Thursday, October 28, 2010

Surfrider Foundation Visits the Gulf

The oil spewed for nearly 3 months.  Over 200 million gallons of oil poisoned the Gulf, and approximately 2 million gallons of chemicals used to disperse oil exacerbated the situation--resulting in the worst  U.S environmental disaster.  The madness stopped on July 20 when the renegade well was wrestled down. Shortly afterward, the rest of the world "went about its business"--and the federal government (including President Obama) began peddling the notion that the Gulf was safe. 

Me and my new friend Chuck at the Conference. 
A few months after the spill, the Surfrider Foundation was contacted by Chuck Barnes, Director of Eastern Surfing Association (Alabama District).   Chuck informed us that he and several people became ill after surfing in mid-September.  Remember, at this point, the federal government was encouraging people to recreate and eat seafood. At the time, I was planning a trip to the Gulf to participate in a conference and I invited him along.  The conference, called the Gathering in the Gulf, was a "meeting of the minds" of local and national Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (including faith based, local fishermen, scientific, public policy, and other diverse organizations). 

The conference was basically a 'needs-assessment' of how NGOs should go forward.  We spent several days hammering out a set of principles that illustrated a unified vision which would guide our work towards restoring the Gulf.  The principles, named "the Weeks Bay Principles" is a laconic document that says it all.  It encapsulates what the locals want and represents the larger picture of how those in Washington DC can help.  Read it here.

Before visiting the region, I wrote an article predicting what would happen in the Gulf during 2011.  Little did I know, some of my predictions were already happening!  During my trip, I heard horror stories about illnesses.  There are accounts of children being sent home by school nurses because of blisters in the noses, sore throats, and skin rashes due to oil and dispersant vapors/remnants.  Fishermen are feeling the same symptoms.  In fact, one fisherman attending the conference volunteered for a blood test that tested positive for chemicals related to oil and dispersant in his system.  One lady told me that after a "dusting of Corexit" (the dispersant used to break up oil) she got sick from swimming in her pool (and her house was several miles away from the coast). 

But the surfer's stories were most unique.  They are the "canaries in the coal-mine." They are in the water several times a week (And why not?  The federal government is encouraging them to).  All of the surfers I spoke with complained of throat/nose/ear problems, accompanied by skin rashes, and burning eyes/lips after surfing during a large swell. One surfer said: “For us, the swell is great because it kicks up surf, but now it’s not just kicking up surf, it’s bringing a “cocktail mix” of oil and dispersant to the surface.”

One day, I went to Gulf Shores, AL to examine the beaches and meet some locals.   I ran into families who traveled hundreds of miles to take a vacation there.  Even though their “summer vacation” was canceled because of the spill, they were determined to vacation on the white sandy beaches.  They said they would spend more of their time “on the beach” and not necessarily in the water. One local woman said she didn’t think pregnant women and young children should swim.
Gulf Shores During Spill. Photo:  Lyle W. Ratliff/ Reuters. /  
Gulf Shores after  spill--white shinny beaches (but the oil still lurks).  

After talking to locals and vacationers, I spent some time at a local surf shop (Blonde John’s Board Shop).  The business is usually lucrative, but since the spill the owner had witnessed a massive decrease in revenues. One of the shop managers, volunteered his boat to help BP clean up the oil.  While he was compensated for his time, he did miss several days of work and, as a result, lost income.  
Blonde John running the business. 

The economic and environmental unrest plaguing the Gulf goes back to Hurricane Katrina.  I cannot count how many times I heard people say:  "we’re still recovering from Katrina."   An ex-fishermen turned environmental activist said he was wiped out after Katrina.  He had lost his boat and morale--he said because of his age he didn’t have the energy (or funds) to start all over again.   Essentially, he became a community activist over night. He claimed that when the BP spill happened, he was already prepared to help himself and others.

The oil didn’t just ruin the white sandy beaches--it ruined important fisheries.  In fact, just last week another local contacted Surfrider about throngs of dead fish washing up on Grand Isle beach. The sad thing is, most in the region are still consuming seafood. 

Current monitoring by the federal government is inadequate and does not test for toxic heavy metals or dispersants. The onus is on the Food and Drug Administration to prove seafood is safe.  Considering the Gulf provides 86% of the U.S. shrimp harvest, and 56% of the U.S. oyster harvest--we need evidence it's safe!  As for water quality, there are still millions of gallons of oil and dispersants in the water.  Even though the government is swearing the water and the air is fine, people continue to be sick. We need a parallel process running along side what the government is “doing.” Surfrider has stepped up to assist.  Our Emerald Coast Chapter has been testing the water for months; see a recent blog about a positive result discovered.  And we plan to conduct further testing in the Gulf and continue to assist other NGOs.

In the end it all comes down to politics (just like everything in life).  Nearly 90% of people I spoke with in the Gulf said they do not feel represented by their local government and most politicians will not push back on the oil and gas industry because they fear losing political contributions.  It seems few politicians in the region are willing to "stick their neck out".  

Despite feeling crestfallen, I found hope within a catch phrase locals are using.  This self-empowering quote goes:   “The oil is still here; so are we, and we vote!!”   So take that, politicians! A bunch of fired-up, self-empowered locals are watching you and running a parallel process outside of the work you are doing. 

