Airdate: 
Sunday, August 29, 2010 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS One

President Barack Obama has been swimming off the Gulf Coast in the United States recently to try to convince everyone it's safe again after the oil spill, but Environmental Scientist Wilma Subra from Louisiana is one of the people who's far from convinced.

The grandmother has turned her life to documenting the environmental and health complaints being reported by local people, including fishermen who had to sign a compensation waiver from BP before they could help in the clean-up.

She and her colleagues tackled BP over the waiver in court, and they're now preparing to take action over the use of oil dispersant, which she says was one of the most toxic available and has made people ill.

WATCH - As the oil spill fades from the view of much of the media, video journalist Sophie McNeill follows Wilma's crusade.

EXTRA - Also in this program, David Brill has been back to the scene of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster off Alaska, to see the Crude Reality of how lives are still being shaped by what happened 21 years ago.

REPLAY - Watch Ginny Stein's Oily Disaster! report from May 2010, about the battle to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo (oil rig): AAP

Resources

Transcript

For anyone thinking that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is all over, our next report just might make you think again. Down on the Louisiana coast, one very determined woman - a granny who also happens to be a leading environmental scientist - has been collecting a hefty list of locals whose health has been damaged by the spill. Needless to say, BP is not impressed but that doesn't bother her one little bit! Here she is with Sophie McNeill.

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

It seems life is returning to normal on the Gulf Coast. But appearances can be deceptive.

WILMA SUBRA, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST: It looks like it has a little bit of oil in the sand that it's washing in. Until all the slick and all the dispersed oil is out of the Gulf I wouldn't consider swimming here.

Environmental scientist Wilma Subra is a Louisiana local with a long track record of fighting the big polluters. Apart from the oil, she's concerned about what else might be in the water. She believes BP's attempts to break up the oil may have created long-term problems.

WILMA SUBRA: The dispersant is a very toxic substance that causes a lot of health impacts - short term and long term. Portions of them are known cancer-causing agents, the other portion causes the headache, the nausea, the respiratory problems and when it is mixed with the oil, it is much more toxic than either the oil or the dispersant. And you can inhale it, you can ingest it, you can have skin contact out here. So, it is an issue that is really important for people's health. They need to be protected from any exposure.

For over 100 days, nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the sea just off the coast here - creating the world's largest-ever marine oil spill and America's worst environmental disaster. And Wilma Subra says it could all have been prevented.

WILMA SUBRA: If they would have implemented the regulations that were on the books, it probably wouldn't have happened. If they weren't allowed to cut the corners, it probably wouldn't have happened. The regulations we had tried so hard to get on the books, the enforcement of the regulations, all that was just dismissed by the catastrophic event that occurred April 20th.

This comes along and just destroys all the things we have been trying to work for. To preserve the wetlands we had, and rebuild those wetlands. To preserve human health, and now it's damaging human health.

For the past three months, Wilma Subra has barely had time to sleep as she drives up and down the coast documenting hundreds of environmental and health complaints. Wilma has already collected hundreds of health complaints from residents and oil-spill workers who fear they have gotten sick from chemical exposure.

WILMA SUBRA: And is he having the health impacts as a translator? Oh, he wouldn't say that, because they are all very scared.

So, here is a stack that I record all of the complaints that come in but I can't show you information on the complaints because I'm protecting the identity of the people who called in the complaints because they are very scared of repercussions and loss of jobs or loss of relatives', jobs. But probably about 600 complaints have come in to me and a large number have come in to Mary Lee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

When local fishermen first started working for BP to help clean up the oil, they were given no protective clothing or respirators and were made to sign an agreement waiving their right to any compensation if they got sick. Together with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Wilma quickly launched a court case against BP.

WILMA SUBRA: They said "We will hire you, but you don't have any claims to any damages to your health or to the environment or to you loss of income if we hire you."

REPORTER: And BP nearly got away with that, did they?

WILMA SUBRA: And BP nearly got away with it, if we wouldn't have brought those charges.

MARY LEE ORR: Certainly now we have been working now on workers' health and safety issues, getting respirators and protective gear to workers.

Every day Wilma meets fishermen who are struggling to cope. Today, she and her colleague Mary Lee Orr, of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, are gathering testimony from a New Orleans fisherman who thinks the dispersant made him sick.

GARY BURRIS, FISHERMAN: And there were planes, just not three miles from us, like 10 or 15 in a row, and they come back empty, and this went on for four or five hours. I mean they were hitting it - hitting it.

Gary Burris was out taking photos and video of the oil spill for his parish when he was sprayed by dispersant from a small plane.

GARY BURRIS: Say the next day I was burnt in the back of my throat, breathing in, got tired, and then I started going downhill. I couldn't taste anything, I couldn't smell anything, went to the doctor after four or five days and got antibiotics, because I had gotten an infection in my lungs. My joints were really hurting and then I got better, and then the next weekend my lungs started getting really bad - I could not breath, I couldn't get up. So I went to the doctor first thing Monday, and they put me on steroids.

MARY LEE ORR: This is not something that goes away. So we are really concerned about the legacy that this disaster will leave us. We have talked to the fishermen in Alaska. We know that the average lifespan - most of them were dead by 52 - the folks who worked on the spill.

