After Two Years The Gulf Spill Is Still Unfolding

Chris Carnevale | April 27, 2012 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling


Deepwater Horizon Fire
Photo: Gerald Herbert, AP

Two years ago, we witnessed the unraveling of the worst environmental disaster in our country’s history.  On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded into flames, killing 11 people, and spiraled into a horrific 87 days of oil gushing into the ocean, resulting in over 200 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.  The ensuing months, documented on our blog here, claimed the lives of uncounted fish, birds, and marine mammals, exposed tens of thousands of cleanup workers to hazardous chemicals and decimated several of the Gulf region’s key industries, including fishing and tourism.  At a time like this, it is appropriate for us to reflect with critical eyes upon the significance of offshore drilling and its massive impacts.  Just now, after two years, we are just starting to see the emergence of some of the long-term consequences of that spill—persistent environmental toxins, human health effects, and long term economic impacts.  While BP and many business interests want us to believe that “everything is back to normal,” the increasingly evident truth is that the Deepwater Horizon spill will have lasting impacts for many years and even decades to come.  We can and need to do better when it comes to the energy future we want for ourselves and our children, and by reexamining new evidence that only comes with the passing of time, we are better equipped to make those decisions.  With that frame of reference in mind, let’s take a look at what we’re finding two years later.

Tar/Corexit Absorption

Dispersants May Not Have Been Such a Great Idea

Shortly following the spill, widespread use of chemical dispersants, particularly one called Corexit, became commonplace to treat affected marine areas.  Chemical dispersants work by breaking up the oil slicks into smaller volumes of oil to avoid massive oil sheets bombarding the shore or a wetland all at once.  While the dispersants did what they were designed to do – break up the oil – they did so at a high cost and really just moved the oil from blobs on the surface to blobs underwater, newly enriched with poisonous chemicals known to contribute to cancer, respiratory and kidney toxicity, and fish and other aquatic organism toxicity.  It was apparent two years ago, but it’s even more apparent today: simply shifting pollution so that it’s “out of sight, out of mind” does not fix the problem.

Initial EPA reports in the wake of the spill indicated that Corexit was killing about 25 percent of all living creatures at 500 feet of water depth, however with the passage of time, we’ve learned that the toxic oil/dispersant combination has affected marine life throughout the water column.  A group of academic and government researchers published findings last month that they have found pollution from the spill as deep as 1,370 m, or approximately 0.85 miles, below the surface, where it is killing coral reef communities.

UV Light Reveals Hidden Spill Pollution
UV light applied to this beach shows toxic spill pollution that is hidden under normal lighting conditions. Photo: Chris Combs, National Geographic

Other research has shown that chemical dispersant-laden tar balls are washing up on shore at many of the Gulf coast’s most popular beaches and contributing to toxic-level chemical exposure to beachgoers.  A new report from University of South Florida and the Emerald Coast chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has documented that dangerously high levels of oil and dispersant persist on the beaches of Florida and Alabama, in spite of BP’s proclamation that “the beaches are open!”  It was found that 26 of the 32 sampling sites had concentrations of certain oil compounds that exceed carcinogenic or “Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health” (IDLH) exposure levels and that Corexit aids rapid absorption of tar into the skin.  Further complicating the situation is the fact that weather that is generally considered to be good “beach weather” and thus draws more people to the beach also creates tidal conditions that promote concentration of the hazardous chemicals.

As if that weren’t enough bad news, the report goes on to assert that the incidence of spill pollution on the beaches may cause groundwater contamination.  Finally, adding insult to injury, the report concludes that the use of Corexit as a dispersant actually inhibits and kills two of the main natural bacterial biodegraders of oil, meaning that as the dispersant was dumped into the ocean en masse, it was actually hindering the ocean biology’s ability to deal with the problem naturally.

Oil Spill Pollution Has Penetrated Deep Into the Food Chain

In a study released in February, researchers from East Carolina University reported that they had found that in Gulf zooplankton—one of the smallest and most abundant marine creatures—had absorbed oil compounds known as PAHs.  This finding is particularly concerning because plankton are one of the bases of the marine food web and therefore pose a threat of introducing high levels of PAHs—which are known to contribute to cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects—to fish that feed on them.  Prior research has shown that it may be possible for PAHs or other oil compounds to concentrate into greater levels higher in the food chain therefore as as the plankton are eaten by larger animals and those animals are eaten by even larger animals, the compounds may increase in concentration with each feeding, resulting in unhealthy levels of PAHs in Gulf sea ecology and seafood.

