Brandon Ballengee Collapse, 2012 mixed-media installation including 26,162 preserved specimens representing 370 species

Brandon Ballengee
Collapse, 2012
mixed-media installation including 26,162 preserved specimens representing 370 species

Last week we published a critical new report ‘Picture This – A Portrait of 25 years of BP Sponsorship‘, timed with the opening of the National Portrait Gallery London’s new ‘BP Portrait Award’ exhibition.

In a series of blogs, we are featuring extracts from the report. Today’s blog shares devastating testimony and analysis from two activists Karen Savage and Cherri Foytlin from the Gulf Coast of the US. They work with and are part of communities who are still daily affected by the legacies of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Karen and Cherri contribute regularly to Bridge the Gulf.

Is BP’s sponsorship of the Portrait Award and other arts institutions an integral part of their PR strategy? Does it help in ‘cleaning up’ the Gulf Coast, at least in the eyes of those 7000 miles away in Britain? For residents of the Gulf Coast, the picture’s plain to see. As Derrick Evans says below,  “BP’s cynical purchase of recognition in the British art world is mere ‘artful dodging'”.

Extract from ‘Picture This’ – BP’s ongoing Gulf Coast disaster

“Before BP came to town, we were fortunate. We loved what we did and we always made our living doing what we loved to do. We never had to struggle.”

That’s how Edward Foster, a commercial crabber for the past forty years, describes life before BP’s “well from hell” exploded four years ago, spewing more than 4.2 million barrels of crude oil into the once-abundant Gulf of Mexico.

Across the U.S. Gulf Coast, fishermen and many coastal residents refer to time simply as ‘before BP’ or ‘after BP’.

Foster is a fourth generation fisherman and his son Ralph, who works with him, makes the fifth generation of the family to raise his family off the water. Edward’s grandson, Ralph’s son, might have been the sixth generation, if it weren’t for BP. i

Before BP, the Foster’s traps would have been out in the warm Gulf waters at this time of year, in a spot they’d been going back to for decades, a spot where they regularly pulled in between 600 and 900 pounds of crabs every few days.

But last week they brought back only 35 pounds of crabs from that same spot, not even enough to even pay their expenses, much less make a profit. Now, ‘after BP’, the traps are piled on a boat behind the house. The father-son team did the math and realised they can’t afford to put them back out.

Over in Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, Byron Encalade is an oysterman. He’s worked on the water since he was a child and he doesn’t mince words when describing his livelihood after the BP spill.

“On the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, we haven’t produced one oyster since the BP spill.” When BP denied the oyster reefs were ever visibly oiled, Encalade responded, “That’s the biggest lie ever told”. ii

Despite BP’s denials, a report released in late 2013 as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) confirmed what Encalade and his fellow oystermen already knew. The oysterbeds were directly impacted by oil from the disaster. And the effects of BP’s oil aren’t confined to oysters. The same report cited concerns for vegetation, birds, turtles, crabs, several fish species, whales, manatees and other sea life. iii

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration (NOAA) researchers and others, dolphins in Louisiana’s heavily oiled Barataria Bay, were among the sickest ever studied. When compared to dolphins in Sarasota Bay, which was not visibly hit by BP’s oil,

“Barataria Bay dolphins were 5 times more likely to have moderate–severe lung disease, generally characterized by significant alveolar interstitial syndrome, lung masses, and pulmonary consolidation. Of 29 dolphins evaluated from Barataria Bay, 48% were given a guarded or worse prognosis, and 17% were considered poor or grave, indicating that they were not expected to survive. Disease conditions in Barataria Bay dolphins were significantly greater in prevalence and severity than those in Sarasota Bay dolphins, as well as those previously reported in other wild dolphin populations. Many disease conditions observed in Barataria Bay dolphins are uncommon but consistent with petroleum hydrocarbon exposure and toxicity.”iv

A second study led by NOAA researchers and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows oil from BP’s failed well is causing serious problems with heart development in several large Gulf fish, including blue-fin tuna, yellow-fin tuna, and amberjack. v vi

The study goes on to say, “Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish, and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats”.

