BP and the Gulf One Year Later: It's Business As Usual

By Taffy Lee Williams

On January 11, 2011, President Obama's Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released its final report which highlights widespread oversight failures and deep-rooted regulator/industry complicity. The report tells us:

The immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry. Deepwater: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.

At a press conference announcing the release of the report, co-chair William Reilly said it was difficult to believe that the gulf oil spill was an isolated incident. "A key question I had at the outset is, do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry? Given that these contractors are major service providers to operators in all the world's oceans, that is hard to accept."

Reilly was on target. Just 17 months before the April 20, 2010 disaster, another blowout occurred, on BP's Central Azeri platform in the Caspian Sea. Like the DWH, the accident involved BP's "quick set" drilling cement, but in this case the explosion was averted and the lives of its 211 rig workers spared. Faithful to its well-known corporate mentality, BP kept the event secret despite its implications for major disaster and loss of life. How ironic that in light of the destructive potential Congress has no requirement that corporations report a rig accident or disaster or even make the information public. Yet even simple traffic accidents must be reported immediately! Five months before the DWH disaster, BP's Chief of Exploration, David Rainey, testified before Congress saying BP's methods were both "safe and protective of the environment." If Central Azeri had been discussed, might that have helped prevent the similar drilling-cement-related DWH disaster? Instead BP hid information even from its Big Oil partners.

This is about a system that condones silence, the withholding of life-and-death information. Even BP's oil company partners, including Chevron and Exxon, were kept in the dark. ...The US Embassy in Azerbaijan complained, "At least some of BP's [Caspian] partners are similarly upset with BP's performance in this episode, as they claim BP has sought to limit information flow about this event even to its [Caspian] partners." Greg Pallast. BP's Secret Deepwater Blowout. http://www.truth-out.org/node/1239

While government agencies should be tightening their regulatory grip, BP continues its pre-DWH practices. In fact, not one new drilling law has been passed since the ruinous gulf disaster occurred. Elected officials appear to cower in the face of real reform, while in fact BP, like the rest of Big Oil, continues to evade regulation by hiring contractors to perform critical roles on the rigs. Incredibly, contractors (i.e. Transocean) hired by operators (i.e. BP) are currently not monitored by any agency!

The government currently regulates only operators of offshore drilling rigs, such as BP, and in turn holds them responsible for any contractors they hire. Experts say that by delegating the supervision of contractors the government is essentially taking the word of rig operators that facilities are safe and comply with regulation. http://fcir.org/2011/04/29/chief-offshore-drilling-regulator-criticizes-lack-of-oversight-for-contractors/

The legacy of a dirty business and its friendly government-run-amuck oversight is the state of the stricken gulf today. Scientists have estimated that the total discharge was between 800,000 and 1,200,000 tons of oil and gas. In February, 2011, researchers from the University of Georgia led by Samantha Joye, one of the nation's foremost marine scientists, conducted five sea floor expeditions and collected 250 core samples covering an area of some 2600 miles. In their submersible, the team found a layer of dead animals and oil as much as 10 cm (about 4 inches) thick.

"The impact on the benthos was devastating. Filter-feeding organisms, invertebrate worms, corals, sea fans - all of those were substantially impacted - and by impacted, I mean essentially killed. Another critical point is that detrital feeders like sea cucumbers, brittle stars that wander around the bottom, I didn't see a living (sea cucumber) around on any of the wellhead dives. They're typically everywhere, and we saw none...." (S. Joye. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12520630)

Bottom dwellers help oxygenate sea floor sediments and stimulate microorganism activity, two essential processes at the bottom of the food chain which affect species throughout the water column and near the surface. Their removal bodes poorly for short-term recovery of the entire impacted ecosystem. Joye discussed her findings at a conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[Joye] also showed pictures of oil-choked bottom-dwelling creatures. They included dead crabs and brittle stars - starfish like critters that are normally bright orange and tightly wrapped around coral. These brittle stars were pale, loose and dead. She also saw tube worms so full of oil they suffocated. "This is Macondo oil on the bottom," Joye said as she showed slides. "This is dead organisms because of oil being deposited on their heads." Joye said her research shows that the burning of oil left soot on the sea floor, which still had petroleum products. And even more troublesome was the tremendous amount of methane from the BP well that mixed into the Gulf and was mostly ignored by other researchers. Joye and three colleagues last week published a study in Nature Geoscience that said the amount of gas injected into the Gulf was the equivalent of between 1.5 and 3 million barrels of oil. (http://gulfofmexicooilspillblog.com/2011/02/20/gulf-of-mexico-oil-spill-blog-samantha-joye-oil-choked-bottom-dwelling-creatures/)

Joye's team found that 40% of the total hydrocarbon discharge was in the form of CH4, methane. At 1,300 ft, they documented layers of the dissolved methane gas concentrations exceeding background levels by 75,000 times. Methane-eating microbes will deplete the waters of oxygen in affected layers, impacting small organisms like plankton and fish larvae. While being called an under-appreciated pollutant, methane can disrupt the balance of life and persist in the cold deep sea environment for many years. Methane and associated gases present another factor in determining long-term impacts from the spill.

