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Vol. 74/No. 19      May 17, 2010

Gulf oil spill poses social disaster
(front page)
HOUSTON, May 4—A major disaster affecting the Gulf of Mexico and beyond is unfolding in the wake of the April 20 explosion on a BP-leased oil rig off the Louisiana coast. The explosion killed 11 workers and left breaches that continue to spew massive quantities of oil 5,000 feet below the ocean surface.

The scope of the damage threatens to surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which continues to affect wildlife populations and will take decades to fully dissipate, according to a 2009 report by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

According to the Coast Guard, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig had as of May 2 sent 1.6 million gallons of oil into the ocean. But unlike the Exxon Valdez disaster that released 10.8 million gallons of oil, there is no clear end in sight. “All that is preventing the free flow of oil—which could amount to tens of millions of gallons—is the kinked riser pipe, which is springing leaks,” reported the Christian Science Monitor.

Attorneys for some of the workers on the rig, fishermen, and environmental groups reported May 3 a series of unsafe actions by BP that made this disaster far more likely, the New York Times reported.

The attorneys said according to one worker, the company was drilling deeper than 22,000 feet into the seabed, even though its permit prohibited going deeper than 20,000 feet. Another said that to save money, BP decided against installing a deep-water valve under the sea floor that could be used to shut off the oil flow if there were an explosion.

Several workers report that the company was rushing to complete work so the well could be closed temporarily and the rig could be moved to another location. One of the final tasks was to pump concrete into the well before detaching from it. “The concrete work apparently did not achieve a complete seal, and natural gas started seeping into the well in the late stages, the lawyers said,” according to the Times. “But idling a rig to address such a problem can cost huge sums.”

The livelihood of hundreds of thousands is tied to the Gulf’s fishing industry. In 2008 fishing in Louisiana alone accounted for 44 percent of shrimp and 36 percent of oysters in the United States.

The expanding impact of the disaster on working people was brought home May 2 when the government closed the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing from Florida’s Pensacola Bay to the Mississippi River.

BP has been signing up fishermen, now out of work because of the oil spill, for the cleanup work. The company had demanded that they sign a 17-page agreement, which includes waiving liability for BP for injuries sustained in the cleanup and enforcing a confidentiality clause. But lawyers representing the Louisiana workers forced the company to nullify these aspects of the contracts.

“A hurricane takes your house, and it messes up the marsh and that, but it heals pretty quick,” fisherman Tracy Alfonso told AP. “But nobody knows what’s gonna happen with the oil.”

“It’s like a farmer that can’t grow a crop,” Alfonso said. “How long can you last without work, before they take your house and your car or whatever you work with?”
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