The Government is Dealing with the Oil Spill Like the Soviets Dealt with Chernobyl

George Washington's picture


The Soviet Union was famous for covering up its environmental disasters.

As award-winning journalist Dahr Jamail points out in a must-read article about the oil spill:


is well known that after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet government
immediately did everything possible to conceal the fact of the accident
and its consequences for the population and the environment: it issued
“top secret” instructions to classify all data on the accident,
especially as regards the health of the affected population,”
journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya has written.

1990 Yaroshinskaya came across documents about the Chernobyl nuclear
catastrophe that revealed a massive state cover-up operation, coupled
with a calculated policy of disinformation where the then Soviet
Union’s state and party leadership knowingly played down the extent of
the contamination and offered a sanitized version to the public, both
in and out of Russia. To date, studies continue to show ongoing human
and environmental damage from that disaster.

the disaster at Chernobyl occurred, it was only after radiation levels
triggered alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden that the
Soviet Union admitted an accident had even occurred. Even then,
government authorities immediately began to attempt to conceal the
scale of the disaster.


But it's not just the communist Soviets ...

The U.S. also has a long history of covering up environmental and health disasters, as shown by the following examples.

The Bush administration covered up the health risks to New Orleans residents associated with polluted water from hurricane Katrina, and FEMA covered up the cancer risk from the toxic trailers which it provided to refugees of the hurricane.

The Centers for Disease Control - the lead agency tasked with addressing disease in America - covered up lead poisoning in children in the Washington, D.C. area.

The government's response to the outbreak of mad cow disease was simple: it stopped testing for mad cow, and prevented cattle ranchers and meat processors from voluntarily testing their own cows (and see this).

The government also underplayed the huge Tennessee coal ash spill. As the New York Times noted in 2008:

coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling
the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.




amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the
authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

(The former head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy says that the government whitewashed the whole coal ash investigation.)

the government allegedly ordered Manhattan Project scientists to
whitewash the toxicity of flouride (flouride is a byproduct in the
production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium). As Project Censored noted in 1999:

declassified government documents have shed new light on the
decades-old debate over the fluoridation of drinking water, and have
added to a growing body of scientific evidence concerning the health
effects of fluoride. Much of the original evidence about fluoride,
which suggested it was safe for human consumption in low doses, was
actually generated by “Manhattan Project” scientists in the 1940s. As
it turns out, these officials were ordered by government powers to
provide information that would be “useful in litigation” and that would
obfuscate its improper handling and disposal. The once top-secret
documents, say the authors, reveal that vast quantities of fluoride,
one of the most toxic substances known, were required for the
production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. As a result,
fluoride soon became the leading health hazard to bomb program workers
and surrounding communities.


Studies commissioned after chemical
mishaps by the medical division of the “Manhattan Project” document
highly controversial findings. For instance, toxic accidents in the
vicinity of fluoride-producing facilities like the one near Lower Penns
Neck, New Jersey, left crops poisoned or blighted, and humans and
livestock sick. Symptoms noted in the findings included extreme joint
stiffness, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, severe headaches, and
death. These and other facts from the secret documents directly
contradict the findings concurrently published in scientific journals
which praised the positive effects of fluoride.


environmental fluoride releases in the northeast United States also
resulted in several legal suits against the government by farmers after
the end of World War II, according to Griffiths and Bryson. Military
and public health officials feared legal victories would snowball,
opening the door to further suits which might have kept the bomb
program from continuing to use fluoride. With the Cold War underway,
the New Jersey lawsuits proved to be a roadblock to America’s already
full-scale production of atomic weapons. Officials were subsequently
ordered to protect the interests of the government.


After the war, ... the dissemination of misinformation continued.

are just a few of many examples showing that the U.S. has long acted
just like the Soviets in covering up the magnitude of environmental

Government Says Oil Has Disappeared

government is now saying that almost all of the oil has already
disappeared, and that the small amounts of remaining oil are not toxic.

Many have pointed out that it is still easy to find oil even on the surface. As National Geographic points out:

In fact, scientists are still finding plenty of spilled Gulf oil—whether it's bubbling up from under Louisiana's islands, trapped underneath Florida's sugar-white beaches, or in the ocean's unseen reaches. (See pictures of spilled Gulf oil found just under Florida beaches.)


This week, biological oceanographer Markus Huettel and colleague Joel Kostka dug trenches on a cleaned Pensacola beach and discovered large swaths of oil up to two feet (nearly a meter) deep.


Oil gets trapped underground when tiny oil droplets penetrate porous sand or when waves deposit tarballs and then cover them with sand, said Huettel, of Florida State University in Tallahassee.


(Read more about oil found under "clean" Florida beaches earlier this month.)

And see photographer Julie Dermansky's report.

As the Washington Post points out, scientists aren't buying the government's spin either:


in interviews, [government] scientists who worked on the report said
the figures were based in large part on assumptions and estimates with
a significant margin of error.


