Relax oversight? How about protecting us from oil's ravages?

The BP explosion: Accidents will happen -- and continue to do so.

By Anne Rolfes, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Last Monday began with a bang. On my way to work I learned that Senator David Vitter and Rep. Jeff Landry were at it again — planning to meet with officials in the regional office of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, BOEMRE for short. The news report stated that these Louisiana congressmen were going to urge the bureau, successor to the federal government’s disgraced Minerals Management Service, to relax oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  Based on public statements from Vitter and Landry, I felt sure that the subject of oil industry accidents was not going to come up in their meeting. Yet it should.

Oil industry accidents are an epidemic in this state, not only offshore but onshore, in refineries, as well. The BP Disaster is the worst example of problems in the industry, yet every week brings another illustration.

Just a few days ago ExxonMobil’s Chalmette refinery let out so many chemicals that residents on the West Bank were impacted. In usual fashion, the industry stuck its head in the sand and downplayed the problem “The official insisted that most of the chemical release is being burned before it reaches the air,” Fox8 News reported. This, despite foul air obvious enough to stir widespread alarm among residents.

With our state’s politicians – Democrats and Republicans alike – ignoring these accidents, the industry can be confident it will get away with false statements. After all, they always have.

But it needs to stop. We need more oversight and enforcement, not less. According to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center, there have been 3,740 accidents in the Gulf of Mexico in the past year (September 2010 – September 2011). Onshore, the state’s 17 refineries have averaged nine accidents a week since 2005, according to reports filed with Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality. That comes to more than 4,000 industry accidents in the past 12 months, and for the most part that’s counting only those that are self-reported. Something is drastically wrong.

The last month has provided copious evidence that we need more oversight:

· BOEMRE’s final report about the BP disaster found that BP, TransOcean and Halliburton violated seven federal regulations in the period leading up to the oil spill;

· Scientists, including LSU’s Andrew Whitehead, released findings that the cocahoe minnow, a base of the Gulf of Mexico’s food chain, has been seriously impacted by the oil spill. Does this presage the decline of our fisheries?

·  The high accident rate in the Gulf of Mexico is detailed in a report by the Riverkeeper Alliance.

Vitter and Landry, as usual, spoke about the jobs provided by the oil industry. But, also as usual, they did not address the economic cost of the industry. Tourism jobs lost after the BP disaster are  one example. Other costs include destruction of our coast, our fisheries, oyster leases and shrimping grounds as well as ongoing pollution that sends people to the hospital and keeps them home from work and school. How can a child with asthma reach her potential when the refinery next door makes her too sick to do her homework?

Instead of going to BOEMRE to complain about oversight, our Congressmen might better have taken actions to serve their constituents. How about spending time with Andrew Whitehead, the LSU scientist, to learn about his findings? Or how about a visit to the BP claims facility? On the day of Vitter and Landry’s myopic mission, The Times-Picayune ran a story under the headline, “BP says claims facility is overpaying.” Did Landry and Vitter follow up on this claim?

It’s bad enough that our Congressional delegates don’t encourage oversight. What is tragic is the opportunity cost of their misspent time, the important work not done on behalf of constituents whose livelihoods are imperiled and whose environment, including the nation’s most productive fishery, is imperiled by careless oil extraction and refining.

But I am not discouraged. Common sense and the facts are on our side. Over 3,500 oil industry accidents and counting. I plan to keep counting.

Anne Rolfes is founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade: labucketbrigade.org  

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