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Birthday Boy Copernicus gives us the lowdown on BP oil spill doc DIRTY ENERGY from SBIFF!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here to introduce our man with the plan, our Ace of Space, our resident Armageddon hating sci-fi guy, the one and only Copernicus! How was that? I felt like a '50s radio DJ for a second there...

Copernicus is on the ground in Santa Barbara attending the film festival there and he's got another review for us, this time about a doc about the ramifications of the BP oil spill in the Gulf called Dirty Energy.

So, here's the birthday boy with his review. Enjoy!

This year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival there is a “Social Justice” documentary category. One of the highlights was the world premiere of DIRTY ENERGY, a documentary about the impact the BP oil spill has had on the Louisiana gulf coast community. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon had an explosion and blowout, killing 11 and spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months. It became one of the worst environmental disasters in history, devastating the local ecosystem and killing countless birds, fish, shrimp, and even dolphins. Louisiana coastal residents, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, now had to bear the brunt of a man-made disaster. Fishermen were put out of work and tourism dried up, and along with it hotels, restaurants and all the industries supporting these enterprises suffered. DIRTY ENERGY focuses on the stories of some of these people whose lives were turned upside down.

What is a fisherman to do when many of the fish are dead, and the ones that remain might be contaminated? BP might compensate him for the lost business for the first fishing season, but what happens if the ecosystem doesn’t rebound that quickly? What happens when people stop buying seafood from the gulf altogether? Is it safe? It is being tested, but it is hard to know for sure. The filmmakers go out with fisherman George Barisich, months after the disaster. Catches are down, and the future is uncertain, but Barisich presses on because he just can’t imagine doing anything else.

Barisich sets the tone for the documentary: he’s a true local, with enough of an accent to be subtitled, he’s well educated (he was briefly a lawyer), and has felt and thought deeply about the consequences of the disaster. He’s being pushed around by forces he can’t control -- a giant corporation and a government working hand in hand with it have conspired to nearly ruin him and his culture.

Barisich is rightly worried about the ecosystem and his livelihood, but others may have even more grave concerns. In 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a large number of workers cleaning it up got sick. In DIRTY ENERGY Dr. Riki Ott, a marine biologist and activist says that most of the workers who cleaned up the Valdez spill are dead and that the average life expectancy for these workers is 51. This seems so unbelievable to me that I went looking for the source. The claim is repeated over and over on the web, citing an expert who appeared on CNN, but I can’t find the actual data anywhere. Still, there are other indications that chemicals like Corexit, which are used to disperse the oil, is pretty toxic stuff. The EPA told BP to stop using it, although a million gallons have been sprayed into the Gulf. The effect on cleanup workers is not fully understood, although hundreds have reported flulike symptoms. Respirators could have been used by cleanup crews to minimize exposure to the chemicals, but, remarkably, according to one activist who tried to get them adopted, were banned by BP.

Dr. Ott spent a career studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and points out that while some good has come out of the aftermath of that disaster, like the fact that a double-hulled design is now mandatory for oil tankers, many injustices remain. Courts initially ordered Exxon to pay 5 billion dollars in damages, but this sum has been cut back time and time again after continuous appeals by Exxon to a tiny fraction of the initial sum. Any serious regulation of the oil industry has been thwarted. One of the most revealing aspects of the documentary is that alongside the end credits, the contributions the oil industry has made to individual congress people are listed. This stretches on well after the credits are finished. Hundreds of House and Senate members are listed, many of them receiving millions of dollars from the industry.

Aaron Viles, Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, makes the point that with our unquenchable thirst for oil, this isn’t a Louisiana problem, it is problem caused by the entire US. The residents of Louisiana have to suffer the consequences, but it is the responsibility of the whole country to make things right.

DIRTY ENERGY is by no means the definitive documentary on the Gulf spill. Almost no time is spent on the disaster itself or BP’s negligence and culpability in allowing it to happen. Nor are alternative forms of energy seriously discussed. Instead, the focus is on the residents of the gulf and their stories in the aftermath. Their stories are compelling, and when they are speaking about their ordeals the doc is at its strongest. Still, the result is something ultimately anecdotal, punctuated by the claims of activists with no serious attempt at rebuttal. The scientist in me, looking for hard numbers and a vigorous examination of all points of view, was left wanting. The citizen in me is appropriately outraged that money has such a stranglehold on our political system, and that months on, it is business as usual for the oil companies while the people of the Gulf struggle to rebuild their lives.

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