We rolled into Mobile, Alabama early this morning for our last major day of interviews. As a science major, I was still mourning not being able to talk to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, but I think we got a good collage of perspectives from the island and were ready to talk to some organizations.
We first talked to Kate Johnson from Hands on South Alabama. The group previously handled hurricane volunteer response but was asked by state government to help mobilize volunteers for the spill. People from across the country tried to volunteer, but response was greater than need, as BP mostly needed skilled workers. Volunteers did beach sweeps to identify oil wash-ups, tarballs, and injured wildlife along the coasts and reported GPS points to BP for clean-up (for liability, if you pick up a contaminated substance, you are responsible for its disposal). She stated that, after the spill, emergency response coordination included more grassroots organization participation. Their volunteer database expanded to associate specific volunteers to their skills and previous volunteer experience that can be used in future disaster response. They also created financial literacy programs for the community in an effort to keep more tax returns in the community and help modest means people file taxes for free.
Next, we talked to Eliska Morgan, district office coordinator to Congressman Jo Bonner, the Representative that serves Coastal Alabama. Her office deals with constituent services. She described a timeline starting with the Coast Guard response (set by the OPA as the Unified Command Force for oil spills). They coordinated stakeholders for regular meetings, which ended just two months ago. Following the Coast Guard’s leadership, the Gulf Coast Recovery Office, headed by BP, took over operations.
She of course talked about the claims process. The government was asking BP to streamline the process, but she expressed frustration of the process under Feinberg in that claims are slow and meager for those who actually need it. In her opinion, BP did not have the capacity to handle as many claims as they received. Transparency is opaque at best; no information has been released on the claim process—how they decide what claims get approved and how much is granted—under either BP or the GCCF, meaning that we cannot even compare their relative efficiencies. She did note that, under BP’s control, claimants at least had access to BP accountants and were able to meet face-to-face to discuss their situation, whereas under Feinberg, everything is done through paperwork. Constituents are frustrated with inconsistencies in claim granting. In many cases, people right on beach who were intuitively affected by the oil spill were rejected while people further inland were granted relatively large sums.
I asked her about national concern for the region, and she said that the nation has moved on. This has been a double-edged sword for the region; the national perception that “everything’s over and alright” is needed for the economic recovery of the region but also makes it hard to push through legislation for needed recovery efforts.
After lunch, we met with some representatives of the local Sierra Club chapter. David Underhill, the Political/Environmental Chair for the chapter, rephrased the “oil spill” as an explosion: “spill” trivializes the gravity and longevity of the environmental concerns and made out the issues as easily resolvable. They claimed that the main response from environmental agencies had been janitorial and focused on returning to “business as usual” rather than addressing the long-term effects of a petroleum-based economy. They would like to see more environmental literacy and emergency preparedness courses incorporated into higher education, more research on deep-sea biodiversity, and green energy policy development. But mainly, they would like to see government environmental agencies do their jobs and enforce regulations.
Our last stop for today was the Mobile Register. They have sought to be the voice of the people directly affected by the oil spill in response to the national media. The editor claimed that their coverage on the claims process for locals has caused Feinberg to reconsider the operation’s setup. They estimated that about one-third of claimants were still aggrieved. The Register itself may file a claim in the future, but they are receiving ad revenue from BP and, not surprisingly, from trial lawyers across the country.
Bill Raines’, the paper’s environmental reporter, perspective particularly stood out to me. He started reporting on oil rigs in the Gulf and related environmental concerns long before Deep Horizon. He brought up some toxicology concerns related to the drilling process (get your hands dirty with some mud) and bird migration concerns: on cloudy nights, birds migrating north will circle the rigs until the sun rises, often collapsing from exhaustion and falling into the water to be eaten before they can reach land. Since the industry creates the standards for safety, inspections, and environmental precautions, “regulation” is mostly just a show. His suggestion for reducing future impacts is to require response equipment be bought and stored nearby any rig before its construction.
He also was able to shed some light on my research interest. Ecological research has been a source of contention following Deep Horizon, as statistics coming in about oil presence in the ocean and potential effects differ between BP, government agencies, and academics. He mentioned BP literally trying to “buy up” scientists, offering them lucrative contracts that forbid them to publish data publically and banning specific research topics. He recommended dropping ties between political interest and the funding for research, using local scientists who have long-term experience with the affected ecosystem, and shifting the questions posed toxicology research from “does it die immediately?” to issues of sterility/fertility, developmental effects, and changes in food webs. Hopefully I will be able to develop some models to preserve academic rigor and integrity in applied ecology.
Overall, this was probably my favorite day yet, and I have a lot of leads to follow-up on. Tomorrow we will be talking with one more environmental organization, then we are headed back to Athens!