TampaBay.com: Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill still causing damage in gulf 2 years later, scientists find
By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, April 15, 2012
Geologist Rip Kirby examined the skin of a graduate student who swam in the gulf and then showered. Under regular light, his skin seemed clean, but ultraviolet light revealed orange blotches – dispersant-mixed oil.
On Florida’s Panhandle beaches, where local officials once fretted over how much oil washed in with each new tide, everything seems normal. The tourists have returned. The children have gone back to splashing in the surf and hunting for shells.
Every now and then, a tar ball as big as a fist washes ashore. That’s the only apparent sign that the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history tainted these sugar-white sands two years ago.
But with an ultraviolet light, geologist James “Rip” Kirby has found evidence that the oil is still present, and possibly still a threat to beachgoers.
Tiny globs of it, mingled with the chemical dispersant that was supposed to break it up, have settled into the shallows, mingling with the shells, he said.
When Kirby shines his light across the legs of a grad student who’d been in the water and showered, it shows orange blotches where the globs still stick to his skin.
“If I had grandkids playing in the surf, I wouldn’t want them to come in contact with that,” said Kirby, whose research is being overseen by the University of South Florida. “The dispersant accelerates the absorption by the skin.”
As those blotches show, the gulf and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began with a fiery explosion aboard an offshore drilling rig on April 20, 2010.
Even before BP managed to shut off the undersea flow on July 16, 2010, observers ranging from Time magazine to Rush Limbaugh insisted that the ecological damage from the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled seemed far less severe than everyone had predicted.
Now, after his company has spent $14 billion on cleanup and restoration in two years, BP spokesman Craig Savage said this month, “the beaches are open, the tourists are back and commercial fishing is rebounding.”
But biologists are finding signs of lingering – and perhaps growing – damage throughout the gulf, from the bottom of the food chain to the top:
* Scientists have confirmed that tiny creatures called zooplankton accumulated toxic compounds from coming in contact with the Deepwater Horizon oil. Because small fish and crustaceans eat the zooplankton and are then eaten by larger fish, that means those compounds could now be working their way up the food chain, they said.
* Three months after BP shut off the flow of oil, scientists searching the floor of the gulf found a colony of deep sea corals that were covered in what they described as “frothy gunk.” They were in the area where undersea plumes of oil had been spotted. Nearly half were dead. Extensive tests resulted in a finding, released just last month, that the culprit was in fact oil from Deepwater Horizon.
* This month, crews from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fanned out to rivers across the coast to catch and take samples from sturgeon swimming upstream from the gulf to spawn. The reason: When scientists examined the sturgeon that swam upriver last year, they found “significant levels” of DNA fragmentation in the 300-pound fish that could have been caused by exposure to the oil spill, said wildlife service chief investigator Glenn Constant.
“It can lead to a number of abnormalities, such as cancer, tumors, challenges to their immune systems,” Constant said. Reproduction could falter, too, he said.
* A survey last summer by USF scientists found that the highest frequency of fish diseases occurred in the area where the oil spill was. While scientists were initially cautious about attributing the lesions on red snapper and other fish to Deepwater Horizon, subsequent laboratory tests have all but eliminated everything other than the oil from the spill as the cause.
“It would be hard to argue otherwise,” USF scientist David Hollander said this month.
* Biologists have become alarmed about how many bottlenose dolphins are washing ashore sick or dead across the gulf, from Texas to Florida – more than 600 during a time when the normal average is 74 a year. In Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, where waves of thick oil washed in throughout the spill, dozens of dolphins have been found suffering symptoms of liver and lung disease and possible immune system failures.
Savage, of BP, points out that the jury is still out on most of those findings, and that much of the research being done on the impact of the spill is being funded by $500 million that his company donated to make up for the damage. Kirby’s study is an exception – his funding comes from the Surfrider Foundation, a group founded by surfers to work on ocean protection issues.
Some good news has emerged since the spill. For instance, sperm whales apparently avoided contact with the oil, swimming clear of that section of the gulf. Biologists say bluefin tuna, which were spawning during the spill, appear to have suffered only minimal effects. And a “dirty blizzard” that USF scientists discovered littering the gulf’s bottom with dead organic matter after the spill has now mostly dissipated, Hollander said.
Still, serious questions remain. A massive study of everyone who came in contact with the oil began last year, overseen by the National Institutes of Health. So far, thanks in part to an offer of a $50 gift card for participants, the study has signed up 8,000 people, half of them from Florida, said Dr. Dale Sandler, who’s in charge. She hopes to have 40,000 by the end of the year and to follow the fluctuations of their health for a decade.
“People are concerned,” Sandler said. “There are pockets of people there who have poor health and came into contact with the oil. Putting two and two together, they think the oil spill is responsible for their illness. Our job is to sort that out.”
Kirby, the USF geologist, is concerned too, based on what his ultraviolet light has shown him.
The oil he found lies in what’s called the swash zone, just below where the waves lap against the sand. When a “plunge step” forms there, small flakes of weathered oil or even large tar patties settle there, mingled with shell debris, he found.
Studies have found that the dispersant used to break up the oil slick, Corexit, can be toxic to the bacteria that would normally gobble up oil in the gulf. That’s why the oil is still showing up two years later, he said. When Corexit bound with the oil, it prevented bacteria from consuming it.
The concentrations of toxic hydrocarbons in the flakes and patties are above the level considered to be dangerous under federal standards, he said. That’s what makes him so concerned about how quickly the dispersant-mixed oil absorbs into human skin.
Kirby consulted with three toxicologists about it. Two recommended an immediate study of what level of toxic oil might be absorbed. The third, a state employee, was less concerned, he said.
