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BP emails show desire to alter course of research following oil spill

Wednesday marks one year since the initial explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig sent around 200 million gallons of crude oil gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A year on, controversies continue to surface over BP’s handling of the spill. On Friday, Greenpeace released a series of internal emails among officials at BP showing that the company sought to control the direction of spill-effects research in the months following last year’s catastrophic accident.

On the environmental blog DeSmogBlog, contributor Farron Cousins has a roundup of some of the recent revelations regarding BP’s post-spill behavior. As Cousins states, UK newspaper The Guardian on Friday published a report on emails that Greenpeace obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The Guardian has several of the emails in full on its website. Among the messages from BP officials that have come under fire are the following talking points from BP Environment and Regulatory Compliance Manager Karen Ragoonan-Jalim:

One request coming from New Orleans was for BP to ensure that there are BP-badged SMEs in each of the thirteen (13) Technical Working Groups (TWGs) that have been assembled by NRDA [Natural Resource Damage Assessment]. This would then allow BP to have a voice within the NRDA programs and allow for better collaborations on NRDA scope of work and sampling programs.

[...]

Discussion around GRI and whether or not BP can influence this Long Term Research Program ($US$500million) to undertake the studies we believe will be useful in terms of understanding the fate and effects of the spill on the environment, e.g. can we steer the research in support of Restoration Ecology? Liz provided the context around GRI [Gulf Research Initiative], i.e. that it was set up as an independent research program, to be managed by a Board of Trustees, independent of BP. It may be possible for us to suggest the direction of the studies but without guarantee that they will be done.

“Liz” is Liz Rogers, BP’s Director for Environment and Social Responsibility. “SME” presumably refers to the generic term “Subject Matter Expert.” Though BP hoped to insert their own industry experts into the NRDA panels and contemporary federal reports (PDF) indicate an openness to BP involvement, it’s unclear how successful BP was in directing the findings of damage assessment groups.

An email from Russell Putt — an Environmental Professional with BP — sent two days after Ragoonan-Jalim’s, reiterated BP’s position and desire to influence the $500 million research program:

Can we “direct” GRI funding to a specific study (as we now see the governor’s offices trying to do)? What influence do we have over the vessels/equipment driving the studies vs the questions?

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse now reports dozens of people involved in post-spill cleanup efforts have since suffered from a raft of health problems, according to patients and doctors in southern Louisiana.

Official numbers are hazy, largely because the illnesses reported remain a mystery to medicine. What is known, according to anecdotal evidence cited by AFP, is that cleanup workers have complained of headaches, nausea, vomiting, memory loss and a variety of ear, nose and throat issues. One small-town doctor says he has seen 60 patients with symptoms serious enough that they’ve sought medical care.

The state of Louisiana has reported 415 instances of medical problems among the 52,000 cleanup workers, but the AFP report claims actual numbers could be far higher, given flaws in how the government collects information related to the spill. The AFP cites, for example, the fact that carcinogens like benzene leave the bloodstream four months after exposure, even as their effects continue to wreak havoc on the body; the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences didn’t begin its survey of cleanup workers until six months after the spill.

The word from BP, reports the AFP, has been to deny any health problems beyond the norm. Worker Jamie Simon says BP told her not to worry about any damage the cleanup could be doing to her body:

“I was exposed to those chemicals, which I questioned, and they told me it was just as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid and there was nothing for me to worry about,” she said of the BP bosses at the job site.

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