While government agencies still appear to minimize the damage, scientists are proving them wrong. NOAA has claimed that "magic microbes" had digested nearly all of the oil, even as Joye and her colleagues claim that barely 10% of the oil had been digested. Amazingly, BP and the Obama-appointed spill claims czar, Ken Feinberg, are claiming most if not all of the gulf will be fully recovered by 2012. Yet the researchers note that killing off bottom dwelling organisms and filter-feeders will have long-term impacts on fisheries and the rest of the marine food chain. They claim that the Gulf spill's effects may not be seen for a decade.

"I think it's going to be 2012 before we begin to really see the fisheries implications and repercussions from this time." (S. Joye. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12520630)

The toll on marine life in the gulf continues to rise, including an alarming number of dead infant dolphins, most of them aborted or stillborn calves. In all, to date as many as 157 dolphins (US FWS Consolidated Wildlife Table) have washed up after the blowout occurred. Testing continues, proving at least eight had oil on their bodies that could be directly linked to the BP spill. Not surprisingly, many are suspicious of the official numbers. A study of 14 cetacean species published in the journal Conservation Letters states that death counts have been grossly underestimated. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that for every recovered carcass, there were actually 16 deaths.

The team's analysis suggests that only 2% of cetacean carcasses were ever historically recovered after their deaths in this region, meaning that the true death toll from the Deepwater Horizon disaster could be 50 times higher than the number of deaths currently estimated. (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-03-whale-dolphin-death-toll-deepwater.html)

NRDC Communications Associate Rocky Kistner has been writing on local conditions from near DWH's ground zero.

Many more dolphins are dying in the Gulf than are officially counted. [Research] suggests that so far this year, more than 6500 dolphins may have died, and for some species of mammals, the rate is 250 times higher. ...The media have reported that the BP oil disaster may have modest environmental impacts due to the low numbers of wildlife and mammal mortalities. That is far from the case. Rocky Kistner. http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/rkistner/number_of_dead_dolphins_in_gul.html

The dolphin's gestation period is 12 months, with birthing occurring in the spring. Many scientists believe the oil inhaled or ingested by the cetaceans in the early weeks of the spill (and beyond), during initial pregnancy could have had a delayed effect, leading to this year's unusually high stillborn and miscarriage rate which occurred just before the birthing season. Some researchers are complaining that NOAA's practice of returning weakened dolphins to deep water is undermining efforts to investigate the spike in dolphin deaths. Affirming an entrenched BP-directed culture of deception and secrecy, when NMFS contracted with wildlife biologists to collect tissue samples and specimens for study they were ordered to keep their findings confidential. There are concerns that while scientists scramble for answers, government agencies fear political ramifications.

The U.S. government is keeping a tight lid on the lab findings due to the ongoing civil and criminal investigation involving BP. "Because of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be released, presented or discussed outside the (unusual mortality event) investigative team without prior approval," NOAA stated in a February [2011] letter that was obtained by Reuters. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/08/dead-dolphins-gulf-oil-spill-bp_n_846524.html

Meanwhile, Alabama gulf shore residents say oil is still washing up on shore.

"The tarballs ranged in size up to about four inches in diameter. Patches of the material lay along an area about 40 feet from the water. ...It doesn't just stay there," [Ocean Beach Mayor Tony] Kennon said. "It washes back in the water and moves east and west.". (http://blog.al.com/live/2011/02/residents_say_oil_still_on_bea.html)

One year later, the cleanup workers are few, and in some places gone altogether. BP has even hired private security to prevent the public and press from entering oiled areas like the Elmer Island wildlife refuge and Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana, where oil persists on beaches once rich with both wildlife and sunbathers.

At the entrance to Grand Isle State Park, we're issued the same warning..., that the beach is closed to the press and everyone else because there are workers on it. That doesn't seem like that good of a reason to keep a reporter off a beach, and in any case it is a lie. Last August, when I walked out of sight of the park staffer at the entrance and onto the beach, two private guards escorted me away. This time, the beach is deserted of rent-a-cops and cleanup workers alike. It's covered in tarballs, little and sometimes not-so-little brown blemishes all over the sand. They're shiny and smell like gas when you break them open. Mother Jones. BP Still Doesn't Want You to See Its Tarballs. http://motherjones.com/rights-stuff/2011/03/BP-oil-tarballs-louisiana

Apparently a great deal of oil still out there, although there seems little effort being spent on removal.

