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Six Months, Five Shrimp and One Nasty Mess: Health and Seafood Safety Concerns From BP Spill Still Linger in Gulf Today

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Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogThis weekend NRDC was privileged to speak on a panel for the Gulf Coast Fund with four Gulf Coast leaders who are looking forward after the BP oil disaster. Their main message to the audience was: It may not be in the news anymore, but it’s not over.

Tracy Kuhns, a shrimper from Barataria Bay, Louisiana, talked about the thick layer of oil on the bottom of the bay – a layer that keeps getting churned up by waves and tides and recontaminating the shrimping grounds.

Byron Encalade of the Louisiana Oysterman’s Association talked about the economic and psychological impacts of the spill on his family and other oystermen, and forecast that it would be years before the oyster fisheries recover.

Derrick Evans of Turkey Creek, Mississippi gave clear examples of the long history of economic and environmental disparities in the Gulf Coast, and how these disparities made this region more vulnerable to serious health, economic, and psychological damage from the oil disaster. He argued persuasively that these underlying problems need to be acknowledged and addressed if the recovery effort is to succeed.

All of the speakers told of ongoing respiratory problems, worker health concerns, and serious reservations about the safety of the seafood.

We’re six months out from the well blowout. But the communities are just starting to recover, and the need for resources continues to grow.

It’s ironic. The Alabama Chamber of Commerce just celebrated their “Annual National Shrimp Festival,” so the uninformed observer might think everything’s back to normal. Just last week, the federal government reopened 2,927 square miles of the Gulf to fishing and shrimping, just South of the Mississippi Delta. The Feds confirmed that the area was safe for shrimping by performing a “sniff test” for oil odors on five shrimp samples. They confirmed the sniff test with three composite samples of shrimp sent for chemical testing from an approximately 1,000 square mile area.  No information was provided to the public on the size or location of the shrimping grounds or why so few chemical analyses were performed. This does not seem sufficient to assess the safety of the seafood coming out of the Gulf right now.

NRDC and dozens of Gulf Coast groups continue to raise concerns, request documents, and ask for explanations from the federal government, but most of the information is still not available, and the reopenings continue. It’s worrisome, especially since we keep hearing from local fishermen that areas that were reopened are sometimes showing signs of visible oil. Once the areas are reopened, there doesn’t seem to be a protocol for returning to re-sample those areas to make sure they haven’t been recontaminated.

It’s frustrating that there’s still such a mess out there. But at this point, there are three main things that need to happen:

1)      Adequately assure seafood safety. This means making FDA fix their flawed assessment of the risks of Gulf seafood (see my previous post for more details on this). And it means forcing NOAA and the states to release their sampling plans, sample for the full range of contaminants, take an adequate number of samples, and do follow-up sampling in reopened areas to make sure they stay safe.

2)      Check health of cleanup workers & Gulf residents.  Move more quickly to launch the necessary research studies of both workers and community residents to check for ongoing health effects from the oil spill, including both physical and psychological effects, and provide healthcare where needed.

3)      Release sufficient recovery funds to the Gulf coast communities, and ensure community representation in recovery efforts, so they are whole again and can move forward to rebuild their lives.

The Gulf is deeply wounded, as are the coastal residents. The media frenzy is over, but the problem lingers on. The government must live up to its responsibility to protect the health of all of us who love Gulf seafood, the workers who are cleaning up this mess, and the residents of the coast.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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