One of the more interesting findings of this research was that the incidence of oil contamination was geographically patchy—in some areas near the spill, the zooplankton didn’t have as high of concentrations of oil compounds, whereas in some areas further away, concentrations were very high.  This gives credence to the argument that all of the direct effects of the spill are not readily apparent but rather are highly complex and will take years for us to understand.

The Fishing Ain’t Great

While BP would have us believe that the fish, shrimp, and oyster businesses of the Gulf are doing fine, the truth is that fisheries have collapsed and fishermen are pulling in record low numbers.  Where half of all oysters sold in the U.S. came from Louisiana’s waters before the big spill, today it is just one-fifth.  For some oystermen, harvests are down by 75 percent or more from pre-2010 levels and shrimpers are seeing catches down by 80 percent or more.  An Al Jazeera article from last week profiled a few commercial seafood professionals who validate claims of reduced harvests with personal stories. Henry Poynot, a New Orleans seafood purveyor who has been in business 28 years, said “2010 was the worst year we’ve had in 15 years.  Then 2011 was worse than 2010. Some of this was the economy, but most of it is due to BP.”  Ryan Lambert, a 31-year veteran commercial fisherman, said that prior to the spill, 90 percent of his yield was speckled trout; today, they are almost completely gone.  Brad Robin of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, who is pulling in one-thirtieth the volume of oysters he used to harvest said, “The truth of the matter is that it’s not there to catch […] Disaster is an understatement for what they have done […] We’re hurting.  I’m not afraid to go to court with BP […] They destroyed my industry.  They destroyed my livelihood, they destroyed by business, and they also destroyed the way we did life.”

Whether it is due to the aforementioned trophic accumulation of PAHs and other oil compounds as each stage of the food web gets contaminated, direct contact with oil and dispersants, or some other cause yet to be discovered, the fact is that something is seriously wrong with Gulf ecology.  Not only are seafood harvests down, but Gulf residents are also seeing unprecedented random deaths of dolphins, turtles and other sea creatures.  Since the spill, over 700 dolphin carcasses have washed up on shore, indicating thousands upon thousands of dolphin deaths that are likely linked to the oil spill.  The rate at which dead dolphins are being found on shore is many times the rate considered normal, such that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has termed it an “unusual mortality event.”  Sea turtles have been impacted especially hard as well.  600 sea turtle strandings were documented in 2010—six times the average annual rate—and the deaths continue, with 87 strandings reported within the first two months of 2012, meaning the dieoffs could be getting worse.

Dead Dolphin
One of the thousands of dolphins whose death is linked to the oil spill. Photo: Laurel Lockamy

Furthermore, sea life is displaying a remarkable incidence of sickness and developmental problems.  Fish with lesions and heart dysfunction, fish, shrimp, and crabs missing eyes, crabs with soft shells and lacking claws, and tumors on many forms of sea life are now commonplace.  One University of South Florida study revealed that in some areas, and astonishing 50 percent of fish caught have lesions.  Prior data indicates a normal incidence of lesions on fish at around one-tenth of one percent of the catch.  This problem again resounds the theme that the worst still may be yet to come considering that developmental problems are passed down through generations of marine life, meaning that the fish exposed to toxins now could pass disorders down to their second and third generation offspring.  As Penn State biologist Charles Fisher said, “Things happen very slowly in the deep sea; the temperatures are low, currents are low, those animals live hundreds of years and they die slowly […] It will take a while to know the final outcome of this exposure.”  Similar to how it took four years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill for the herring population to crash, we may be still on the verge of experiencing the worst the spill has to offer.