Eugene Turner, an LSU wetlands scientist, has looked at marshes in Louisiana's Barataria basin, and found oil buried in the mud and sand. "You can't smell it. You can't see it. It's not this big black scum out there, but it's there," Turner said... Today, a crust of oil still lines miles of the outer fringe of marsh in the bay, a remote spot visited by the occasional fisherman and oil worker. http://www.beaumontenterprise.com/news/article/Scientists-Gulf-health-nearly-at-pre-spill-level-1340952.php#ixzz1JsToqNh6

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's official count of 8,065 impacted birds is certain to rise, according to Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in the Gulf of Mexico. Driscoll has assisted in counts that documented birds volunteers and workers actually saw. She believes thousands more died but were lost in the oily offshore waters, bayous and marshes of the gulf.

"Injury to animals is not just a death count," Driscoll says. "It's also something that could affect their fitness or longevity or reproductive ability for years to come." During the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, biologists initially counted about 30,000 affected birds, but that number later soared to 250,000 after calculations were made to include birds that were likely impacted but not seen, Driscoll says. "You can't always tell by sheer number of birds collected what effect on the population will be," she says. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/2011-04-01-oilbirds01_ST_N.htm

The Gulf of Mexico is home to five species of sea turtles designated "at risk" or endangered. 613 dead sea turtles have been recovered, (US FWS Consolidated Wildlife Table) but as with marine mammals and other species, the actual number of turtles succumbing to the hazards of the oil, including being caught in controlled burns, is unknown.

As for fish, NOAA Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab announced in April, 2011 that traces of oil are 100 to 1000 times below the level of concern for the more than 40 species tested. Despite claims the gulf's seafood is safe to eat, 1,000 square miles around the accident site are still closed to fishing. In "safe" areas, anglers complain that landings are down even as they present scientists with diseased reef fish, like red snapper and sheepshead from oiled areas.

The fish had dark lesions on their skin, some the size of a 50-cent piece. On some of them, the lesions had eaten a hole straight through to the muscle tissue. Many had fins that were rotting away and discolored or even striped skin. Inside, they had enlarged livers, gallbladders, and bile ducts.... http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/sick-fish-suggest-oil-spill-still-affecting-gulf/1164042

Jim Cowan, a Louisiana State University oceanographer, told reporters the fish have a bacterial and parasitical infection that is "no doubt associated with chronic exposure to a toxin" and a compromised immune system.

[Cowan] believes the toxin in question is oil, given where and when the fish were caught, their symptoms, and the similarity to other incidents involving oil spills.... The fish with lesions and other woes have been caught anywhere from 10 to 80 miles offshore between Pensacola and the mouth of the Mississippi River, an area hit hard by last year's oil spill, Cowan said. Ibid.

In addition, the gulf's microscopic planktonic foraminifera, a huge component of the seas' calcite-secreting organisms and a primary food source for fish, marine worms and crustaceans, are exhibiting shell deformities. A decrease in shell weight is the result of increased acidification; however, testing continues as scientists worry that these shell anomalies appear to be spill-related, and that diseased plankton will make their way through the food chain. Also at risk are top predators like sperm whales and sharks as they respond to the consumption of sickened fish. There's no question that gulf productivity has been acutely affected. While catch numbers have fallen, harvesters have largely abandoned oyster beds in affected areas. It took four years after the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska for the herring fishery to collapse as the fish succumbed to fungus and a virus, all due to an oil-related compromise to their immune systems. Many wonder whether the gulf fisheries will experience a similar fate.

The human toll is equally troubling. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that half of the gulf coast residents polled had health problems consistent with chemical and oil exposure: eye and skin irritations, headaches, coughing. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against BP, yet while the sick and jobless are suffering, barely $4 billion of BP's $20 billion victim's compensation fund has been doled out. Sadly, elected officials have failed to demand that the fines paid by BP will actually go to gulf restoration, and locals are screaming.

As if adding insult to injury, BP wrote off the $32.2 billion in clean-up costs, fines and the $20 billion victim's compensation fund, slashing its liability by one third and giving itself a $10 billion tax credit - at the expense of the US taxpayer! The industry and BP have begun lobbying for expanded offshore drilling, retaining the cap on oil spill liability and essentially keeping the nation addicted to oil. While professing a commitment to making things right, a compliant government sits in its pocket, failing to implement any of the meaningful recommendations proposed by the president's oil spill commission.

It is likely that grim reminders of this catastrophe will surface in the form of oil that is regurgitated out of the muck or from the sea floor regularly for years to come. BP is a corporation, but corporations are run by human beings. When basic morality is routinely violated by individuals shielded by immunity from prosecution, perhaps the only hope left is that the offending industry will someday be abolished. Green energy must replace fossil fuel consumption. BP's DWH tragedy has taught a very painful lesson: that neither governments, the environment nor individuals will be a deterrent amidst the blinding pursuit of profit, and that today, it's still "business as usual".

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