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A Q&A with chemist and MacArthur 'Genius Grant' recipient Wilma Subra, on the Mayflower oil spill


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A former vice-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, Dr. Wilma Subra runs the Subra Company, a consulting firm and chemistry lab in New Iberia, La. that does chemical analysis and provides technical assistance to communities dealing with oil, chemical and hazardous waste spills and pollution. She has degrees in Microbiology and Chemistry from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and worked extensively in communities along the Gulf of Mexico following the BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. In 1999, she was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" fellowship for her work. Subra came to Mayflower to see the cleanup efforts and speak to residents on Earth Day in April, and has done independent analysis of data collected by state, federal and other agencies in the spill zone since then.

What was your experience from your visit to Mayflower? What was the takeaway for you?

That this is a very serious condition. At the time, they were storing a lot of the waste that they'd excavated in the residential area, and the whole area still had a lot of volatiles being given off. The emissions from the spill are still very present in the community, as well as present in the cove and lake area, so the exposure is continuing.

And what are the hazards of that kind of exposure?

If you look at the chemicals that have been detected in air and water samples, the issue is that benzene is a known human cancer-causing agent, and also causes mutations. It causes things like headache, dizziness, nausea, irritations to skin, eyes and nose. These are the same symptoms that the people were experiencing from the very beginning — the acute symptoms. Then we're seeing a lot of toluene. We're seeing the toluene in samples that were collected in the residential area when they collect a canister, and we're seeing the samples that are taken from the surface water in the cove area. Because of the instrumentation they're using to monitor the air in the residential area, they're not looking specifically for toluene, but toluene has the same impacts [as benzene], like headaches, dizziness, irritations to the eyes, nose and throat, and then it causes liver and kidney damage, brain damage and developing fetus damage. We're thinking that a lot of the health impacts are due to benzene and toluene, but then the heavier ends of the crude are what are called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and they're things like chrysene, anthracene, pyrene. They cause those same acute impacts, as well as they're suspected to cause cancer and mood changes. It all matches — the chemicals that are detected in the air samples and in the water samples match the symptoms that the community is experiencing.

ExxonMobil evacuated several of the houses that are actually in the Northwoods subdivision after the spill, and has been talking about buying several of the homes in the subdivision, but our understanding from many people in Mayflower is that ExxonMobil's outreach to those outside the subdivision has been lacking. Was that your experience as well?

That was the experience from the very beginning. When they evacuated the 22 homes, they focused on the residential area, and they didn't consider all the people who lived and worked and the churches on the perimeter. Some of those were just as close some of the houses that were evacuated. That continues to this day. Those were the people who were also made very, very sick. They were not evacuated, and they continue to experience the odors. A week or two ago, there was a big rainfall event, and there was visible crude floating in the area and the odors were really compounded by the rain event.

And, going forward, the health effects of that could manifest years down the road?

Yes. There are acute symptoms as well as some of the more chronic impacts. Because the exposure is continuing, it has the potential to impact their health for a very long time. When you go out there, there are the 22 homes that were evacuated, but right next to them, the people are back and they're smelling it. Within the residential neighborhood, there are people very close to the source of the pollution.

It's hard to tell someone to leave their home, but should people who live in that area consider just packing up and leaving?

It has to be a personal decision. You provide them the information, and they have to make their own decision. That's frequently what the situation comes down to: a personal preference.

As a scientist, if you lived next door to that spill, would you have left the area?

I think I would have. Definitely. Just knowing and observing what I experienced when I went there, and based on all the data I've evaluated, there is a much larger vulnerable zone than just those 22 homes.

You've expressed some concern about the bottom sediment of Lake Conway, which was apparently been a problem up in Michigan with the Kalamazoo River spill in 2010. Could you talk a little about what happens with heavy crude when it gets into sediment?

First of all, this is a heavy crude that has diluents like solvents and condensates added to it to make it flow through the pipeline. What happens is that those volatile organics, those condensates, are the things that volatilize off of it first — the benzene, the toluene, things like that. As they volatilize off, the crude becomes heavier and starts sinking. From the very beginning, I said you can't just analyze samples from the surface of the water body. You have to be looking at the water column as well, and the sediment, to see how it's moving down the water column and impacting the sediment. As far as the last data I looked at, it's still surface water samples are what they're collecting and analyzing. The surface water samples still have occasional hits of benzene, frequent hits of toluene, and the polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. But when this sinks down to the sediment and when it's in the water column, it starts to bio-accumulate in the aquatic and terrestrial organisms in that area. Apparently, there's a lot of people who use the lake for recreation and fishing, and [state and federal agencies] should have been sampling the aquatic organism tissue over the time period to see if it's already starting to bio-accumulate in the organisms. When it gets into the sediment, that serves as a sink, and whenever there's any kind of dispersing of the sediment, it's pushed back up into the water column and eventually sinks back down. The benthic organisms are the organisms in the sediment, and so they take it up and those organisms are eaten by organisms further up the food chain, and so it starts bio-accumulating in the sediment.

Once the crude gets into sediment, what are the difficulties associated with cleanup? Can it ever be cleaned out of the sediment?

You can dredge the contaminated sediment. That's a very expensive endeavor, and when you're dredging, you're dispersing it back into the water column. The issue is: it's going to be long lasting, and it's going to be very expensive to address once it makes it down to the sediment.

Some people have been concerned that ExxonMobil may not be telling residents the truth about the extent of the spill and their cleanup efforts. Have you seen any evidence that points to the idea that ExxonMobil has been less than truthful about their actions in Mayflower?

I think it's not an issue of not telling the truth. I think it's an issue of telling only the parts of the situation that they think the community wants to hear. With a situation like this, when you have so much activity going on, the flow of information frequently doesn't make it rapidly to the community. Also, the flow of information that's so very technical has to be put in a form that the community can deal with. When you talk to the people that live in the cove area, they talk about the emissions and the emissions making them very sick, just as the people in the residential area talk about it. So you know that exposure is ongoing. You have to make that connection for them: that these are the chemicals that are detected in the water of the cove, and these are the health impacts, and yes, it is the same health impacts that you are experiencing.

What can your average person who lives in Arkansas do to make sure the spill in Mayflower gets cleaned up properly?

Keep the pressure on Exxon, but also keep the pressure on the state agencies as well. I had sent [residents who live near the spill] a health survey instrument, as well as an odor and symptom log, and I was encouraging everyone to continue to fill out the odor and symptom log every time they had an event when they smelled something that made them feel ill. That way, we could see how frequently the odor events were occurring. Are they occurring when specific events or conditions come through, or when the wind is strong in one direction? That type of thing. You're demonstrating to the agencies that the community is still being impacted. If the community doesn't speak up, it's like it doesn't exist. The contaminants are still there and still in the environment.


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