Dr. Gregory Button, PhD is an internationally recognized disaster expert and a professor at the U.T. Dept. of Anthropology. His areas of research include, among other things, disaster recovery and disaster policy. He has conducted extensive ongoing research of several major environmental disasters, including the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, Katrina, the Kingston ash spill, and now the BP Gulf oil spill. He is currently an informal adviser to a Senate committee investigating the BP oil spill, and also advises non-governmental organizations on the disaster response. Currently, he is finishing a book analyzing many of the disasters he has researched over the last three decades. He is also adding a postscript chapter on the BP spill which serves to illustrate many of the observations he makes throughout the book. Once the manuscript is finished, he will be traveling to the Gulf, where he has numerous contacts from his work on Katrina. In the meantime he has had frequent contact with many of the affected communities.
Dr. Button spoke with KnoxViews at length today about the BP Gulf oil spill and we appreciate him taking the time to provide expert commentary on the disaster. Following are excerpts from our fascinating and at times somewhat frightening conversation...
Dr. Button said it is "really hard to know" the extent of the spill at this point. "There’s a lot of dispute between researchers and scientists and BP, and of course it’s in BP’s interest as it always is in a case like this to 'lowball' it when there is litigation looming in the near future."
According to Dr. Button, there are already 100 lawsuits filed against BP and there will probably be many more. If the U.S. Justice Dept. pursues litigation against BP the legal landscape will become even more complicated. Because compensation is based on the "size of the spill as well as the actual harm inflicted," oil companies always want the size of the spill based on the lowest possible estimates in order to limit their liability for the recovery and cleanup.
Dr. Button observed that "past experience has shown that it is very hard to win cases like this" against major oil companies because they are so large and have so much economic and political influence. In the case of Exxon-Valdez, some settlements took 20 years - long after some of the plaintiffs had died.
The spill is probably bigger than BP estimates but it's hard to know because of undersea plumes, says Dr. Button. Scientists have "no doubt" there are plumes which are "a major factor in determining the size" of the spill but they are deep under the surface of the ocean and hard to accurately measure.
The use of dispersants, which Dr. Button and other scientists oppose, is a contributing factor in creating plumes because instead of getting rid of the oil they "sweep the problem under the rug," keeping the oil undersea where it is out of sight and out of mind. There are also concerns that some of the dispersants that have been used haven't been tested to determine their potential long-term effect on the environment or on human health.
In general dispersants are often considered to be highly toxic for cleanup workers. Studies conducted in the wake of the Exxon-Valdez spill reveal long-term human health risks such as cancers and respiratory problems from the use of such dispersants. Dispersants, Dr. Button observed could be "as harmful to the environment as the crude oil itself," and could have "really harmful long-term affects" to human health, particularly to the clean-up workers.
Dr. Button said the spill is "undoubtedly the largest spill to date" to occur in U.S. waters. "We have now entered, literally, into uncharted waters and it remains to be seen how big this spill will become before it is shut down." At this point, Dr. Button commented, "it could be at least until August before the situation is under control. This thing is so big at this point in time and so out of control, it's hard to predict what's going to happen, except we know there's going to be, unfortunately long-term harm to the environment and possibly coastal inhabitants."
As for the long term environmental, economic, and cultural impacts, Dr. Button said "None of us can predict what the long-term consequences will be. But, given our experience with past spills and past disasters of this magnitude and severity, we can make educated guesses. We can't predict the degree to which certain things will happen, but there are social and economic indicators we have learned from our research that can tell us something of what may lie in the future.
"When we look at an event like this, some of the social indicators that we expect to see in the near and distant future are things like an increase in DWI, an increase in drug, alcohol, and substance abuse, an increase in physical abuse and family violence, an increase in homicides, suicides, divorce and separations although it is of course impossible to estimate to what degree these problems may present themselves. A breakdown of some communities, like that which occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, could very well occur if this spill continues to unfold out of control.
"One of our major concerns are the possible generational effects. When you have a catastrophe of this magnitude you often have second generations being adversely affected - mentally, psychologically, economically, etc."
As for the environmental consequences, Dr. Button says there is a very real possibility in the minds of some marine biologists of species extinction. The question is "which species, and what critical role do they play in the overall scheme of things such as in the food chain?" He said some extinctions unfortunately occurred in wake of the Exxon-Valdez spill as well as in the wake of other major major environmental catastrophes around the world.
"One of the primary concerns is that crude oil is very toxic. Many micro-organisms that are vitally important to the food chain are easily killed under such circumstances. The most vulnerable species in the whole ecosystem are things like mollusks - oysters, clams, and mussels - because they're 'filter feeders.' They take in the oil that is highly toxic and it kills them. Then going up the food chain, things like crustaceans - lobsters, crabs, and shrimp are heavily impacted."