Warning sign.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On the Sixth Month Anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Groups Call for Protecting Our Coasts from Drilling and Ending Our Dependence on Oil

For Immediate Release

  • Mike Gravitz,
  • Jackie Savitz,
  • Stefanie Sekich-Quinn,
  •  Kristina Johnson

On the Sixth Month Anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Groups Call for Protecting Our Coasts from Drilling and Ending Our Dependence on Oil

[Washington, DC]  Today, four national environmental groups released a joint statement commemorating the sixth month anniversary of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20th that tragically killed eleven men and led to the worst oil spill U.S. history.  Approximately 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20th until July 15th when the well was temporarily capped. The resulting spill coated more than 600 miles of coastline, hundreds of square miles of marsh, and killed thousands of birds, sea turtles, fish and other marine wildlife. Recent scientific studies have indicated that large amounts of oil still remain in the Gulf, especially in deeper waters.  Restoring the Gulf from the spill may take a decade or more and billions of dollars to complete. 

The six month anniversary of the country’s worst environmental disaster is an important time to reflect on what we have learned from the event. The impact of the oil spill on the people, wildlife, coasts and deepwater of the Gulf should not be forgotten.  Our organizations join together to emphasize a need for a pathway to recovery for the Gulf while protecting our coasts and oceans from new offshore drilling. 

Mike Gravitz, Oceans Advocate from Environment America said, “There are three primary lessons from the spill. First, no matter how big the oil company or how strong its promises, offshore drilling is still a risky business, especially in deep water. Second, we must protect our sensitive oceans, coasts and beaches from offshore drilling in places the industry is not drilling today. Finally, we must end our dependence on oil or Big Oil will continue to push to drill in sensitive places that should be protected instead.”

Oceana’s senior campaign director Jackie Savitz warns, “If the spill taught us one thing, it is that offshore drilling is not safe, and will continue to pose grave risks to our oceans, beaches and coastal economies, while providing only a finite amount of dirty energy. To protect our oceans, we need to stop offshore drilling, and in its place, build the foundation we need to jump-start the clean energy transition.”

Athan Manuel, Director of Public Lands at the Sierra Club said, "The BP tragedy isn't over yet. The Gulf Coast is still dealing with job losses in fishing and tourism. We can expect to see damage to the area's beaches and marine life for decades to come. It would be a giant mistake to ignore the lesson of this disaster. Our oil dependence is just too dangerous. Oil companies like BP have had a stranglehold on America's economy for too long. Oil executives are standing in the way of clean energy. It's time to tell them to step aside. We need a moratorium on new offshore drilling. We need to embrace wind, solar, and efficiency technologies that will create good jobs in places like the Gulf Coast. We need to invest in a 21st century transportation system that will help make America a global leader in the clean energy economy."

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, Campaign Specialist for the Surfrider Foundation said, “I recently visited the Gulf where I heard locals helplessly say: “The oil is still here, and so are we!”  To make these communities whole again, we must hold BP accountable and ensure local participation in restoration efforts.  In the long term, it's critical we defend our coastlines from new offshore oil drilling—spills like the Deepwater Horizon are detrimental to both the environment and economy.  It’s time for our nation to wean itself off oil drilling and seek a comprehensive energy plan that is based on sustainability, conservation and renewable energy.” 


Environment America is a federation of 29 state based organizations working together for a cleaner, greener, healthier future. www.

Oceana is the world’s largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation.

Sierra Club is America's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves and beaches. For more information on the Surfrider Foundation, go to

UV light reveals oil still on beaches

Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic

With the exception of an occasional tarball, the beaches may look clean, but just like dirty ocean water where you can't see the bacteria, the truth is more subtle.

Researchers from the University of South Florida Coastal Research Lab are using ultraviolet lights to expose oil that is still on the beaches that appear clean to the naked eye.

The question remains what are the ecosystem and health impacts of this invisible sheen of oil (and perhaps dispersant).

Read more....

Click here for more of Chris' stunning photos.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Emerald Coast Chapter finds potential evidence of dispersant on FL beach

Results are in for samples taken on 9-16-10 and 9-23-10. Although tarballs were again present on the beaches, no oil compounds were detected above 5ppm.

The 9-16 sample from Blue Mountain Beach was positive for Propylene glycol at 30.6mg/L.

This is well over three times the reporting limit and considered a significant result. Propylene Glycol is one of the components of dispersants. The sample is being further evaluated to determine if other components of Corexit are also present and to help differentiate from other pollutants.

Read more and support the Emerald Coast's monitoring program here.

Read more about dispersants here.

Will keep you posted on our findings and we continue to test along Florida and Alabama beaches.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Obama Re-opens Deepwater Drilling

The Obama administration announced yesterday the lifting of the 4-month-old moratorium on deep-water (i.e., 500 ft) offshore drilling. The decision to end the moratorium comes before final safety studies on the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been completed. According to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, recently strengthened rules and improved oversight have reduced risks to a point where offshore drilling can be allowed to resume. However, major questions remain about the causes of the BP disaster and whether future deepwater drilling activities will sufficiently protect human safety and the environment. Specifically, it remains unclear why the Macondo well blowout preventer failed, causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Commented Pete Stauffer, Ocean Ecosystem Program Manager for the Surfrider Foundation, "We find it troubling that the Obama Administration is already opening up deepwater drilling before final sudies from the President’s Oil Spill Commission, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Coast Guard/ BOEM Investigation have been completed." The Surfrider Foundation remains opposed to any new offshore oil drilling as our nation’s oceans, waves and beaches are vital recreational, economic and ecological resources that will be polluted by an increase in offshore drilling.