Saturday, July 31, 2010

Gulf Oil Update: Day 103

Time Teams With BP and Government in Concerted Effort to Disperse Concerns About Gulf Pollution

By: Jim White
Friday July 30, 2010 7:57 am

Yesterday, Time magazine published a disgusting screed telling us all to calm down about the hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil BP has released into the Gulf of Mexico and then even sent the author to push his drivel on Hardball. In starting the corporate media’s push-back against the level of damage arising from BP’s irresponsibility, Time has joined a team that previously consisted of BP, Thad Allen, EPA and NOAA.

Note that immediately after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP started spraying massive quantities of the toxic dispersant Corexit. EPA made a half-hearted attempt to get BP to change its choice of dispersant to a less toxic one and/or to dramatically decrease the amount being released, but BP’s response was to game the terms of the EPA order and change absolutely nothing. EPA simply accepted BP’s decision and said nothing further about dispersants. On Countdown this week, Hugh Kaufman of EPA made the revelation that a political decision was made within the government to allow BP to take the lead on the use of dispersants, despite concerns on the part of EPA toxicologists.

The use of dispersants led to huge underwater plumes of small oil droplets. NOAA then jumped into the act to suppress as long as possible any admission that these plumes might be connected to the leak and the use of dispersants. Just last week, we finally got confirmation from the University of South Florida that the oil in the underwater plumes is indeed from the BP leak. Ironically, in the TV news piece out of Tampa (where USF is located) announcing the confirmation of the source of the oil plumes, that news is tacked briefly onto the beginning of an interview with Senator George LeMieux where LeMieux drones on about the need to continue drilling in the Gulf:

Also last week, a third of the area that had been closed to fishing was re-opened. Yesterday, some portions of Louisiana waters also were re-opened. These re-openings, while welcome news to the fishermen who have been idled by BP’s spill, come after extensive testing of the waters and the fish in those waters. However, the lingering question remains whether the tests that were carried out were properly designed. The problem is that crude oil has over 40,000 different chemicals in it. Let’s hope that the tests that were carried out chose wisely from among that huge number of compounds, because it is impossible to detect something for which no test is run.

Note also how Thad Allen has allowed BP to game the appearance of the leaks on the cap that is now blocking most of the flow from the well and from the "seeps" in the well area. Click on one of the pages showing the multiple feeds from the ROV’s in the well area, and you will see that BP is no longer allowing any feeds that convey information to be broadcast. We no longer get a view of the base of the blowout preventer where it rises from the floor of the Gulf, so we don’t know whether gas or oil is escaping around the outside of the well casing. We also aren’t seeing feeds from any of the seeps surrounding the well, so we don’t know if the flow from them is changing over time. Thad Allen is standing by idly and missing a chance at the collection of vital data while BP is hiding what they don’t want us to see.

One more shortcoming by Thad Allen is his refusal to force BP and the government to provide a more accurate flow rate on the leak when it was flowing. By allowing BP to continue to lowball the estimate, the fines BP eventually will pay will be lower, possibly by billions of dollars.

Heckuva job, Thaddie.


Massive Amounts of Underwater Oil Droplets Which Organisms Eat Does Not Equal Victory in the Gulf

By: David Dayen
Friday July 30, 2010 11:08 am

Michael Grunwald took a run at carrying forward this idea that the BP oil disaster is actually, you know, not so bad, a perspective contrasted by his own colleague at Time, Bryan Walsh:

I think it’s far too early to declare the oil spill a bust. It’s true that the coastlines don’t seem to have experienced the damage they might have—though as Mother Jones’s Mac McClelland points out, there’s definitely still oil in the waters and the beaches. (One of the challenges of covering this spill has been geography—as Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has said, it’s like fighting hundreds or thousands of smaller spills, each of which can hit hundreds of miles of coastlines. It’s the fog of environmental war—just because one island hasn’t been hit by oil doesn’t mean another might not be, and vice versa.) [...]

But look beyond the coastline. The truth is we know very little about what the release of tens of millions of gallons of oil underwater will do to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf. Add in the application of some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have never been used—and were never meant to be used—in such vast quantities. We know that there are oil plumes under the water—but we don’t know what they might be doing to marine life. And there are great fears that the Gulf’s rich fisheries might take years to recover. The spill hit during the nursery season, and might have damaged oysters, shrimp and other species when they were young and vulnerable. 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, fisheries in Prince William Sound haven’t fully recovered, and nearly every fisherman you meet on the Gulf coast worries the same thing will happen to the waters they once plied.

Indeed, the real problem now might be that the oil, along with dispersants, have absorbed into the marine life. The whole PR strategy for BP has been to keep the oil off the shore, so people like Michael Grunwald would bail them out with articles about how the disaster isn’t all that bad. But just because we can’t see the insides of the organisms in the food chain, that doesn’t mean their intake of oil and other chemicals isn’t devastating for the ecosystem:

Scientists have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them “in almost all” of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Toxic droplets that can affect the ocean life in the Gulf for generations – that’s not my idea of a dodged bullet. So the idea that BP can “scale back” their operations now is outrageous. They can scale back the dumping of toxic chemicals into the Gulf, to be sure, but it’s way too early to take the cleanup crews out of the water. The situation is still bleak.


Where things stand
The Gulf Oil Blog
By Samantha Joye, University of Georgia, Professor of Marine Sciences
| Published: June 20, 2010 9:54pm

The gulfblog is back. Sorry it took me so long to do this update. The past couple of weeks have been the busiest and most demanding of my career. Everyone in the lab has been working feverishly to complete the analyses of samples collected on the Pelican and Walton Smith cruises. Those data sets are almost complete and I am now working to complete two manuscripts that I hope will be submitted by the end of June.

Below I answer some of the questions that came in to the blog over the past two weeks. At the end, I talk about what our next research steps will be.

Questions posed to the Gulfblog

(1) Could you briefly define both, or distinguish between, DOM and CDOM?

Colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) is a fraction of dissolved organic matter (DOM) that is “optically active” or “optically measurable”. Put simply, CDOM absorbs light. Oil is a type of CDOM. The light CDOM absorbs ranges from blue to ultraviolet so CDOM makes water appear greenish to yellow-green to brown (the color changes with increasing CDOM concentration).

(2) If you could gather dispersant concentration data from multiple water samples in the gulf, what question(s) would you try to answer with that information.

I can easily envision several ways to use dispersant concentration data. First, it would be useful to know how widespread – and at what concentration – the dispersants are present. Some forms of COREXIT contain dangerous components (e.g. 2-Butoxyethanol) and COREXIT is more toxic to some organisms than crude oil. COREXIT can be long-lived in the environment so we need to know the concentrations present around the Gulf – not just in the areas where it was applied; it will move around with the ocean currents.

I have added the material safety data sheets (MSDS) for COREXIT 9500 and 9527 to the resources page of the blog. Read these for yourself to learn more about these products.

Other questions—how do these dispersants impact microbial populations and microbial activity; are dispersants bioaccumulated, in other words, are they passed up to higher trophic levels?; are the dispersants toxic to key Gulf fishery species (shrimp, blue crap, tuna) and if so are some phases (larval, juvenile or adult) more sensitive than others. MORE...