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Monday, April 9, 2012

How BP “Fixed” The
Biggest Oil Spill Ever

Satellite Photo of Gulf Coast - Courtesy of NASA  April 29 2010

Those of us that still have a memory remember that just two years ago, we had the biggest oil spill in the history of the world (20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill in 1989, which had been the largest). As you recall, BP (British Petroleum) was operating a floating oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, drilling a hole roughly a mile below the surface, and extending to the oil layer, three and a half miles below the sea floor. This is called Offshore Deep Water Drilling, and after the oil rig suffered a blowout explosion, burned and sank (April 20, 2010), and close to 5 million barrels, roughly 200 million gallons, of light sweet crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico over a three month period (the well was capped after many unsuccessful attempts on July 15, 2010), President Obama and his administration enforced a six month moratorium against this type of dangerous deep water drilling, and laws were going to change, but of course, they didn’t. Now with the price of gasoline at the pump over $4.00 a gallon, we doubt that any environmental concerns about Offshore Deep Water Drilling will be operable any time soon.

Despite this 200 million gallon oil spill, (and the subsequent spraying and deep water pouring of 2 million gallons of dangerous chemical dispersants), according to BP’s public relations (PR) campaign (where they’ve spent well over 100 million dollars on television ads alone), it’s over, it’s all been dealt with, and they’re sorry that it happened, but it’s all been fixed, everything’s fine, all the seafood’s healthy, the sun is out, and it’s a beautiful day. With BP’s website and social networking sites, with their promoting tourism and seafood, they paint a beautiful picture, if that’s what you want to believe, but unfortunately, it’s not the true picture.

The question is, what happened to all that oil?  Where is it?  Those of us who know anything about science and the laws of physics know that that volume of oil can’t just disappear. Perhaps you don’t see it, but it had to go somewhere.

In researching this, I came upon a lot of information that suggests that much of the volume of oil has diminished through human intervention and natural processes, and will continue to diminish over time. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has a report on this subject, and the Congressional Research Service offers a pdf presentation concerning the “Fate of the Oil”. According to this information, 17% was recovered, 5% was burned, 3% was skimmed, 16% was chemically dispersed (we’ll discuss the dangers presented by the dispersants used), 13% was naturally dispersed, (some of the hydrocarbons in the oil will biodegrade by bacteria, once dispersed), and 24% was simply evaporated or dissolved (the dangerous carcinogenic VOC’s –volatile organic compounds- will evaporate first). This pie in the sky calculation only leaves us with 22% of the oil left over.  Even the government, in August 2011, estimated that 50% still remained, and we’ve seen estimates by more ecologically minded scientists that at least 75% of the oil still remains.

They tell us that light sweet crude oil is lighter than sea water, which would indicate that it should float to the surface, but not much of it is still appears to be floating. As evidenced by the damage of the coral reefs, there seems to be quite a bit on the ocean floor. Perhaps the oil has combined with sand and particles and dead organisms and sediment to make it heavier and sink. Some of it has formed tar balls, which are still washing up on shore and can be transported great distances, and some of these tar balls have been found to be full of dangerous bacteria. There is also anecdotal evidence of oil plumes floating at varying depths.

The Gulf of Mexico is full of currents, and the Loop Current connects around Florida with the Gulf Stream up the East Coast through the Atlantic towards Europe. Though there were initially fears that some of the oil might take this path, we have been told otherwise. But all of the world’s oceans are connected, and some (perhaps just the dispersed and the dissolved oil) may have already left the Gulf.

Besides being a sticky, gooey mess, crude oil is toxic, (and “weathered” oil is still toxic) and can cause sickness or death if ingested. It can also cause liver damage or blindness, not to mention, impair reproduction. Oil is comprised of hundreds of hydrocarbon chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) restricts human contact with even a trace of petrochemicals, and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) doesn’t allow even a trace in the soil. And here we’re talking about massive amounts.

“Crude oil is a complex mixture of chemicals that have varying abilities to be absorbed into the body through the skin, lungs, and during digestion of food and water. Most components of crude oil enter the bloodstream rapidly when they are inhaled or swallowed. 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.  Damaging or altering these systems causes a wide range of diseases and conditions. In addition, interference with normal growth and development through endocrine disruption and direct damage to fetal tissue is caused by many crude oil ingredients (CDC, 1999). DNA damage can cause cancer and multi-generational birth defects”, per an article on health hazards from the spill

On top of the health hazards from the oil, add on those from the 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants used by BP to disperse the oil slicks, so that the oil might cause less visible and direct damage to the coastline and to the wildlife, and so that the oil might more easily biodegrade by bacteria. The only problem is that this cocktail of chemicals in the dispersant (Corexit) is also toxic and carcinogenic. (Corexit is one of the more toxic dispersants, is illegal to use in the North Sea, and was recommended against by the EPA, but BP prevailed citing its availability.) It says that it’s toxic right on the labels on the containers, and yet, it was allowed to be sprayed from planes in massive doses (a rain and not a mist), and for the first time in history, it was injected right into the ocean into the mile deep gushing stream of oil.

