Steve's Blog: Doctor, activist warn journalists of Gulf oil's long term impact

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - I've been immersed in the oil spill crisis this week. Actually, I've been spending hours with a panel of journalists, learning better ways to cover the myriad of stories related to the oil spill and its ongoing human impacts.

I'm a participant in a three day workshop sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a respected school for journalists that teaches rookie and veteran reporters alike how to do a better job.

Part of the oil spill, like most crisis events, involves responding to and reporting on something that changes frequently and often quickly.

Regarding news coverage of this ever-changing issue, one of our conference presenters said, "If you're not on something within 24 hours, sometimes you're irrelevant."

This conference is not only teaching me to be a better television journalist, I'm also learning and expanding on some important skills to help me report on our website and mobile platforms.

Tuesday the group heard from a very vocal and concerned activist who is well informed about the crisis and its likely aftermath. Riki Ott was a commercial fisherman in Alaska at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster. She is now working on the Gulf Coast, advocating for commercial fishermen here and giving particular attention to potential health ailments that may result from prolonged exposure to oil and/or dispersants.

Comparing the Alaska event with our coastal crisis, Ott told us, "The [oil] industry has become a lot more aggressive and the government has become much more passive… You've got to keep current with the science."

Speaking about the potential impact on gulf fisheries, she talked about what happened in Alaska with the salmon fishery in Prince William Sound. She said it took four years to feel the full impact; at which time the salmon fishery in the area "collapsed."

She is particularly concerned about the widespread use of dispersants to break up the oil in the gulf.

"Here's the deal with dispersants. It's like this nightmare," she told the journalists. "Dispersants are toxic by nature. I've been trying to get them banned for 21 years."

She said while dispersants are used to dilute the oil, "Dispersed oil is not disappeared oil, it just goes to another compartment."

She said it's important the Gulf Coast, "Avoid the human health tragedy we had after Valdez."

Ott worries that many fishermen exposed to oil and/or dispersants are showing signs of "chemical illness" that can include symptoms like headache, dizziness, nausea and sore throat. Dr. Irwin Redlener also talked with the group about health concerns. He is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Dr. Redlener is a pediatrician who has a particular concern and interest with the health of children in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and now the gulf oil spill. He co-founded the Children's Health Fund with singer Paul Simon back in 1987 in response to a homeless crisis in New York City that put small children at risk for illness and disease while living in rundown hotels.

"We are in uncharted territory here, because we had Katrina and then we had the oil spill. In the back of everyone's mind is, 'We could still get a hurricane.'"

He urged journalists to report the human impact of the gulf crisis, which include a potentially devastating effect on the health of children in the affected area.

"The impact on the population of this very, very embattled area is a significant issue," said Dr. Redlener.

"The penalty we're going to be paying is severe and will affect our kids," he said, referring to the penalty for not providing adequate physical and mental health treatment, especially for the children affected.

The doctor said some 40,000 children may have serious residual post-Katrina problems. Dr. Redlener also addressed the issue of disaster preparedness. Without being overly alarmist, he did raise some serious concerns.

"Are we learning the lessons of past disasters or near disasters?" the doctor asked.

He suggested we've hit the "snooze alarm" on past crises that should have been wake up calls for improved and expanded disaster preparedness.

"The health system in the United States is grossly inadequate to handle even a moderate pandemic," the doctor suggests. "What I'm concerned about is our ability to deal with a mega disaster."

That's defined as a catastrophic, high consequence event, irrespective of etiology, that overwhelms or threatens to overwhelm local and regional response capacity.

"As reporters, it's only you who's going to be pushing the people for answers," said Dr. Redlener.

As a reporter, I'm learning much about how to improve and expand our news coverage of this significant story. The oil crisis will be the subject of many stories for years to come, ranging from economic concerns to health issues and quality of life topics. I'm confident I'll be in a much better position to bring you those important stories, thanks to three days of intense learning from the Poynter Institute seminar here in New Orleans.

I look forward to the assignment and challenge of bringing you the significant oil spill related stories that you expect and deserve.

Copyright 2010 WLOX. All rights reserved.