Which confirms what fishermen like David Arnesen, a commercial fisherman from South Louisiana, have been seeing on the water. Since BP, catches have been down. Last year many of the amberjack had reproductive problems and low body weights.

“Not only do we have no stock, but they never dropped their roe (eggs),” Arnesen explained. “In January and February (of 2013), they had roe. When we went back in June – five months later – they were still full of roe. They usually drop the roe after 6-8 weeks. And their body weights are down 25 – 30%.”vii

Since the release of these studies, BP has refused to pay for most additional NRDA-related studies. If BP and the NRDA trustees can’t come to an agreement on which studies to fund, the issue will likely end up in federal court. The NRDA process will determine how much BP will have to pay the public for damage to it’s natural resources.viii

Foster, Encalade, Arnesen and other fishermen across the coast report worsening conditions and fear for their futures. These studies and others like them do little to ease those fears. The full extent of damages to populations of tuna and other large fish won’t be known at least until those who were juveniles during the worst of the disaster reach full maturity. Tuna don’t fully mature for eight years – and we are only four years out from the disaster.

  Economic Damages

All of which makes BP’s denial of legitimate claims beyond frustrating for those who earned their living in the seafood industry before the disaster. When the economic settlement was reached in 2012, BP’s Lead Attorney Richard Godfrey said,

“The settlement is placing large sums of money today and tomorrow and next week into the hands and the communities of theGulf, the victims of this tragic event. We believe that it’s fair, just and reasonable, and that this process should not be interrupted or stopped based upon the objections of the few for the purpose of injuring the many who need to be compensated now.”ix

“Today, tomorrow, and next week” have all come and gone, and many Gulf Coast residents and communities that suffered economic damages are still in financial limbo. BP itself has been among the few who objected, filing appeal after appeal, adding insult to injury, and tying up various US courts with what thus far have been determined to be mostly baseless appeals.

The oil giant says the claims facility is interpreting the agreement incorrectly, compensating those who did not suffer as a direct result of the disaster. The court disagrees, saying that is part of the agreement BP willingly entered into.

Judge Barbier, who presides over the settlement, has called such manoeuvres, “deeply disappointing” and in November 2013 said, “Frankly, it is surprising that the same counsel who represented BP during the settlement negotiations, participated in drafting the final settlement agreement, and then strenuously advocated for approval of the settlement before this court, now come to this court and the 5th Circuit and contradict everything they have previously done or said on this issue.”x As of this writing, BP has appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court.xi

At the same time BP’s been trying to wrangle their way out of the agreement in various courts of law, the oil giant has launched an all out public relations blitz in an attempt to sway the court of public opinion.

BP paid for multiple full-page ads in major US newspapers. A slick website, “State of the Gulf”, launched during the summer of 2013, claims to “set the record straight”. The site includes downloadable copies of the full-page ads, white papers and other documents attacking everything from media reports they deem unfavorable, to editorial writers, to plaintiff lawyers to the science behind the studies by NOAA and others.xii

But while BP continues to busy US courts and their own public relations crew, Gulf Coast residents whose losses are directly tied to the impacted seafood industry continue to wait. Often bombarded with repeated requests for the same paperwork, some, like Michelle Chauncy, a seafood seller from Barataria, have suffered devastating financial losses, yet still not been compensated.

“I’m in the seafood business…yet I’m held hostage when clearly my livelihood is directly related to the loss. Ninety per cent of what I sold came from Barataria Bay, which was ground zero. I’m still waiting on them to make it right!”

Many who haven’t been compensated are afraid to talk publicly for fear of retribution in the form of denied claims. Some who have spoken out publicly against BP wonder if this is the reason that well-documented, legitimate economic claims have yet to be paid or have been denied all together.


Implications for Human Health?

Linda Hooper-Bui is a disaster ecologist at Louisiana State University who studies marsh insects and spiders. Her research shows that since the BP disaster, insects and spiders in marshes have been in a continuing cycle of repopulating, dying off, and attempting to repopulate again.