Dr. Button said that there is a possibility, for example, that shrimp in the Gulf could become extinct. The shrimp are not only of vital importance to the marine environment since so many other species feed of them but to the regional economy as well. Their disappearance could affect fish and everything else in the food chain that feeds on them and have a cascading effect on both the environment and the regional economy.
Even if extinction among some species does not occur, a significant reduction in a threatened species could still have a huge impact, he noted. For example, the herring population in the area of the Exxon-Valdez spill was not wiped out but was so severely impacted that it shut down the entire herring fishing industry in Prince William Sound. One of the other environmental health concerns that Dr. Button expressed is that crude oil bio-accumulates and increasing concentrations could have deleterious effects on humans as well as marine species.
A related economic concern is the potential "stigmatization" of the Gulf fisheries, a situation which Dr. Button says has occurred in previous oil spills. "Fish buyers from around the world, those who buy for restaurants and distributors and brokers, people who influence greatly the fish global fish market will often times 'blacklist' fish from certain regions because, whether or not they are actually contaminated, they know the buying public will be reluctant to purchase fish from what is perceived as an affected region." Dr. Button said this can put fishermen out of business and it can take years to for a full economy recovery of the regional fisheries.
Dr. Button also mentioned the potential, adverse cultural impact that could occur. "There are so many people whose lifestyles have for generations been dependent on shrimp fishing and other related fishing activities in the Gulf. For instance, the Vietnamese who relocated to the Gulf region after the Vietnam war are major participants in the fishing industry there, as are Cajuns and other ethnic groups, such as indigenous communities whose cultural lifestyle has been shaped by the marine environment for centuries. If the fishing industry is destroyed or seriously imperiled, these people’s cultural way of life could be destroyed."
Dr. Button also noted that with the advent of the tropical storm season concerns about a hurricane or tropical storm blowing oil on shore is on the minds of many. "There's a real possibility that it could blow crude oil ashore and adversely affect the inland environment as well as inland populations.
If, this were to occur he said, "it would be a nightmare of enormous proportions. When you've got all that oil sitting in the Gulf, and you've got the possibility of tropical storms occurring over the next two or three months it potentially sets the stage for a disaster that, in retrospect, may well make [the current situation] look like a picnic." All the more reason Dr. Button said for there to be an immediate remedy to the ongoing spill.
At any rate, Dr. Button said "The possibilities for long-term impact in the environment are great. It remains to be seen the degree to which harm may be inflicted, but there's enough indication now to say that this is a catastrophe of such an enormous proportion that it raises a lot of concern among environmentalists and marine biologists. Because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina in this case we are looking at what is already a very vulnerable, somewhat fragile area both in terms of the human population and in terms of the physical environment itself. Many of these communities are still trying to come back from the ravages of Katrina and, to varying degrees, some have succeeded while others have not. It not only destroyed many their homes and communities, it also destroyed, for many, their economic livelihood. Some of these populations are just getting back on their feet and are ill prepared for another disaster. In short, there are literally some communities that may never recover if this event continues to go unchecked."
As for the regulatory environment, Dr. Button said that "Frankly, I think deepwater wells are too risky. As you've read in media accounts, the Minerals Management Service [MMS] under the Bush administration and going back even before that have basically given the industry a blank check. They have allowed oil companies to fill out their own environmental impact forms, allow them to fill out their own permits, and have basically signed off on almost whatever the oil companies have submitted to obtain their drilling permits.
"The Obama administration is relatively new and has not for a variety of reasons, perhaps even the lack of political will, reorganized MMS. For many of us who have interacted with the oil industry for years, we have long been aware that there has been a revolving door between the oil industry and our regulatory agencies. As a result of this disaster many in the public are becoming aware of this behavior for the first time but many inside the circle have known about these practices for years and have chosen to ignore them for whatever reason."
Dr. Button said that many environmental and regulatory concerns have been raised within MMS and other federal agencies but have often been ignored by the upper echelon in the federal government. "Precautionary measures have been waived for BP and other major oil companies that could prevent or retard the damage from an oil spill." He went on to say that he and many others feel that "undoubtedly this unfortunate tragedy could have been avoided had federal regulatory agencies done their job rather than be beholden to the oil industry.
"What's disturbing about this," he continued, is that "if you go back in history 40 years and you look at the Santa Barbara offshore oil spill, while not as big as this spill it created a huge awakening in the nation because it created such an unprecedented environmental disaster. At the same time it brought into question the tremendous influence of the oil industry and the failure of government oversight. The irony here is that we are dealing with many of the same issues that were brought to light in the wake of the Santa Barbara spill. Unfortunately, in some ways little has changed on the political landscape. Maybe that's one of the silver linings in this, that people can start addressing the issues that have plagued offshore rigs for the last four decades and institute effective reform. We've had these enduring problems with the lack of government regulation, the lack of protecting the rivers and oceans and endangered species, for over four decades. These are recurrent problems that cannot be solved until the national creates the political will to address the root causes of these issues."