Some outside scientists went
further: In a situation in which many facts remain murky, they said,
the government seemed to have used interpretations that made the gulf
-- and the federal efforts to save it -- look as good as possible.


a lot of . . . smoke and mirrors in this report," said Ian MacDonald, a
professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University. "It
seems very reassuring, but the data aren't there to actually bear out
the assurances that were made."




But scientists who
worked on the report said many of the numbers on the White

House's pie
chart had significant margins of error. The estimate of how much oil
evaporated was calculated using a formula designed for spills near the surface, not 5,000 feet underwater.
The calculation of how much oil would be "dispersed" as it flowed from
the well was a new one, extrapolated from data about the way oil is
broken by waves.




The situation is "being portrayed
as 'the oil is out of the environment; it's gone,' " said Michael J.
Blum, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. But, he said,
all that's certain is that "the form of the oil has shifted. Dispersed
oil is still oil. It's just in a different form."

because - according to the US Minerals Management Service and a
consortium of oil companies, including BP, themselves - as little as 2% of the oil which spilled from BP's oil well ever made it to the surface, any formula based on surface spills is worthless.
In other words, as much as 98% of the spilled oil may not yet have even
made it to the surface, but may have been suspended under the surface
the whole time.

And since the government and BP have been using
Corexit to sink the small proportion of oil visible from the surface,
that means that more than 98% of the oil might be lurking beneath the surface.

National Geographic makes a similar point:

To University of South Florida chemical oceanographer David Hollander, the NOAA estimates are "ludicrous."


"It's almost comical."


to Hollander, the government can account for only about 25 percent of
the spilled Gulf oil—the portion that's been skimmed, burned off,
directly collected, and so on.


The remaining 75 percent is still unaccounted for, he said.


instance, the report considers all submerged oil to be dispersed and
therefore not harmful, Hollander said. But, given the unknown effects
of oil and dispersants at great depths, that's not necessarily the
case, he added.


"There are enormous blanket assumptions."




cleanup is mostly getting rid of what's on the surface, [Robert Carney,
a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University in Baton
Rouge] said. There's a common perception that "as long as you keep it
off the beach, everything's hunky dory," he added.




microbes munch the oil—the most common way oil breaks down—depends on
how much oxygen is available for the tiny organisms to do their work....


far, we haven't seen any rapid degradation in these deep layers,"
[biological oceanographer Markus Huettel] said, though he noted oil at
the top of the sand has been disappearing within days.


With little oxygen, the buried oil may stay for years, until a storm or hurricane wipes away the upper sand layers.


oil spills suggest that the buried beach oil may continuously migrate
not only out to sea but also into groundwater, where it can harm
wildlife, Huettel said.


Oil-laden groundwater in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill, for instance, led to "significantly elevated" death in pink salmon embryos between 1989 and 1993, he said....


Another "open question" remains, FSU's Huettel noted: What is happening to the oil deep in the Gulf?


the first time during an oil-spill response, officials used chemical
dispersants to break up oil at ocean depths between 4,000 and 5,000
feet (1,200 and 1,500 meters). The dispersant-treated oil bits may have
sunk to the seafloor, Huettel said.


In the cold, dark
ocean, this mixture of oil and chemical dispersants may be suspended
and preserved, causing long-term problems for deep-sea animals, Texas
Tech University ecotoxicologist Ron Kendell said during August 4
testimony before the U.S. Congress.


"We have very limited
information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of
dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean," Kendall said.


oil fragments are so tiny they can't be seen with the human eye, said
the University of South Florida's Hollander. Others are big enough to
be gobbled up by baby fish that mistake the oil for food....


what will happen to the deep-sea ecosystem is "uncharted territory,"
said Hollander, who's studying what the oil is doing to deep-sea
creatures during a series of research cruises this summer and fall.




getting into something different than the 2-D petroleum spill" on the
Gulf's surface, he added. "All of the sudden you've taken this 2-D
disaster and turned it into a 3-D catastrophe."

And the Guardian notes:

reports seem to say that about 75% of the oil is taken care of and that
is just not true," said John Kessler, of Texas A&M University, who
led a National Science Foundation on-site study of the spill. "The fact
is that 50% to 75% of the material that came out of the well is still
in the water. It's just in a dissolved or dispersed form."

Would I Lie To You, Comrade?

State University oceanographer Ian McDonald points out that the
government scientists claiming almost all of the oil is gone are the
same folks who said that only 5,000 barrels of oil were leaking a day,
and who denied that there were underwater plumes:

Anderson Cooper made a similar point:

bottom line is that the government's entire response to the oil spill
is to try to cover it up, just as the Soviets tried to do with
Chernobyl, and just as the U.S. government has done with the financial crisis, torture, 9/11, the anthrax attack, and every other crisis.