Gulf Beaches: Public Health At Risk

Having just returned from an exhausting week on the gulf coast, I’m at once overwhelmed by all that I’ve experienced in the past week. I had the great pleasure of personally meeting great folks like Dr. Riki Ott, Philippe Cousteau, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Jr. as well as hard working locals fighting to save our waters like Casi Callaway and Tammy Harrington at Mobile Baykeeper. I worked with a deeply passionate film crew from L.A., Project Gulf Impact, spending their own time, money and resources to document and tell the real story of the tragedy on the gulf coast to the world. I am deeply touched by all of these encounters.

At the same time I am grieving a loss so great it has yet to be comprehended. Watching BP’s oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico feels like a loved one being raped and tortured to death as I watch, powerless to stop it. We are losing, in one summer, something so great that we may never fully realize it in our lifetimes.

In the midst of this, something very disturbing is happening and I can no longer watch it silently. Tourism officials, desperate to save a lost summer, the lost wages for businesses and workers, and lost tax revenue along the gulf coast are bailing water with teaspoons from their sinking ship with a cannonball-sized hole in it. In the process, I fear they are putting public health in grave danger and this cannot be tolerated. It’s time to tell the truth: to ourselves and to each other!

No one questions the desire for locals to salvage a portion of this summer’s tourism by bringing people to the beach to spend their money. What is questionable is the logic of doing so. Even the Air Force water survival training in Pensacola, FL suspended training operations in the Gulf of Mexico, and moved them to a new location in the interest of safety.

Yet the yellow flags remain and the public is invited to swim in those same waters “with caution”. And while we know that children are at greatest risk of oil spill health impacts, I am flooded with images of little ones playing in the water, in between clean up crews shoveling fresh tar balls from the beaches. See this video of a young girl screaming when she gets oil on her foot on a Destin beach, as her mom tells her to just “rub it”.

This is not just misguided. It is irresponsible and bordering on criminal, in my opinion. It is time to get OUT of the sinking ship and get into the lifeboats. Tourist season is OVER. It pains me greatly to say it, but someone has got to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Florida got $25M from BP to spend on advertising that the beaches are open. New Orleans spends $5M on tourism ads. Alabama received $15M to spend on advertising.

How far would that money have gone if we have spread it around to the coastal business owners, workers and residents who are suffering for lack of tourists.  Can $15M in advertising overcome media images of thick brown goo covering Gulf Shores beaches, or dead/oiled wildlife washing ashore?  Is it enough to drive at least $15M in tourist spending at the beach? Or better yet, should it?

Here again I must quote Dr. Riki Ott: “In the absence of real leadership, we all need to exercise a whole lot of common sense.” Folks, do not get in the water. Do not let your children in the water.

As Dr. Ott reports – this oil comes in 4 types:

  1. Tarballs – the least toxic, can be picked up with a kitty litter scoop
  2. Thick, light brown, mousse-like foam – very toxic, you should not get near it
  3. Thick, dark brown, goo – very toxic, may still contain elevated levels of methane
  4. Vapors – these you cannot see and may not smell, but you absorb them through your lungs and skin

Earlier this week, Casi Callaway told us of her experience walking the beach with Bobby Kennedy. A lifeguard approached so they asked him about the yellow flag. He told them it was safe to swim and that they “check the water every morning” to be sure. Naturally, Casi asked: “You mean you test the water for harmful chemicals?” “No.” lifeguard replied, “We just get in. If it doesn’t feel oily then we open the water for swimming.”

Is that a health report you trust enough to bet your children’s lives on it? It is NOT safe to be in the water on ANY oil-impacted beach. It is also not safe to be there breathing the vapors from both the oil and the deadly toxic dispersants.

Exercise some common sense, even if your leaders won’t.