The main dispersant BP used, Corexit 9500, is one of the more toxic dispersants on the market and is banned from use on oil spills in the UK.

WILMA SUBRA: A total of 1.8 million gallons of dispersant has been used in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon spill. And never before has this large a quantity been used in this area.

The EPA, the federal Environmental Protection Authority, requested BP use a less-toxic dispersant because of the unknown long-term effects of its use. But BP refused, saying it was the only one available.

WILMA SUBRA: In fact BP is making the decisions, and the EPA, the mineral management service and the Coast Guard, they do not take on BP and say "No, we think you should do it this way instead of what your proposing." And the fear is that if an agency overrides BP, the liability for that override will be with that agency.

This 66-year-old grandmother poses a serious threat to the powerful oil and gas interests that control her state. As a nationally acclaimed environmental scientist, Wilma has been involved in countless legal cases.

WILMA SUBRA: A lot of the big battles dealt with oil-field waste in the early days, about waste being dumped in pits that weren't lined, contaminating ground water, surface water, contaminating agricultural fields, and huge quantities of Benzene, a known human cancer-causing agent, being released into the environment and having impact on the health of communities living near these sites. We had a cluster of neuroblastoma in children - we had a lot of cancers - we had a lot of different things that you don't normally see in a community that size;..

There are two human populations that are experiencing the most exposure due to the BP crude oil spill.

So when the BP oil spill happened in April, federal authorities knew who to turn to and Wilma was chosen to give testimony to members of Congress.

CONGRESS MEMBER: Are you saying that BP is still not providing any kind of appropriate protective gear?

WILMA SUBRA: They are not providing the repertory protection And that's why you get the inhalation of the toxic chemicals off the spill and any dispersants and in fact if the workers bring the respirator that we've provided them, and others have provided them, they tell them they're going to fire them unless they put the respirator away.

Over the years, Wilma's work has clearly upset the powers that be. She even had gunshots fired through her office window on one occasion.

WILMA SUBRA: My office has been broken into a number of times. I've had threatening phone calls. One individual who was proposing a nuclear radioactive site threatened to kill me, my family and the local elected official and his family, so I had bullet proof glass put in on all the windows on the front and I had a security consultant come in and he said move everything to the back of the office and that's why my computer is now in the back so I'm not so visible up front.

The delicate wetlands that line the Louisiana coast are already under threat from erosion and Wilma wonders whether they will survive the oil spill.

WILMA SUBRA: Right now we lose a football field of marsh every 30 minutes. And once we start killing off the vegetation with the oil it's just going to increase incrementally. The potential is that it will take a large number of years for the Gulf and the wetlands and the estuaries to come back. And when you start looking at all of the wetlands which are the nursery grounds for all the seafood in the Gulf, and how much oil has been deposited in the wetlands, it could be generations.

Today, Wilma has a meeting with George Barisich, the president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Alliance in Louisiana.

WILMA SUBRA: This is your boat, George?

GEORGE BARISICH, FISHERMAN: This is the boat my dad had built - it's as old as I am. My dad had this one launched the month I was born. So it's 54 years old.

George and his members are worried about the effects of the huge amounts of oil and dispersant in the Gulf.

GEORGE BARISICH: Five years ago, before Katrina, I had a full head of back hair. Now look at it. It ain't too much black and it ain't all there! And I had a 6-pack, now I have a 1-pack. That's five years! You figure 10 more, and I'll be dead. The stress is going to kill me, I know it is!

George has read about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and how some of the fish stocks there have never recovered.

GEORGE BARISICH: I went looking around where I would normally fish - one of this place called Deepwater Pass where I normally make 30%, 40% of my income - I never caught a shrimp - not one. So whole blanket areas that are normally super-productive didn't hold any product so you may end up with two or three years of skipped repopulation. So, when you look at what happened with the Valdez is what we have to look forward to here. We have the contamination. We have the kill off of the organisms and then we have when they start returning, we have the accumulation up the food chain. So, it's an example of what we have to look forward to and it is not a pretty picture.

KEN FEINBERG: Are you now permitted to harvest oysters?

FISHERMAN: No sir, as far as we know, we ain't got nothin' goin' on

While Wilma takes complaint after complaint from worried locals, this man, Ken Feinberg, has been sent by the Obama Government to oversee a BP fund worth $20 billion to pay for damages arising out of the spill.

KEN FEINBERG: Are you in the same type of business?

MAN: I'm a food manufacturer and retail.

KEN FEINBERG: I see.

But most of the attention right now is focused on short-term business losses.

KEN FEINBERG: What you need is emergency help, financial assistance to cover the fact that you weren't able to go forward with those two contracts because of the spill.

Wilma is worried BP could get away without paying for the true cost of the spill.

WILMA SUBRA: But then what about all the people? What about all the people that are being made sick? Clearly the $20 million won't be around long enough to cover the long-term health impacts because you won't be seeing those in the timeframe that that money will be used up. There is very little focus on the long term and that can stretch on for many, many years, that can stretch on for the remaining life of a lot of the workers and that is clearly not being addressed right now.

Reporter/Camera

Sophie Mc Neill

Producer

Victoria Strobl

Researchers

jANE WORTHINGTON

donald cameron

Editor

david potts

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN

29th August 2010