NEW ORLEANS -- An approaching storm had silenced relief-well drills and grounded wildlife rescue boats. But inside a small storefront office along a busy street here, the nongovernmental engine of response to the Gulf of Mexico gusher was gunning ahead despite the rain.
At the headquarters of the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that has embarked on an ambitious oil-leak mapping project and conducted hundreds of post-spill health surveys, member action associate Shannon Dosemagen was helping a colleague enter results into an online database during last week's washout day on the coast.
The 86-day release of more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf has "largely been seen as an environmental disaster," Dosemagen said. "But the things we're tracking are the health impacts, cultural losses, economic impacts."
That tracking work can be slow-going, as the group's volunteers station themselves in convenience stores, marinas, and bars where residents of the state's rural southern bayous congregate. The group's two-page survey, which focuses on unusual symptoms experienced following oil or dispersant exposure and attempts to control for over-the-counter medication use, has produced anecdotal reports of health problems that respondents did not initially realize.
But though the surveys may not yield a scientific conclusion about the oil leak's long-term fallout, local nonprofits such as the brigade -- one of several groups around the country that teach communities how to test for air toxics using little more than a bucket and a hand-held vacuum -- are poised to become key players as the federal government begins to track the health consequences faced by Gulf residents recruited into BP PLC's sprawling cleanup operation.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) this week outlined plans to begin a prospective study of the mental and physical health of about 50,000 workers who helped battle the spill. Funded with an initial $10 million from the National Institutes of Health, the federal effort represents a potentially landmark addition to the meager research into the health effects of past oil spills, and NIEHS epidemiologist Dale Sandler said Tuesday that her team would "love to be able to take advantage of" any existing data collected by local nonprofits.
"Before we do anything, we need to really engage the local community," said Sandler, a principal investigator on and concept designer of the Gulf health study. "We need leaders to serve as gatekeepers, to enroll in our study and facilitate enrollment [of at-risk populations]."
The work done by Dosemagen and her colleagues, who have spent more than 1,800 hours conducting health surveys and building an online "crisis map" of citizen-reported oil impacts, suggests the brigade is well-positioned to be among the groups helping NIEHS build trust in Gulf's most insular communities.
Given the rising local skepticism about the federal government's seafood and air-quality testing, on top of the animus stoked by an Obama administration report that said nearly three-quarters of the leaked oil has already dissolved, "we need an alternative voice," Dosemagen said. "We have proof that there's still oil in our water."
The brigade's oil impact map was developed alongside Tulane University's Payson Center for International Development and Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy, two partners that may seem an unusual fit for a local environmental group that has spent the past decade pushing for more pollution controls and testing in areas near refineries and chemical plants.
Yet the map's Ushahidi crowd-sourcing software, first created for post-election monitoring in Kenya, can be a helpful tool in responding to an environmental incident such as an oil spill, explained Payson Senior Program Manager Adam Papendieck.
The map "completes an information feedback loop" that can supplement gaps in the government's communications with those on the ground, Papendieck said. "People are participating and contributing to systems they feel like they benefit from."
A recent visit to the map revealed verified sightings of new oil along the Louisiana coast this week as well as an unverified claim that chemical dispersant use is continuing along the Florida Panhandle. Asked for comment on that charge, a spokesman at the Unified Command in Mobile, Ala., reiterated previous statements that dispersant spraying stopped in mid-July.
The politics of response
Staff members at the brigade view the Gulf oil calamity as the product of an oil industry culture that prioritizes "production over health and safety," as Anna Hrybyk, the group's program manager, put it.
For Hrybyk, the spill provides new momentum to tackle politically challenging overhauls of U.S. petrochemical policy, such as ending current rules that allow companies to file trade-secret claims in order to sidestep public disclosure of the ingredients in their products.
"People are exposed [to pollution] from industries in the same way that we're exposed by the Gulf oil spill," Hrybyk said. "Refineries and chemical plants need to use safer alternatives."
Industry groups, however, have long aligned against proposals to allow the government-mandated use of safer chemicals. Even scaled-down legislation beefing up safety rules for offshore oil extraction could not clear the Senate this month, raising questions about Democrats' ability to use the national visibility of the Gulf spill to achieve victory on their energy priorities.
Anne Rolfes, the brigade's founding director, acknowledged that her group's vocal criticism of oil companies has closed the door to some potential alliances in a state where petrochemicals vie with fish as a generator of identities and livelihoods.
The spill-mapping project has been "a big breakthrough for us, simply in finding a local university partner," Rolfes said, "Breaking through that barrier of oil influence has been very important."
Rolfes also described the brigade's latest response project as a helpful step toward working with "a whole new constituency," dominated by neighborhoods accustomed to viewing oil companies with a favorable eye as opposed to the more urban settings where the group's previous anti-pollution campaigns were centered.
Previewing the federal study
The tricky politics of oil-leak response are not only a factor in relationships that the brigade and other nonprofits seek to build with locals and government agencies -- they also stand to affect ties built by federal efforts such as the NIEHS study.
During an NIEHS presentation on its coming Gulf health research, Tulane University environmental studies professor John McLachlan joined several other participants in urging federal scientists to take advantage of the strong bonds between academia and nonprofit groups that were built during the difficult days after Hurricane Katrina.
"Community members are savvy [and] very quick to not cooperate with groups that don't know how to do it," said McLachlan, who also leads the Center for BioEnvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier University. He expressed confidence in NIEHS's "understanding that they're not going to get any of the data or do anything they want to do without doing community engagement from the ground up."
Sandler, the NIEHS epidemiologist set to lead the Gulf study, said this week that she expects local staff members to be hired once initial interviews of cohort subjects begin. Within the most closely tracked cohort of 25,000 affected workers who receive blood and pulmonary testing will be a biomedical surveillance group of 5,000 in line for more in-depth immunological, neurological, and DNA damage screening.
NIEHS also plans to set up a study advisory board as well as a separate board of community advisers to help communicate initial findings and make referrals for subjects who lack health care resources.
"We expect we may find people with urgent medical needs or mental health needs" during study research, Sandler said. "We need to have a system in place to send them to the right place so they get care they need."
The commitment of such sustained attention to the health risks of the oil disaster cannot come soon enough for many Gulf Coast advocates.
Louisiana chemist Wilma Subra, a veteran of several EPA advisory councils who has assisted local advocacy groups with community outreach since the oil leak began, said she fears that the "huge human health impacts" facing the region will get short shrift as BP's cleanup effort winds down and the American public's gaze shifts elsewhere.
"We are now left in a devastated mode because no one is paying attention to what's going on," Subra told reporters on a conference call last week, singling out mental health as a concern.
Rolfes, the brigade's founding director, said NIEHS is in the position to "really do some useful work" among residents who remain wary and in search of more specific health guidance. "Instead of saying, 'Eat Gulf seafood; the oil spill is 75 percent contained,' if the message were, 'We need to be careful; we need to get conclusive information,'" the local reaction might be different, she added.
Still, it will be some time before NIEHS is able to report conclusive information. Sandler said October is an "optimistic" date for starting the study, and NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum cautioned that the initial budget of $10 million represents "just a deposit" on the total cost of long-term health tracking in the Gulf.
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