According to Savage, only 8 miles of gulf beaches are still undergoing cleanup paid for by BP. Kirby thinks someone should be surveying every beach’s swash zone every morning to check for the little oil-and-dispersant globs he found.
Given how toxic those globs might be, he said, “would you let your kid play in the shallow water and absorb toxic tar product? Wouldn’t you rather have a sign that told you the beach was hazardous in certain spots?”
Information from the New Orleans Times-Picayune was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gulf Today: Najmedin Meshkati: Lessons of the BP accident
April 15, 2012
As the second anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore platform accident approaches on April 20, the sky rocketing gasoline prices at the pumps have fuelled calls of “drill, baby, drill” to increase domestic oil production. The prospect of extensive deepwater oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic waters, and elsewhere is now stronger than ever. Exploiting deepwater offshore oil and gas fields is the future of the fossil fuel industry around the world.
According to a recent statement by the head of the International Energy Agency of the OECD, about 30 per cent of the world’s oil production presently comes from offshore projects and it will increase to about 50 per cent in 2015. In addition to the growing deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (by the United States, Mexico and Cuba) and possibly the Atlantic Ocean (from Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral, Fla.), it is expected to grow substantially in the Mediterranean, Caspian Sea, the Arabian Gulf, North Slope of Alaska, as well as off the coasts of China, India, Brazil and Angola.
For instance, seven of the 10 largest hydrocarbon fields discovered in the past decade in the world are in deepwater off the coast of Brazil.
The recent major gas leak on the Elgin offshore platform in the North Sea, which forced ships and aircrafts to stay miles away from the site and caused an international uproar, heightened the attention to offshore drilling safety, especially for wells on high-pressure, high-temperature and other types of more complex fields.
This event echoed the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Despite the recent announcement that BP and most of its plaintiffs have agreed to settle the lawsuits concerning the explosion and fire, its lessons haven’t still been adequately learned and disseminated. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of opportunities to do a much better job, when it comes to offshore drilling safety; as world’s people and ecosystems should not have to experience another accident and oil spill anywhere.
A published report by a 15-member interdisciplinary experts Committee of the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council (NAE/NRC), “Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety” (Dec 2011), was able to identify and assess the principal direct and root causes of this accident and developed a series of recommendations that would provide suitable and cost-effective corrective actions, materially reducing the likelihood of a similar event in the future.
It recommended to reduce the risk of another accident as catastrophic as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, companies involved in offshore drilling should take a “system safety” approach to anticipating and managing possible dangers at every level of operation – from ensuring the integrity of wells to designing blowout preventers that function “under all foreseeable conditions,” including the cold Arctic waters.
The committee’s five major categories of recommendations that attempt to address all the primary components or the life cycle of deepwater drilling are: (1) Well Design and Construction, (2) Blowout Preventer System, (3) Mobile Offshore Drilling Units, (4) Industry Management of Offshore Drilling, to (5) Regulatory oversight.
Thus, it is expected that the committee’s universally applicable recommendations should be addressed in their entirety by the companies and countries who would like to engage in safe and environmentally conscious deepwater drilling.
As the committee’s report concluded, the need to maintain domestic sources of oil is great, but so is the need to protect the lives of those who work in this industry, and to protect the Gulf of Mexico and other waters and the many other industries that depend on it. Additionally, an enhanced regulatory approach should ensure strong industry safety culture with mandatory regulatory oversight at critical points during drilling operations.
Safety culture is typically defined as the assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organisations and individuals, which establishes that as an overriding priority, safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance. Creating and nurturing a positive safety culture basically means to instill thinking and attitudes in organisations and individual employees that ensure safety issues are treated as high priorities.
An organisation fostering a safety culture would encourage employees to cultivate a questioning attitude and a rigorous and prudent approach to all aspects of their job, and would set up necessary open communications between line workers and mid-and upper management.
These safety culture characteristics are equally applicable both to the operating companies as well as to their cognizant/designated governmental regulatory safety agency.
This global industry should strive for higher universal safety standards and closer co-operation among its members and regulators. Companies and countries engaging in deepwater drilling should proactively and voluntarily pledge to address the institutionalisation of safety culture, not only at rig level but also at higher levels of company and regulatory agency in their countries. If not for the sake of the public, at least for the sake of their own survival and bottom line.
Influential industry trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and the International Association of Drilling Contractors should join forces and forge alliances with their counterparts in other countries and develop codes of best practices and “enforce” or ensure their voluntary implementations.
Stakeholder countries should start devising a balance between national sovereignty over their territorial waters and international responsibility towards their neighbours and region, when it comes to the safety of their deepwater drilling rigs.
This can start at the regional level. For starts, the Gulf of Mexico littoral countries – the United States, Mexico and Cuba – should be entitled and enabled to learn about and ascertain the adequacy of the specific safety considerations and practices of all operating platforms.
As in the context of the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of the day, all those countries will be affected by water contamination from an accidental spill, anywhere on the coasts of this small pond.
The vital importance of this project for many countries around the world cannot be emphasised further.
This initiative will “force” these neighbouring countries to engage in a mutually beneficial practice of engineering diplomacy. One of the byproducts and unintended (positive) consequences of these safety-centric confidence building collaborative efforts could be eventual better relations, for instance between the United States and Cuba.
As the American philosopher William James once said, “Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.” We should learn from the Macondo Well blowout, and we shouldn’t give up, as we can do better than what happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
More important, we, along with companies and countries engaging in deepwater drilling owe taking these bold safety improvement initiatives to the memory of the 11 people who lost their lives onboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010.
Special thanks to Richard Charter