chemicals are significant sources of a type of air pollution called
fine particulate matter or PM 2.5, with the number referring to the
particles' size in microns. PM 2.5 pollution is made up of particles
so small they can work their way deep into lungs and even penetrate
the bloodstream. People living in areas with higher PM 2.5 emissions
are known [[link removed]] to suffer
more heart attacks and lung problems and to die younger than their
counterparts in lower-emission areas.

PM 2.5 pollution also increases the likelihood of dying from the
COVID-19 virus — and this appears to be playing out in lower-income
and African-American communities across South Louisiana, places that
have long borne the brunt of pollution and other environmental damage
caused by the oil and gas industry. Louisiana is among the top five
states for natural gas production, and its 17 oil refineries account
for nearly one-fifth of national refining capacity, according to the
U.S. Energy Information Administration
[[link removed]]. And as can be seen on
the accompanying real-time map of air pollution captured this week, PM
2.5 levels are particularly high along the heavily-industrialized Gulf
Coast.

Higher levels of PM 2.5 pollution are associated with higher death
rates from COVID-19 — even after accounting for numerous factors
including population size, hospital beds, number of individuals
tested, weather, socioeconomics, and behavioral variables such as
obesity and smoking. That's the finding of a recent analysis
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Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which looked
at 3,080 U.S. counties covering 98 percent of the population. It found
that even small increases in PM 2.5 pollution lead to big jumps in the
COVID-19 death rate. A microgram is just one millionth of a gram, 28
of which are in a single ounce, yet the study found that an increase
in PM 2.5 pollution of just 1 microgram per cubic meter of air was
associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. And
as the pollution increases, so does the mortality risk. It's an
environmental justice issue, because African Americans are more likely
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to live in counties with chronic air pollution problems.

Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach for the Tulane
Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans, took the Harvard research and
analyzed
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what it meant for Louisiana specifically. Compared to the U.S. as a
whole, Louisiana had above-average PM 2.5 pollution from 2000 to 2016.
The state also has above-average COVID-19 death rates, particularly in
the southeastern industrial region. Synthesizing that data, Terrell
found that eight of the 10 Louisiana parishes with the highest
COVID-19 death rates are in what she calls southeastern Louisiana's
"PM 2.5 corridor" stretching from the coast to New Orleans and along
the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. A former center for sugar cane
plantations, the area is now crowded with refineries and petrochemical
plants and has been dubbed "Cancer Alley"
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because residents suffer disproportionately from the disease. The BP
oil spill was yet another source of air pollution across South
Louisiana, with research
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showing it caused levels of both PM 2.5 and cancer-causing benzene to
exceed health standards in parishes near the coast.

A slide (see original article for image) from a presentation by
Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach for the Tulane
Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans, shows the relationship
between PM 2.5 pollution (red signifies above-average levels from 2006
to 2015) and the relative COVID-19 death rate (circles) in Louisiana.
Both PM 2.5 pollution and COVID-19 deaths are concentrated in the
industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as
"Cancer Alley," where many communities are majority-black.

Terrell's analysis also showed that Louisiana's air quality had
improved dramatically from 2000 to 2015 but is now worsening. In a
recent press call about her research organized by the Louisiana Bucket
Brigade, an environmental justice group based in New Orleans, she
pointed to a wave of industrialization over the last several years in
southeastern Louisiana under the administration of Gov. John Bel
Edwards, a Democrat who environmental advocates view as too cozy
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with the state's politically powerful oil and gas industry, which has
contributed over $350,000
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to his campaign since his first gubernatorial run in 2015.

For example, residents of St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes,
which sit across the Mississippi from each other along Cancer Alley,
have been trying to meet with Edwards to talk about the state's plans
to allow more petrochemical facilities
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in their already heavily-industrialized communities, but they say the
governor has refused. St. John the Baptist Parish currently has
Louisiana's highest COVID-19 death rate, with St. James in third place
after Orleans Parish. The population in all three of those parishes is
majority African-American, and many residents are also suffering from
underlying conditions such as diabetes that worsen COVID-19 —
conditions that in turn have been linked to hormone-disrupting
pollutants
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such as dioxins that are emitted by the refineries
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and chemical manufacturing plants
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"People are dying, people are sick," said Sharon Lavigne, an activist
with the faith-based community group RISE St. James
[[link removed]], which is working to stop the
industrial expansion. "So many are testing positive with this virus."

'A colossal mistake'

But even amid the pandemic and mounting deaths, the Trump
administration announced it was rejecting a plan to more strictly
regulate PM 2.5 pollution — and an oil and gas industry lobby group
that includes BP as a member cheered the decision.

Last week, Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Andrew Wheeler
said his agency would not impose tighter controls on PM 2.5 emissions
and instead stick with the standard adopted in 2012, which the EPA's
own scientists estimate is associated with some 45,000 deaths per
year. The stricter rule had been working its way through the
regulatory system for months, but Wheeler — who previously worked as
a lobbyist for the Ohio-based private coal giant Murray Energy —
said
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he thought the scientific evidence was not sufficient to toughen
existing standards, though he acknowledged that his agency had not
considered the Harvard findings on how PM 2.5 worsens COVID-19. There
will be a 60-day public comment period on the proposed PM 2.5 standard
once it's published in the Federal Register before the rule goes back
to the White House for review and finalization.

In response, 13 Democratic U.S. senators led by Maggie Hassan of New
Hampshire wrote a letter
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to Wheeler noting that the EPA's own scientists say maintaining the
current standard fails to protect public health. "The Environmental
Protection Agency should be taking actions that will further protect
health during this crisis, not put more Americans at risk," they
wrote. They also demanded answers to several questions, including,
"How will this link between air quality and COVID-19 patient outcomes
impact future EPA decision-making?" Neither of Louisiana's senators
— Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, both Republicans — signed on to
the letter, nor did any other senators representing Southern states.

Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told
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the New York Times that the EPA's timing of its decision was
"unbelievable" and "seems like a colossal mistake on the
administration's part." Not surprisingly, the American Petroleum
Institute (API) — a lobbying group whose members
[[link removed]] include BP America —
praised
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the Trump administration's move, calling it "a smart balance" that
will "help protect public health while meeting America's energy
needs." API has long fought
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more stringent PM 2.5 standards, and last November it was part of a
coalition of industrial groups that submitted a comment
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EPA's proposed stricter standard that claimed there was "significant
uncertainty" about the link between PM 2.5 and public health. Over the
last decade, the oil and gas industry has spent $1.2 billion
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on lobbying at the federal level.

But while it's working behind the scenes with other oil and gas
industry players for lenient regulations that will cause more people
to die in the pandemic, BP is portraying itself as a COVID-19 hero,
spotlighting
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its involvement in a White House consortium aimed at tackling the
virus that was formed in March
[[link removed]]
by the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S.
Department of Energy, and IBM. BP will provide COVID-19 researchers
with access to its Center for High-Performance Computing in Houston,
where it has one of the world's largest supercomputers for commercial
research. BP normally uses it to crunch geophysical data and says it
hopes it can help scientists arrive more quickly at answers about
COVID-19.

"We're all in this together and BP is working with governments and
communities to do everything we can to help fight this pandemic," said
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David Eyton, BP's executive vice president of innovation and
engineering.

_Sue Sturgis is the editorial director of Facing South and the
Institute for Southern Studies._

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