As the oil weathers, the top layer dries into an asphalt-like coating. But when heated in the strong Louisiana sun, the top layer cracks open, emitting hydrocarbons trapped below and killing the insects and spiders. Hooper-Bui’s work is especially relevant, as she has been studying the marsh for several years and has ample pre-spill data with which to compare.xiii

What her research also shows is that some of the oil’s most damaging chemicals are still there. That knowledge haunts her. “It means there are toxic, aromatic hydrocarbons in the marsh still four years later, and people who live, work, and play in the Gulf of Mexico are potentially exposed to them,” she recently told WAFB TV News.

Since shortly after BP’s well began to spew, clean-up workers and coastal residents from Louisiana to Florida have been reporting serious health effects from BP’s oil and use of Corexit.xiv xv xvi xvii xviii A report released in 2013 by the Government Accountability Project documented symptoms in diverse and wide-reaching Gulf communities, including “blood in urine; heart palpitations; kidney damage; liver damage; migraines; multiple chemical sensitivity; neurological damage resulting in memory loss; rapid weight loss; respiratory system and nervous system damage; seizures; skin irritation, burning and lesions; and temporary paralysis.”xix

Steve Aguinaga and his friend, Merrick Vallian did nothing more than go for a swim at Fort Walton Beach in Florida. They came out covered in a viscous, orange mix of oil and dispersants. That was July 2010, and Aguinaga has been seriously ill ever since. But he is the lucky one. Vallian died a few weeks later.xx

Fisherman Joey Yerkes was exposed to BP’s oil and dispersant mix while working clean-up during the summer of 2010. Later that year, his health worsened dramatically when re-exposed to gulf water while shrimping. He’s lost five friends to health conditions he suspects have been brought on or worsened by the disaster.

Yerkes has accumulated over $85,000 in medical debt.xxi According to the health settlement, which was recently finalised, even clean-up workers who meet the requirements are only eligible for compensation up to $60,700. The continuing effects of BP’s disaster have forced Yerkes, like many who are sick, to move inland, away from the Gulf water, away from the still-oiled marsh, and away from their homes, livelihoods and communities.

Since the BP disaster, Kindra Arnesen, a South Louisiana mother of two and wife of a commercial fisherman has seen the children of her community struggle with serious health concerns.  “We have sick kids all over the place who are suffering from upper respiratory infections, severe asthma, skin infections, blisters in between their fingers and arms and on their legs and their feet. Some kids have blisters all around their mouths and their noses. These kids were perfectly fine before the spill and the spraying of Corexit began.”xxii xxiii

MacArthur Genius Award Recipient and chemist Wilma Subra explains, “EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and BP knew of the health impacts associated with [Corexit and oil] … The issue was responding to an oil spill of this magnitude, with unprecedented quantities of Corexit, including novel subsurface application. Gulf coastal communities, and individuals who consume gulf seafood or recreate in the gulf, are the guinea pigs left to deal with the consequences and will be feeling the full effect in years to come.”xxiv

Arnesen, whose community is 70 miles from the nearest doctor’s office, says their families are left to suffer. “BP has done zero for these kids, they haven’t gotten proper testing or medical care.”xxv

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. Many familiar with the acute and long-term health effects of oil and dispersant exposure say the medical settlement doesn’t cover enough conditions, covers mainly non-acute health effects and does not provide ample medical care compensation for those with acute long-term illnesses. Coastal residents who live outside the eligibility zones will receive no compensation and many of those who are eligible have medical bills that far exceed the maximum compensation.xxvi

BP As Sponsor of the Arts?

When asked about BP as sponsor of the arts, Mississippi gulf coast resident Derrick Evans thought for a moment, then admonished, “Created by inspired souls to inspire other souls, art is supposed to “lift” humanity – not “trick” humanity into ignoring or sanctioning Earth’s greatest avoidable plights or worst global citizens.”

He paused thoughtfully and continued, “On the US Gulf Coast, BP is directly responsible for infinitely more death and destruction than “art”, including our ecosystems, livelihoods, ways of life, human health, and government integrity. A giant and unrepentant wrongdoer, BP’s cynical purchase of recognition in the British art world is mere “artful dodging”, closely akin to their shameless posturing and abject pimping of public and private institutions and media in the United States.”

