No Confidence in Federal Government
Editorial: Government’s oil spill response a problem
University of Georgia marine scientist Charles Hopkinson, director of the Georgia Sea Grant program, ate shrimp and oysters for six days in a row during a recent visit to New Orleans for a meeting, according to an Associated Press report from late last week.
He’s “still here,” he told attendees at an international conference in Charleston, S.C., that considered whether seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster spewed millions of gallons of oil, is safe to eat. But, he told the conference, he didn’t base his dining decisions on assurances from the federal government that Gulf seafood doesn’t pose a health hazard.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported recently that less than 1 percent of the 1,700-plus seafood tissue samples tested by the government held any trace of chemicals from the dispersant used in the Gulf of Mexico to break up the oil in the wake of the April explosion.
The FDA and NOAA tests, however, have been criticized in some quarters for not comprising a large enough sample, and not testing for all of the possible toxic components of the dispersant, or for possible toxic components resulting from the dispersant mixing with seawater and oil.
Outside of those criticisms, though, is the simple fact that the government’s record in reporting on the oil spill has done little to inspire public confidence in federal competence or desire to investigate the spill and its aftermath fairly and accurately.
A recently released draft report from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, a group of seven people with expertise in the legal, environmental and engineering arenas, and in the oil and gas industry, noted that the administration of President Barack Obama – who, in fairness, established the commission – made erroneous early estimates of the spill’s size and mischaracterized a government analysis by saying it showed most of the oil was gone. More recently, NOAA was reporting that it had not found evidence of oil on the sea floor.
In the wake of those announcements, other scientists, including Hopkinson and fellow UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye, debunked government claims. Regarding the supposed disappearance of the oil, UGA marine scientists noted that the analysis actually indicated only that the oil was dispersed, which meant that most of it still was in the water. Regarding the NOAA report on a lack of oil on the sea floor, a research team led by Joye reported finding thickly embedded oil.
Unfortunately, with that kind of track record preceding its claim that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, it’s little wonder that Hopkinson, calling the government’s errant analyses of the disaster “really disheartening” at the Charleston conference, would further ask, “So why should I believe their claim that the seafood is safe?”
Why, indeed? And there’s a larger issue here, too.
The government’s previously erroneous statements on the extent of the spill can be seen as a political exercise in trying to put the best face on the federal response, at the expense of keeping the public fully and honestly informed. It may be, in fact, that Gulf seafood is safe. But a government assertion of that point necessarily will be met with skepticism. Only now, that skepticism will do more than prompt the public to shake its head at the latest example of government incompetence.
At a time when this country needs to have more people working, a lack of trust in the federal government could adversely affect the working lives of any number of Gulf Coast fishermen and the working lives of people in related businesses.