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BP Blowout!
POSTED 20 MAY 2010

Mixing Gulf water and BP oil

As BP struggles to contain its "oil volcano" a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, fingers are pointing. Driller Transocean blames contractor Halliburton. They both blame BP, which enthusiastically returns the favor.

Amid soaring estimates of the actual spill volume, U.S. government agencies are doing a colossal amount of blame-shifting.

It seems that necessary permits were not obtained, and necessary environmental protections were ignored.

 Three workers with blue outfits and yellow rubber gloves holding pelican indoors to clean it off
Fort Jackson, Louisiana (USA). May 15th, 2010. Veterinarian Erica Miller, left, with the help of two other workers at the International Bird Rescue Research Center facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana clean a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) on May 15, 2010. The bird was covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, the BP leased oil platform that exploded on April 20 and sank after burning.
Photo by © Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace. Greenpeace USA

BP, which lately tried to sell the myth that it's "Beyond Petroleum," is instead up to its neck in spilled crude, and in accusations that by shortcutting safety it eviscerated the environment.

Meanwhile, deep in Gulf waters, a drilling rig with the uber-ironic name of Deepwater Horizon rests in deep water. Each day, thousands of barrels of crude oil gush from the well BP drilled so expertly below a mile of water, and then capped so inexpertly.

Late last week, we got word that large pools of oil are forming deep in the Gulf, and the spill volume may be "four or five times" larger than the 5,000 barrels per day estimate used in most press reports.

"I think the spill could be very well 10 times more than reported, and the dose makes the poison," says Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. "The greater the volume, the greater the risk." That sunken oil is contributing to an accelerating environmental disaster, says Kendall. "Some of these underwater slicks are said to be 20 miles long. There is enormous use of dispersants, which are inherently toxic, and as we disperse at wellhead and surface, I am not surprised we are seeing large pools of oil floating and trailing in the ocean. Where they will go, nobody knows. At this point, we are doing reconnaissance of the whole Texas coast. We believe the oil could surface at any point, depending on the weather. We have colonies of sea birds nesting by the thousands, and it will not take but one oil slick to do unbelievable damage."

In the oil biz, stranded tankers like Exxon Valdez may get the big headlines, but it's the underwater well blowouts (and the occasional Middle East despot like Saddam Hussein) that cause the biggest messes. Those large pools threaten to remove oxygen from deep waters, exacerbating the Gulf's existing low-oxygen "Dead Zone."

Historic oil spills

January 30
1969

Santa Barbara, California 100,000 barrels spilled
December 17
1976

Sansinena – Los Angeles Harbor, California 30,000 barrels
March 17
1978

Amoco Cadiz - Brittany, France 1.63 million barrels
June 3
1979

Ixtoc – Yucatan Peninsula 3.3 million barrels
March 24
1989

Exxon Valdez – Prince William Sound, Alaska 257,000 barrels
June 8
1990
Megaborg – Gulf of Mexico 100,000 barrels
January 21
1991

Kuwait
900 million barrels
September
2005

Hurricane Katrina – Gulf of Mexico 190,000 barrels
September
2009

Timor Sea 3 million barrels
April
2010

Gulf of Mexico Estimates range from 138,000 – 2.8 million barrels
1 barrel = 42 gallons = 158.76 litres

The blowout occurred south of the Mississippi River's outlet into the Gulf of Mexico, in an area bordered by beaches, barrier islands and the most extensive (and endangered) wetlands in the United States.

Polluted waters are already crimping the Gulf's huge fishing and shell fishing industries, but that is only part of the story, says Robert Moreau, in the department of biological sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University. "For all of us in coastal Louisiana, being in the wetland is a way of life, it's our culture, it's our DNA. People are saying 'The water is poisoned,' and it's devastating. To the fishermen, the most precious thing, aside from family, is the wetland. It's not just a job, it's a way of life, and when you take that away, it's a huge thing, an emotional issue."

  Aerial photo of large body of water, 3 ships on water, brown murky substance on top of water.
Skimming vessel offloading into barge
Photo: NOAA

The environmental picture today

What kind of environmental insult can we expect from the BP blowout, which was triggered by an explosion on April 20?

A month later, all damage forecasts depend on when BP shuts down its gusher. With oil still spilling, "It's very difficult to tell the outcome," says Mahlon C. (Chuck) Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University. "The ultimate effects will be dependent on the volume of oil in the water, and how much longer this goes on, and how deeply it penetrates into the very sensitive coastal environment."

On May 17, BP announced that it had started sucking an estimated 1,000 barrels per day from the leak into a drill ship, where it is being separated from the water and stored for delivery to a refinery. BP is still working on other techniques for capping the well, but working by robot sub in a mile of water is tricky at best.