Slick P.R. Doesn’t Clean Up Oil Slicks, Nor Does it Help Many of Those Hurt

For all of BP’s under-deliveries, the company has shown one great strength: buying public opinion.  BP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising proclaiming that the Gulf is just as good as ever.  In addition to traditional television advertisements, they have executed clever social media campaigns, bought celebrity chef’s endorsements of Gulf seafood (and even given it out for free at public events), and given Gulf public agencies multi-million dollar P.R. budgets to host gimmicky giveaways.  This whirlwind advertising spree has influenced a good number of people to spend their vacation on the Gulf coast and some counties have reported record numbers of visitors.  The region is not optimistic, however, for when their temporarily overinflated tourism budgets return to normal rates sans BP compensation.

The sad truth that isn’t being reported enough, though, is that in spite of all the dollars that BP is spending on making the region look good, they have failed to adequately compensate many local residents whose livelihoods and even way of life have been destroyed.  Because of the collapse of fisheries and other seafood creatures’ populations, individuals and communities who have historically relied on these resources, whether for profession, sustenance, or recreation, are now faced with the bleak reality of needing to find other ways to meet their needs—often with resources that just aren’t there.

The toll is more than economic, though.  Many Gulf communities have seen notably increased incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental health issues such as depression as a result of the increased stresses of post-spill life.  As one research team concluded, “social disruption and psychological stress will characterize residents of Gulf Coast communities for decades to come.”

Perhaps BP’s greatest failure, though, is its denial of responsibility for paying for health treatment for coastal residents’—particularly cleanup workers—medical issues due to exposure to oil and dispersants.  In the face of longstanding evidence of crude oil’s toxicity and newer evidence of dispersants’ toxicity, BP has denied all health-related compensation claims on the grounds that health conditions cannot be directly tied to the spill itself.  Even workers onboard the rig when the blowout occurred have been denied compensation for injuries.  Buddy Trahan, profiled in this Bloomberg article, was one of the workers on the rig at the time of the explosion.  He said that in spite of BP executives, who shared an evacuation lifeboat with him, seeing him “bleeding nearly to death, right in front of their eyes […] It’s been nearly two years and they’ve made no attempt to help me. I’d like to see them again, look them in the eye and ask where are their hearts.”

While a new compensation system that may pay for health-related damages is in the works, it will not be operational for months and the fact of the matter is that many people are sick and hurting now.  As many as 90,000 cleanup workers and many thousands more of coastal residents are at risk for short-term and long term health impacts.

Even though BP posted $26 billion in 2011 profits, they only paid out one-quarter of claims filed against them—none of them health-related.  The sad state of the matter is that many of the impacted Gulf residents have lost their livelihoods, are in debt from seafood related business investments, have been denied adequate compensation from BP, and are now facing spill-related health problems and yet BP is making out like a bandit.

Neither BP Nor the Government has the Capacity to Effectively Deal With the Spill, Yet The Government is Proposing More Drilling

The impacts of a catastrophic oil spill are great, complex, and persistent and we are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg as of yet.  What we’ve seen in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill is inability of private business and the government to adequately deal with problems caused by the spill.  BP’s failures of responsibility, systematic suppression of information (which led to this week’s first arrest related to the spill) and prioritization of shareholder returns over the well being of the entire region goes to demonstrate that the liabilities associated with offshore drilling are handed to the public while profits are maintained by the elite.

BOEM Atlantic OCS Planning AreasWith this in mind, it seems like sheer insanity to try to be ramping up new offshore drilling in domestic waters.  But in what could be construed as a cosmically tragic display of nearsightedness, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)—the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling—is actually moving forward with the Department of Interior’s proposal to open the Atlantic coast to offshore oil and gas drilling.

BOEM is currently touring up and down the east coast hosting public meetings to gather comments on a proposal to open the South Atlantic to oil and gas drilling.  Last Friday, exactly two years to the date since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, I attended the Charleston, SC meeting to deliver SACE’s comments on the proposal.  I was honestly distressed to see so many people in support of more offshore drilling in spite of all the lessons we continue to learn from the Gulf oil spill of 2010.

In order to ensure the government hears our pleas for sanity in the offshore energy discussion, please consider submitting comments to BOEM, stating your opinions on the matter.  SACE has developed a Take Action webpage on which you can learn about the proposal and submit comments to BOEM.

Take Action and Submit Comments to BOEM Here.               

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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