'Cost of Silence': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A searing history of inaction, denial and death.

Mark Manning adds to what is known, but mostly ignored, about the aftermath of BP's "cleanup" of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Most Americans who don't live on the Gulf Coast have, in all likelihood, long ago stopped thinking about the causes and effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's impossible to hold all the world's crises in your mind at once, and a relief to set one aside. We do the latter, often, because we convince ourselves that someone — a president, the courts, a government agency — is taking care of things. That assumption is very wrong in this case, according to Mark Manning's The Cost of Silence — an infuriating documentary that is less about assigning guilt for past events than calling for present-tense action and showing how close America is to letting similar catastrophes happen again. It may not be easy to find viewers willing to reenter this particular confluence of bureaucratic neglect, corporate malfeasance and human suffering; but those who ignore the film's message do so at their peril.

Manning, director of the 2009 doc The Road to Fallujah, spent decades as an offshore oilfield diver, working on the kind of structures rigs like the Deepwater Horizon rely on. The explosion and resulting oil spill attracted his attention immediately, and within about a month, he had a crew filming in the area. Narrating in a voice like that of a noir protagonist, he recalls immediately hearing of problems faced by cleanup crews and nearby civilians. Planes spraying dispersants doused them with chemicals; they'd been told they were safe, but strange illnesses cropped up quickly among those exposed.

Corexit is a chemical that breaks oil up into tiny droplets that can sink into the sea instead of sitting on its surface. That's obviously good for a company worrying about public backlash to videos showing vast, shimmering oil slicks approaching beaches; or for coastal governments worried about declines in tourism and tax revenue. Manning spends most of his film arguing that it's terrible for the rest of us.

Among other problems, Georgia Tech scientists have found that the combination of dispersants and oil is 52 times more toxic for marine life than oil alone. According to Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist who worked with victims of both the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and this one, dispersants are disastrous for humans as well, acting "like an oil-delivery system into the body."

Ott is joined in the film by Dr. Michael Harbut, an occupational medicine specialist who was a consultant in the class-action suit brought against BP, the company responsible for cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon mess. Harbut backs up the causal link between dispersants and the array of disabling and fatal illnesses suffered by cleanup workers and residents.

But Manning is most interested in gathering firsthand evidence of these effects. Returning year after year, he watches the struggles of people like Louisiana commercial fisher Kindra Arnesen, who watched as local cancer rates among children skyrocketed and her husband's ears "leaked brown stuff." "I'm not an activist, I'm a concerned parent," she says. But Manning's interviews show how many residents of the region were forced to advocate for themselves. We meet people who've developed rare cancers; suffered frightening rashes and growths; been plagued by chronic headaches, nosebleeds, etcetera. Shockingly, when part of a legal settlement required BP to establish health clinics along the coast, they refused to treat any illnesses caused by chemicals. Many would-be patients say their doctors simply refuse to tie symptoms to chemical exposure, fearing persecution if they go on the record.

The film's close attention to continuing suffering in the Gulf region describes an enraging case of justice denied. But it redirects our concern when it reminds us of Donald Trump's plans to encourage offshore drilling literally all around the country, and when it notes that these chemical dispersants will be part of the cleanup contingency plan at every new drilling site. Residents of Maine, California, Alaska and everywhere else along our coasts will have new reason to care about the suffering of poor communities in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It's worth noting, for those of us who find near-daily cause for outrage in the current Administration's actions, that Barack Obama had almost seven years to fix this. Though he quickly moved to limit offshore drilling, his EPA, Coast Guard and other officials failed to protect Americans from Corexit use. Interviewees including EPA analyst Hugh Kaufman argue that, even worse, the government assisted BP in hiding dispersants' toxicity. Asked if the government has sought the truth about Corexit's impact in intervening years, Rep. Jerry Nadler says, "there's a major health cover-up" surrounding its use.

Just months after the BP spill, Obama visited Florida to announce that “beaches all along the Gulf Coast are clean, they are safe, and they are open for business.” He even swam in the water with his daughter to reassure fearful would-be tourists. Presumably, dispersant-spraying planes were kept far, far away during his visit. Other beachgoers during this period, and for years after, weren't as lucky.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production company: Conception Media
Director: Mark Manning
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Mark Manning, Langdon Page, Reuben Aaronson
Executive producer: Jeff Sagansky
Director of photography: Reuben Aaronson
Editors: Langdon Page, Lauren Saffa
Composer: Claude Chalhoub
Sales: Submarine

86 minutes