Cleanup efforts, using booms to "corral" the oil on the water or sop it up, may remove some oil, "but once oil is in the water, historically, cleanup efforts can't do much," Kennicutt says. "If you've seen the estimate for the total amount removed to date (May 10), there is much more than that coming out each day."

All mitigation efforts must confront the fact that spilled oil "very quickly covers a very large surface area because it is lighter than water," says Kennicutt. "Think about covering 1,000 square miles by dragging booms, or hoarding it up and burning it. Those tactics just can't have much impact. Once the oil is in the water, it's a mess. There's not a whole lot we can do but sit back and try to reduce the damage."

Bye, bye birdie?

The first animals noticeably harmed by oil spills are usually seabirds, which live at the surface or dive through it, Kennicutt says. "The first dramatic effect of oil is the physical coating; birds lose the ability to float, oil messes up the feathers so they stop insulating, and they may inhale some of the volatile portion."

Little creatures can take a real beating. During the massive Ixtoc well blowout in the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico in 1979, populations of segmented worms called polychetes, and of amphipods, animals that live between sand grains, fell by 70 to 90 percent, says John Tunnell, associate director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and professor of biology at Texas A&M University. However, he adds that these animals reproduce rapidly, and "within a year, most had repopulated the beach again."

The drilling ship Deepwater Horizon in better days. Not too long ago, the oil industry bragged about its ability to drill for oil in deep water. Place mouse on image to see the fire that killed 11 workers and sank the rig.
1st photo: NOAA. 2nd photo: NOAA

A toxic brew

According to Michael Harbut of the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Michigan, and a co-author: "Crude oil contains chemicals that readily penetrate cell walls, damage cell structures, including DNA, and alter the function of the cells and the organs where they are located. Crude oil is toxic, and ingredients can damage every system in the body," including the brain, lungs, reproductive, immune and endocrine systems.

Although the above was written about human health, it also applies to animals. Two processes tend to raise the toxic burden in animals, especially carnivores, Kennicutt notes.

* Bioaccumulation: carnivores eat herbivores, and may themselves be eaten by larger carnivores. At each step, the total amount of oil ingested increases.

* Biomagnification: Toxins, which tend to be fat-soluble, are concentrated in the fat of marine animals.

The result of both processes, Kennicutt says, is to give top carnivores like tuna "a much higher concentration" of toxics than occurs in their watery home.

Save the children!

Spring is breeding time in the Gulf, and that further magnifies the predictable biological cost of the spill, says Kendall. "This is when the population is replenishing. We have thousands of sea birds nesting and laying eggs, sea turtles nesting and laying their eggs. Reproduction is the most vulnerable time of the life cycle, and so the consequences go up by another order of magnitude."

Even a brief exposure to oil can have serious consequences, says Kendall, who has been an editor of the scientific journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry for 25 years. "As the weather changes and shoves the oil closer to the rookeries, who knows what's going to happen? If you are sitting on an egg and go into the contaminated zone to feed, you will pick up a little bit of oil on your breast feathers, and that could kill the egg."

Will wetlands die?

Oiled birds make compelling video, but plants are the basis of the wetlands around southeast Louisiana, and they, too, will suffer when the oil comes ashore. These wetlands and barrier islands "are newly forming landscapes formed by sediment from the Mississippi River," says Christopher Craft, a wetland ecologist at Indiana University. "It's very soft and unconsolidated, and about the only thing keeping it together is the roots. This land helps protect against hurricanes, and once you destroy the vegetation, you are going to lose some of that ability."

Depending on the amount of oil and many other factors, oil can kill plants by coating them or suffocating their roots. Tunnell says serious oil spills in mangrove swamps in Puerto Rico and Panama have caused "almost complete devastation."

 Aerial photograph of large body of water with tall grassy coast, waterways through the coast
Coastal wetlands of Louisiana have received national attention due to rapid wetland loss over a century. The linear canals cut by the oil industry for easy access to the Gulf accelerate wetland erosion and undercut hurricane protection for New Orleans.
Photo: USGS

The barrier islands and wetlands of Southern Louisiana sit virtually at sea level, and are already under numerous assaults, and the last thing they need is further insult. "Once the marshes get submerged, it's very difficult to get the vegetation reestablished," Craft says.

Louisiana's wetlands help protect against hurricanes, but after a major spill, hurricanes may resurrect sunken oil and speed wetland destruction: "A hurricane can create a violent turnover, and the oil may resurface or be shoved inland," says Kendall. "We are entering hurricane season, and there is no way to predict where all this will go with a hurricane."

As we write, substantial amounts of oil have not come ashore, and that's a good thing for the coastal wetlands (if not for the plants and animals living in open water). While the oil remains at sea, some toxic components evaporate or be biodegraded; aged, or "weathered" oil is less toxic than fresh crude.

But "it's mainly a matter of time until it comes ashore," Kennicutt told us on May 10.

What did we learn from the Exxon Valdez spill?
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