On a hot and sticky evening in early September, the first day of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, Geoff Morrell, Senior Vice President of U.S. Communications and External Affairs for BP, took the stage in a ballroom at the Hilton New Orleans-Riverside.
His remarks at the meeting’s opening reception included accusations that the media had exaggerated the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and, not surprisingly, were met with a mix of dismay and eye-rolling amusement by the hundreds of environmental journalists — myself included — who were feasting upon a catered dinner of local seafood.
“It’s clear that the apocalypse forecast did not come to pass,” he told us. “The environmental impacts of the spill were not as far-reaching or long-lasting as many predicted.”
A federal judge in New Orleans offered a different take — the very next morning. Judge Carl Barbier found that the disaster was caused by BP’s “conscious disregard of known risks,” and ruled that the company would be held responsible for the consequences.
New Orleans is a microcosm for many problems currently plaguing the environment and human health — from fleets of polluting petrochemical plants, to the rising frequency and intensity of storms, to a toxic legacy of lead paint. And, of course, the city also happened to be the unfortunate neighbor of the worst oil spill in U.S. history: BP’s offshore drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The last time I was in Louisiana, I’d met with Gulf Coast fisherman and residents suffering the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Julie Creppel was raising six children on a narrow peninsula an hour and a half south of New Orleans when the offshore operation exploded, spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. Health problems for her family including severe headaches, respiratory troubles and skin rashes soon ensued, and then lingered. During that visit, which came two years after the spill, Creppel told me that she’d filled 17 prescriptions for their ailments in just the last week.
This year, as news of the federal decision broke, I was on a conference-led tour of Louisiana’s “chemical corridor,” hearing from local residents about a similar set of health effects that they felt were a result of air pollution from local petrochemical plants. They’d already been battling the companies over their concerns for years.
Standing under a picnic shelter just feet from a fence separating a playground from one of those plants, Martha Huckabay of Saint Rose, La., spoke of her four-year-old son. He’d been vomiting and, two days earlier, had to be resuscitated in the middle of the night. “I’ve had dizziness and severe vertigo,” she added. “My husband has had red eyes for seven days. This is a health issue.”
The next day, back at the Hilton, I attended a panel moderated by Marla Cone, editor-in-chief of Environmental Health News, on chemicals and how little we actually know about their associated health harms. Central to that discussion was this year’s chemical spill in West Virginia and the confusion rampant in its aftermath. As Cone noted, there was a week delay between the removal of the drinking water ban and a warning against pregnant women drinking the water. What’s more, officials were basing the public health decisions on the chemical company’s own studies.
“We face the perfect storm of poor information, feeding poor communication, feeding poor decisions,” said panelist Richard Denison, lead senior scientist with the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, referencing the spill as a case in point of a larger trend.
Part of that greater problem, noted Scott Masten of the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and another member of the panel, is the sheer volume of chemicals — some 80,0000 in commerce. And further complicating matters, he added, chemicals such as the main pollutant in the West Virginia spill, MCHM, can actually “turn into other things in the environment.”
The panelists generally lamented the country’s slow progress in developing more stringent regulations on toxic chemicals. Even some chemicals that have been known to be hazardous for decades, such as asbestos, remain legal today.
Jeremy Korzenik, a senior attorney with U.S. Department of Justice, provided his candid take that evening during a Creole dinner at the famous Dookey Chase’s Restaurant. “Most pollution is perfectly legal,” he told the couple dozen of us in attendance. Even when it’s not, other challenges remain. “You can’t put a corporation in jail,” added Korzenik.
Of course, environmental health problems are not confined to developed countries such as the U.S. In fact, as highlighted by another conference panel on waste in the 21st century, exposure to polluted soil, water and air kills more people than any other cause of death in the developing world. One key culprit is discarded electronics waste, better known as E-waste, often shipped in from the U.S. and other richer nations.
Jack Caravanos, an environmental health expert at the City University of New York and the Blacksmith Institute, suggested that lead from recycled batteries alone poses the “number one environmental health threat on the planet.”
It’s a real dilemma, as scavenging lead can also fetch $1 a pound. “That’s a lot of rice,” Caravanos said.
Even as a relative rookie environmental health reporter, I’ve come to realize that covering the beat means a barrage of complicated choices, human heartbreak, corporate controversy and sometimes seemingly endless roadblocks to progress. But I’ve also caught glimpses of the power that we, as journalists, have in driving conversations that can spark change. I spoke with veteran scientists, policy makers and reporters in New Orleans, who’ve been tackling these issues for decades.
Howard Mielke, an environmental health expert at Tulane University, discussed his success in eliminating lead hazards at 25 childcare centers in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had helped to stir up soil laced with lead accumulated from years of paint dust and leaded gasoline emissions. But swapping that playground dirt with clean soil did the trick, he explained during a conference tour of lead hazards and environmental justice. He’s pushing for more of the same throughout New Orleans, and elsewhere.
As the media pays greater attention to such environmental health hazards, especially as they threaten our children, the public and political push for such action builds.
Over a couple traditional Hurricane cocktails, David Heath, an investigative reporter with the Center for Public Integrity, shared with me how he uncovered financial conflicts of interest among well-respected researchers — biases that may have resulted in harm to public health. I’d actually heard Heath’s work referenced only the week before at an international conference of environmental health scientists in Seattle. That group is now developing new conflicts-of-interest guidelines for their field.
Perhaps Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, put it best during her keynote address at the Hilton: “This is really, really important work,” she said of environmental journalists’ contributions to change. “We can’t tell a story like you can tell a story.”
Jewell also spoke of the environmental lessons the country, and world, could learn from New Orleans. “There’s probably no better place to be, as we are around the 9th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, to look at the nexus of climate change and human beings and lives, than here in New Orleans, Louisiana,” she said. “You’ve seen it here, up close and personal.”