Nel's New Day

April 21, 2014

Oil Spills on Earth Day, Bad and Good

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 6:29 PM
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On Earth Day 2010, people were in shock over the explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform just two days earlier that released over 200 million gallons of oil in the gulf. In an attempt to solve its problem, BP released almost 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants. Four years later, on the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, people are seeing the bad news and the good news that followed the disaster.

The bad news about the disaster is that BP thinks the oil spill recovery is finished despite the tarballs and the ring of oil along the Gulf Coast. Big storms leave huge mats of fresh oil on the beach sand. Between 28 and 43 percent of the carbon in tiny floating particles throughout the Gulf can be traced to methane released during the BP spill. After bacteria in the Gulf digested the methane, oil spill pollution is now a ubiquitous element of the Gulf’s ecological food chain.

Serious effects on people and wildlife may continue for decades. Fresh oil keeps appearing in Prince William Sound 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. More information about the aftermath of the BP disaster is available here.

BP is not the sole perpetrator of oil destruction in that area. Louisiana is one of the most heavily polluted states in the country with 20 percent of the oil leaks taking place within its boundaries. Although 64,000 oil and gas wells are still active in the state, the remainder of the 220,000 have been removed, capped, or abandoned. The pipelines that crisscross among wells, offshore platforms, and onshore refineries provide more opportunity for oil and gas leaks. Fractracker.org shows daily incidents on an interactive map showing 1,887 of these between January 1, 2010 and March 29, 2013.

The Clean Water Act requires polluters to file reports of a release of hazardous materials and other pollutants into a body of water. Although over 1,200 reports from 2004 to 2011 were related to the Taylor Energy site, SkyTruth found these to be the tip of the disaster. Further research showed that Gulf oil spills and other pollution events were far more routine than industries indicated.

No government office regularly monitors the Gulf and coastal areas for oil spills. It uses an honor system, relying on gas and oil industries to be self-reporting. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources has an average of 12 inspectors assigned to check wells, meaning that each well might be inspected only every three years. Between October 2010 and September 2011, 2,903 oil releases were reported in the Gulf region, but 77 percent of these failed to include an estimate of how much oil was spilled. Oil spills from the other 23 percent totaled 250,000 gallons of crude. SkyTruth estimates that the total amount was between 1.5 million and 2.2 million gallons.

The good news part of the oil spill is that residents and activists along the Gulf have developed networks to deal with future problems. Originally those who now take part in organizations such as the Gulf Future Coalition and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health had been excluded from recovery procedures. Documents such as the Unified Action Plan for a Health Gulf and media projects such as Bridge the Gulf    have given voices to community members outside political filters.

Three victories:

The Gulf Coast will keep the money. Under the Oil Spill Liability Act, fines, which can be up to $20 billion in just this one case, go to the U.S. Treasury. Gulf Coast communities wrote the RESTORE Act to keep the BP fine money in the Gulf, and Congress passed it.

Gulf Coast residents get some health care although the state keeps them from full benefits of the Affordable Care Act.  Unexplained illness with problems of respiration, rashes, and nausea became prevalent after the oil spill, but BP refused to permit any health-related grievances because of the oil spill. In the settlement of a civil case with commercial fishers and oil workers, however, $105 million of the $7.8 billion went to building health centers in every Gulf state. Beyond giving health care, these centers provide epidemiological training for doctors to better monitor for spill-related illnesses.  The new health centers are also in some of the states that turned down federal funding to expand Medicaid.

Gulf residents are now spreading their stories, primarily through documentaries, to an audience that won’t hear about them in the mainstream media. Future historians will have a view of what restoration looked like, who benefited, and who was excluded.

The first independent group to challenge BP’s spill rate estimates was  SkyTruth, a small nonprofit that uses remote sensing and digital mapping to track pollution. In using satellite imagery, SkyTruth determined that oil was gushing from the Macondo at five to 24 times more than BP stated. Monitoring BP’s spill led SkyTruth to discover more leaks, starting with an ongoing one off the Mississippi River delta where a Taylor Energy oil platform had been damaged in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan.

Another positive movement since the BP disaster is the formation of the Gulf Restoration Network. Founded by Jonathan Henderson, the organization uses volunteers and other assistance the North Carolina-based nonprofit SouthWings  to fly over areas of environmental concern. In his attempt to fly over the BP spill, the company tries to deny them permission, but persistence paid off. Henderson took up to 30 flights and many boat trips at that time, tracking the oil as it spread to marshes and bays. His observations led to more accurate information as BP and government officials released lowball figures to the media.

Samantha Joye, a marine scientist and professor at the University of Georgia, is to leading a research expedition to examine the seafloor near the BP 2010 explosion to determine why the chemicals there are not being degraded. The 24 scientists left on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel Atlantis March 30 and plan to return Thursday. They will use the human-operated deep submergence vessel Alvin for their deep-sea dives instead of automated or remotely operated vehicles. The research is sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the National Science Foundation. Antonia Juhasz, a leading voice on oil and energy and investigative journalist, joined the expedition and will write three articles about it.

Tomorrow Nels New Day will showcase the traditional Earth Day photographs by photographer extraordinaire Ann Hubard as well as two from my partner that show our amazing Oregon Coast beach. As you see them, think about ways that we can keep our country and our planet from the serious pollution that is taking over the world because of our careless treatment of the Earth.

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