* Collapse, by Brandon Ballengée.  In collaboration with Todd Gardner, Jack Rudloe, Brian Schiering and Peter Warny. Installed at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY, USA, 2012. Photo by Varvara Mikushkina. 

 Collapse responds to the global crisis of the world’s fisheries and the current threat for the unraveling of the Gulf of Mexico’s food-chain following the 2010 BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The large-scale installation created a pyramid display of 26,162 preserved specimens, which represented 370 species of fish and other aquatic organisms in gallon jars. It is meant to recall the fragile inter-relationships between Gulf species. Empty containers represented species in decline or those already lost to extinction. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. New York, USA



i Interview with Edward & Ralph Foster, April 23, 2014

ii See and ‘Four Years Later, BP Oil Spill Still Taking A Toll On Gulf Fisherman: ‘We Haven’t Started To Recover,’ Huffington Post, 20 April 2014.

iii First Gulf oil spill natural resource study reveals extensive damage in shoreline, deepwater habitats,’ The Times-Picayune, 6 December 2013.

iv ‘Health of Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’Lori H. Schwacke, Cynthia R. Smith, Forrest I. Townsend, Randall S. Wells, Leslie B. Hart, Brian C. Balmer, Tracy K. Collier, Sylvain De Guise, Michael M. Fry, Louis J. Guillette, Jr., Stephen V. Lamb, Suzanne M. Lane, Wayne E. McFee, Ned J. Place, Mandy C. Tumlin, Gina M. Ylitalo, Eric S. Zolman, and Teresa K. Rowles
Environmental Science & Technology 2014 48 (1), 93-103.

v Deepwater Horizon oil left tuna, other species with heart defects likely to prove fatal,’ Washington Post, 24 March 2014.

vi Deepwater Horizon crude oil impacts the developing hearts of large predatory pelagic fish,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 111 no. 15, February 2014.

vii Three Years After BP, Gulf Fishermen Struggle to Survive,’ Bridge The Gulf project, 14 August 2013.

viii BP refuses to pay for more research on Deepwater Horizon oil spill effects on dolphins, turtles, oysters,’ The Times-Picayune, 25 April 2014.

ix Dear 5th Circuit, BP has had its day in court,’ New Orleans Legal Examiner, 7 April 2014.

x Federal judge denies BP’s ‘disappointing’ attempt to rewrite oil spill business claims rules,’ The Times-Picayune, 22 November 2013.

xi BP asks U.S. Supreme Court justice to block Gulf spill payments,’ Reuters 24 May 2014.

xii see ‘The State of the Gulf – Our View’ –

xiii ‘Menace in the Marsh,’ WAFB news, 1 May 2014.

xiv Crude Solution: BP’s Corexit on 60 Minutes.’

xv BP blamed for ongoing health problems,’ Al Jazeera, 20 April 2012.

xvi BP’s ‘widespread human health crisis,’ Al Jazeera, 27 Ocotber 2013.

xvii 4 years after BP oil spill, long-term health questions linger,’ CBS News, 11 April 2014.

xviii ‘”Very, Very Sick Population” Due to BP Oil and Dispersants, say Medical Experts, Scientists,’ Bridge The Gulf Project, 19 April 2013.

xix ‘Corexit: Deadly Dispersant in Oil Spill Cleanup,’ The Government Accountability Project, 19 April 2013.

xx Gulf spill sickness wrecking lives,’ Al Jazeera, 9 March 2011.

xxi ‘Turning the Adversities of the BP Oil Spill into Motivation,’ Bridge The Gulf Project,

xxii Corexit: Deadly Dispersant in Oil Spill Cleanup,’ The Government Accountability Project, 19 April 2013.

xxiii Kindra Arnesen on sick children in Plaquemines Parish,’ Bridge the Gulf Project, 13 December 2011.

xxiv Corexit: Deadly Dispersant in Oil Spill Cleanup,’ The Government Accountability Project, 19 April 2013.

xxv Kindra Arnesen on sick children in Plaquemines Parish,’ Bridge the Gulf Project, 13 December 2011.

xxvi A Conversation with Kindra Arnesen: Residents Still Suffering from 2010 BP Spill,’ Bridge The Gulf Project. 9 March 2014.