Here’s some info on Corexit. "Of the 57 ingredients: 5 chemicals are associated with cancer; 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes to burns; 33 are linked to eye irritation; 11 are or are suspected of being potential respiratory toxins or irritants; 10 are suspected kidney toxins; 8 are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms; and 5 are suspected to have a moderate acute toxicity to fish." There have been numerous complaints from relief workers and residents who suffered respiratory problems and skin damage from these chemical dispersants.

And scientists have mentioned the combination of the dispersants and the oil is forming new compounds that are dangerous to our health and to the health of animals.

BP tells us in one of their slickly produced television ads, "I'm glad to report that all beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy!" BP representative Iris Cross says in one TV spot to an upbeat soundtrack. "And the economy is showing progress, with many areas on the Gulf Coast having their best tourism season in years." Check out this report from MSNBC, which also quotes locals calling these ads “lies”, “propaganda”, and “indoctrination”. They also quote shrimpers and fishermen calling their catch “dismal”. We also saw a recent report that the oyster beds have not recovered.

But BP continues to tell us a different story, that everything’s ok, that it’s fixed. Well, this is how they fixed it. They fixed it with money. Besides the costs of cosmetically cleaning up the oil spill, they paid off the locals to the tune of 6.5 billion dollars to about 200,000 individuals and businesses, and $7.8 billion more will be paid to locals based on a recent settlement. BP spent 100’s of millions of dollars on the best crafted, most well coordinated PR campaign, complete with national TV advertising, social networking, and website, (including $179 million for tourism promotion and $82 million for seafood testing and marketing, per Food Safety News). They have donated to food banks, which they tout in one of their ads. They also paid up to $10,000/day to web browser companies to make BP the first website listed during searches of various key words. (They are also spending 500 million on scientific research, but requiring the scientists sign 3 year confidentiality agreements puts their research in doubt.)

And this masterful PR campaign, including the use of credible low level BP employees and local residents as actors, seems to have worked. Although I have no access to scientific polls, I would say that most people in this country believe the hype that the damage from the oil spill has been rectified, that everything’s ok. The locals know otherwise, but the billions of dollars in payoffs might shut them up a bit.

When we first heard about this massive oil spill and the next to impossible efforts to cap it (there were fears that it might never be capped), our first concern was for the marine animals and the literal genocide that was taking place. It is well known that crude oil will coat the feathers of birds, will clog the gills of fish and shellfish, will kill endangered sea turtles and marine mammals like dolphins and whales, as well as kill the coral reefs and other aquatic ecosystems. We have recent evidence of all of this taking place. And we’re talking massive numbers. The reports of marine birds, sea turtles and mammals killed are based on actual accounts, and are only a small fraction of the real numbers. Despite the pictures of relief workers cleaning oil off the feathers of birds, most of these birds will still eventually die as a result of their exposure. (Animals are still dying from exposure to oil on the Valdez, Alaska coastline 23 years after that spill.)

We were and still are mourning for the millions of sea creatures that were tortured and killed, and are still dying every day as a result of the Gulf spill. And the after effects, the cancers, the mutations, the developmental problems that these sea and wetlands creatures will face in the future remain to be seen, (and that goes for humans, as well).

Now that the price of gasoline is over $4.00/gallon, everyone is looking to expand oil exploration and development, to hell with the costs to the environment. Not realizing that such projects are years and years from fruition, they want to throw all the money into that, back off the regulations, and get more oil. Nobody ever talks about alternate fuels. All they care about is how they’re going to get the gas that much faster and that much cheaper.

This is why the Gulf oil disaster happened in the first place. The operators were rushing to develop a new source of oil, so that they could sell it to us at whatever ridiculous price they could get. Even though there were some reports from conscientious oil rig workers that problems were developing, the supervisors ignored these reports, rather than let them delay production. That’s why this disaster happened in the first place, and that’s why it’s going to happen again.

You may want to check out the video below from ABC’s Good Morning America with Sam Champion and Philippe Cousteau, Jr., the late Jacques Cousteau’s nephew, taking a dive in protective suits in the polluted waters of the Gulf in 2010, during the spill. Please feel free to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. We look forward to hearing from you. 

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