“For every breaking story and revelation made possible by the FOIA, countless others are undoubtedly buried as the law’s effectiveness sags under the weight of processing backlogs resulting from, among other things, a lack of resources and reliance on outdated technology, as well as inconsistent application in terms of disclosure and overbroad use of exemptions. The law, which was signed on July 4, 1966, is drastically in need of meaningful reform to bring it into the 21st Century.” On June 30th, 2016, President Obama signed much-needed reforms into law through the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.
In honor of FOIA’s 50th birthday, GAP’s Legislative Director and Investigator, Shanna Devine, shares how FOIA substantiated whistleblowers’ warnings of the problems associated with deadly dispersants used in the wake of the BP Gulf Disaster.
During GAPs multi-year whistleblower investigation Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf into the widespread cover-up of public health and environmental threats during the BP Gulf disaster, GAP FOIA responses repeatedly substantiated whistleblowers’ warning. Highlights include:
- BP and the federal government acknowledged that allowing workers to wear respirators would not create a good public image, and that retaliation by BP on this issue was permissible. In response to an alert by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network on worker retaliation, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Planning Preparedness Division asserted “…BP is concerned about the perception of any workers wearing respirators would depict when there is no documented threat.”[i] The Director of EPA’s National Response Team argued that it was “correct” for BP to terminate workers who tried to wear respirators.
- Divers contracted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dove after assurances that it was safe. Meanwhile, a different message was being communicated to divers within the government. an EPA Unit Diving Officer cautioned: “As everyone knows, diving in polluted water is just not something to take lightly … Even if the diver doesn’t get sick immediately, in this case we’re looking at possible exposure to crude oil (oil and dispersants) – components of which could increase your lifetime cancer risk.”[ii] These views, while not a part of the government official position, echoed concerns within the public health and scientific community.
- After protests by the environmental and public health community around the toxic nature of the dispersant Corexit, the EPA issued a directive in May 2010 that required BP to use a less toxic dispersant. However, GAP FOIA requests revealed that BP was able to request daily exemptions from the federal government, and aerial and vessel spraying continued throughout the BP spill.
- Shortly before the well was capped, EPA reported that Corexit was comparable in toxicity to other dispersants, sending mixed signals to the public about its safety. Even government workers sought clarification. In an internal memo at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) an employee inquired, “In regards to the issue of using the Corexit dispersants, is it true that the UK and other countries have banned their use because of their toxicity and because other dispersants have been shown to be more effective and less toxic?” and “I’m a bit concerned about the somewhat cavalier approach to concerns about dispersants, especially considering the numerous (mostly anecdotal) reports of possible human health effects from the use of Corexit dispersants.”[iii] A CDC senior environmental health specialist inquired: “Have any of you heard whether OSHA/NIOSH is looking at the [Material Safety Data Sheets] for these chemicals as well with an eye to human exposure concerns?”[iv]
- While agency heads announced their confidence in Gulf seafood, government scientists were joining US Senators in sounding the alarm – only their warnings didn’t make it into the public domain. CDC staff declined to sign-off on EPA assertions that dispersants did not bioaccumulate, explaining: “Since we (CDC) were not privy to any information to substantiate [that the dispersants used to date do not bioaccumulate], we cannot concur with this statement.”[v]
[i] Pursuant to FOIA Request # HQ-FOI-00645, HQ-FOI-00646, and HQ-FOI-00647, E-mail from Mark Mjoness, Director, National Planning and Preparedness Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to colleagues, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Subject: BP Tells Fishermen Working On The Oil Spill That They Will Be Fired For Wearing A Respirator (Jul. 1, 2010, 4:04 PM) (on file with Government Accountability Project).
[ii] Pursuant to FOIA Request # 12-00369, E-mail from staff member, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Environmental Health, to fellow staff members, Centers for Disease Control, Subject: Chemical Dispersants (May 3, 2010, 12:18 PM) (on file with Government Accountability Project).
[iii] Pursuant to FOIA Request # 12-00369, Memorandum from team member at Centers for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, to Carol Selman, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Environmental Health, Subject: Comments on NOAA/FDA Protocol (Jun. 2, 2010) (on file with Government Accountability Project).
[iv] Pursuant to FOIA Request # 12-00369, E-mail from staff member, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Environmental Health, to fellow staff members, Centers for Disease Control, Subject: Chemical Dispersants (May 3, 2010, 12:18 PM) (on file with Government Accountability Project).
[v] Pursuant to FOIA Request # 12-00369, E-mail from staff member, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Environmental Health, to staff members, Centers for Disease Control, Subject: FDA cleared oil spill reopening protocol (Jun. 2, 2010, 11:44 PM) (on file with Government Accountability Project).