"The media tends to cover disasters," Dr. Button asserted, "as episodic events. They pay attention to the more sensational events such as this one and ignored the fact that in this day and age environmental disasters like this are routine. They're common, they're ubiquitous, large and small, and yet people tend to think they are exceptional events but they're not. They are everyday, ongoing realities that only gain our attention when they are perceived as sensational.
"As disaster researchers we look at the pre-existing conditions that contribute to the vulnerability and the possibility of a disaster, while the media and policy-makers focus mostly on the 'triggering event,' rather than the systemic causes and then in a few weeks or months the public’s attention is diverted to other more sensational front page news. But one of the things we have learned from our robust research and empirically demonstrated time and time again is that the impacts of these events can last for years, many years - Exxon-Valdez has had a tremendous impact over the last two decades alone. With an event like this, I hesitate to imagine how long the ill effects could last."
In regard to the cleanup, Dr. Button says the oil industry claims they can remove 25% of the oil from the environment, but independent research scientists estimate it's closer to 10% to 12%. "Oil spills are like letting the genie out of the bottle - once it is out it can't put it back in. So in the worst case or even the best case scenario, that still leaves 75% to 90% of the oil that will stay in the environment for years to come. I can take you to places in Alaska that are still heavily oiled. I can also take you to the coast of France where there is crude oil in the coastal marshes from spills that occurred in the 1950s. It's very hard to get oil out of the environment. Once it's out of the bottle, it's out and it is vain and fruitless to think otherwise.
"This raises the question of how risky is it to drill these offshore wells, and whether it is worth the cost not just to the environment but to the taxpayers. Because if there's any precedent in terms of legal cases in U.S. waters, usually it's the federal government and taxpayers who end up paying the millions and sometimes billions for the cleanup - not the oil companies. So is it worth it to the taxpayers in this country to these kinds of risks in the name of private profit? Is the trade off worth it? Who's actually profiting from such a tradeoff? The oil companies are rarely held accountable to any significant degree that has any significant impact on their risky behavior.
"For them the risks are a built in cost of doing business because their profit margins are so high. The major oil companies are not only the largest corporations in the world they are also the most profitable. Even in the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, even with al the punitive and compensatory fines they eventually had to pay, the shareholders never suffered a significant loss - in fact Exxon actually made a significant profit in 1989, the year of the spill and every year since then."
Regarding the federal response, Dr. Button says that while the Coast Guard acted heroically during Katrina and saved thousands of lives, in this case the Coast Guard and other federal agencies have been very tardy in their response. He said "The reality is today, and most people don't want to know this, the federal government doesn't really have an effective disaster response plan to deal with a catastrophic disaster. They've always defined it in very narrow ways, and unfortunately as this case illustrates, we don't have the manpower or the kind of contingency plans or the political will to respond to a major disaster in an effective manner."
Dr. Button noted that "One of the interesting things about disaster response, whether you are dealing with a corporation or the federal government, they never plan for the worst case scenario. So when the worst case comes along, like Katrina or this oil spill, it's like 'oh, we never thought that would happen,' but statistically the odds are great that a worst case scenario could happen."
On efforts to kill the well and stop the uncontrolled flow of oil into the Gulf, Dr. Button said that "there is a striking contrast between the incredibly sophisticated technology that oil companies have to locate and extract oil versus the really simple, ineffective ways they have to take control of a spill and clean it up. The BP spill is a case in point. There's been no incentive for the oil companies to develop cleanup technologies or, in the case of a deep sea rig, control technologies. First of all, the mentality is 'it's not going to happen on our watch,' and if it does, they're not going to suffer any long term harm to the shareholders or the company. Moreover, the federal government has failed to demand the industry develop such technologies and contingency plans before they issue drilling permits."
As for being so dependent on oil company technology and expertise to control a spill and whether the federal government should have its own independent equipment and capability, Dr. Button says that oil companies should assume such responsibility in their pursuit of profit. "I don't think we should have to develop a technology to cleanup these messes. It should be incumbent upon the oil industry. They should spend the R&D money to create effective technologies and responses and not depend on taxpayers to pay for their mistakes."
In response to a question about root cause failure analysis, Dr. Button is of the opinion that it was a "failure to regulate and failure to take the proper precautionary measures that are essential to protecting the environment and the human population. And in terms of deep sea oil well drilling, we don't know enough at this point in time to undertake such endeavors without putting the environment at great risk as obviously this case well illustrates. I really think we should not allow [offshore drilling], especially deep drilling, until the technology is better developed and can insure against outright catastrophes such as this. The price is too high.
"In our culture we too often think that in situations such as this all we we need is a quick technological fix. Well guess what? There's not always a quick technological fix. We need to place more emphasis and energy on preventing environmental disasters rather than trying to remedy them once they occur."
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