Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill Update: Day 157

Degraded Oil From BP Spill Coats Gulf Seafloor

By Brett Israel
posted: 21 September 2010

NEW YORK - Now that BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well has been sealed, the long, hard work of assessing the damage begins even as the oil is dispersing throughout the Gulf.

A research team from Columbia University in New York returned this past weekend (Sept. 17 to 19) from a tour of duty in the Gulf of Mexico with new data to attempt to measure the location and magnitude of subsurface oil plumes, and their effects on the marine ecosystem, which have recently been the focus of much debate.

They found oil on the seafloor, evidence that it may be in the food chain, and signs that it may be hidden in large marine mammals. In spots, the "oily snow" — degraded oil and other organic material that clings to it — was up to 6 inches (15 centimeters) deep on the seafloor, said Columbia oceanographer Ajit Subramaniam.

"The idea that the oil is degraded and therefore doesn't matter is something we have to think about differently," Subramaniam said at a talk here today. "This is one of the first findings that showed degraded oil material collected on the seafloor."

When this gunk starts to pile up on the sea floor, the entire food web is at risk, the researchers said. The oceanographers also discovered discolored zooplankton, which eat the food chain's primary producers ­– phytoplankton – near oily clouds, Subramaniam said. The full analysis of the effects to the food chain, however, will take several months.

While the deep-ocean effects are largely out of sight, the Gulf's large mammals — including whales and dolphins — were also hit hard by the oil spill. Yet the true impact may take years to uncover.
"We really don't know much about the effect of the oil spill in cetaceans, because the effects are likely to be long term," said marine mammal expert Martin Mendez of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Scientists have found 89 dead dolphins and one dead whale in the Gulf since the oil began pouring into the Gulf, Mendez said.

Of the dolphins, one-quarter will undergo necropsies so scientists can say for sure whether or not they died because of the oil. The whale was found floating far from the wellhead and was degraded to the point that a necropsy could not be performed. Something has clearly gone wrong however, because 89 dead dolphins is about 10 times the amount typically found in the Gulf over a similar time period.

The Columbia oceanographers' data will help researchers track the physical and ecological impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When BP's oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 22, the ruptured oil well began emptying an estimated 136.4 tons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

After a relief well was drilled to intercept the well, the gusher was finally sealed on Sept. 18 with a blast of cement to cap the busted pipe.

An estimated 4.4 million barrels of oil (205 million gallons) have leaked into the Gulf since the spill began, but little oil has squirted out since July 15, when a cap was installed and sealed on the wellhead.

Top scientists meet in Tampa to study health impacts of Gulf oil spill

By Kris Hundley, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersberg Times
In Print: Thursday, September 23, 2010

TAMPA — The news cameras may have moved away from the Gulf of Mexico with the sealing of the Deepwater Horizon well, but some of the nation's top medical researchers are just starting to focus on the overall health impact the massive spill has had on cleanup workers. (Editor's NOTE:  Unfortunaetly, it is sad to have to say that we need to see who the researcher's are and whether or not they are all federal government and or BP financed in order to ascertain the degree to which their ultimate conclusions might be tainted).

And they're moving fast.

"We'll maximize community support by minimizing delays," said Dale Sandler, lead researcher on the study and chief of the epidemiology branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "It shows we're serious."

About 50 leading scientists gathered in Tampa Wednesday to finalize the design of the ambitious Gulf Worker Study, which expects to start enrolling subjects next month.

Researchers hope to track 27,000 workers who had exposure to oil and chemical dispersants during the cleanup process. Another group of workers, who were trained but never worked in the field, will be used as a control group.

Scientists will be looking at the potential health consequences of workers' exposure to the chemicals, from immediate concerns like skin rashes to long-term effects like cancer. They will also be working with collaborators to evaluate workers' mental health. A separate study will address the oil spill's impact on children and pregnant women in the gulf area.

The Gulf Worker Study, which is expected to run for at least five years, has received $10 million from the National Institutes of Health and another $10 million from BP PLC, the well's owner.
"Frankly most of the funds will be coming from the government, but we hold out hope" that BP will give more, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said Wednesday.

Most studies on oil spill impacts have been short-term and focused on the effects on animals, rather than humans. Though there have been 38 supertanker oil spills over the last 50 years, only eight have been followed for human health effects. Among the most studied were the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and a spill off Spain in 2002. The Deepwater Horizon spill, which began with an explosion of an oil rig on April 20 and was capped last week, is larger than any other incident.

Collins told fellow scientists in Tampa that the Gulf Worker Study was different from most research projects because of the degree of public skepticism, the intense public concern over the issue and the potential for lawsuits. He said workers will be guaranteed that personal medical information gathered for the study cannot be used against them in any litigation.

Urging his colleagues to share data freely in order to understand the impact of oil spills, Collins said, "The health effects remain undefined and need to be defined."
Kris Hundley can be reached at or (727)892-2996

Did BP Oil Spill Clean-up End Too Soon?
By Gordon Gibb
Lawsuits and Legal News HERE...
September 22, 2010

Pensacola, FL: The news in recent days about the successful and permanent closure of the well responsible for the BP oil spill comes as welcome news. If government observers are to be believed, the majority of the millions of gallons of BP crude oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico have already dispersed. However, some oil spill clean-up workers who found themselves suddenly laid off after the crisis passed believe there is still work to do.

The 9/19/10 edition of the Pensacola News-Journal reveals that several hundred clean-up workers recruited through various employment agencies to help with the oil spill clean-up worked for 100 days armed with shovels, trash bags and buckets. Then, on August 25, they were abruptly sent home.

"They told us we were being completely laid off," lamented Mary Greiwisch, a temp employee now suddenly without a job. What's more, while some individuals recruited for Gulf of Mexico oil spill clean-up detail were hired through reputable employment firms, there are allegations that some less savory operators sprung out of the woodwork when they saw the chance to make a fast buck.

Did the clean-up end too soon?

Mark Robinson, who has a degree in biology and works full-time, took a clean-up job because he thought it to be a good way to help the area recover from the oil spill. Robinson told the News-Journal that he couldn't escape the feeling that there was more to be done.

"Down four to six inches you could find some big chunks. Platter-sized chunks," he said. "You weren't supposed to reach into the sand because there was supposedly this risk of contaminated needles. To me, that people are out there going over and over the beach, and they're not getting it, is a tremendous waste of resources."

Were opportunists a factor?

There were some reputable employment agencies involved in recruiting for the oil spill disaster. Robinson worked for two of the better ones, Manpower and Adecco. Houston-based Plant Performance Services, known popularly as P2S, was hired directly by British Petroleum to run the Qualified Community Responder Program. Those recruited by P2S report a positive experience, unhappy as they are that the clean-up effort has been scaled back.

However, other workers hired through other agencies do not share such a positive view. Charlie Burris, a 44-year-old Floridian from Pensacola, described his experience as "a nightmare."

Burris told the News-Journal, "There were some really creative people to come out of the woodwork during this oil spill. Those guys found they could find employees, pass that information onto contractors and skim a dollar or two an hour off that person's salary."

The News-Journal reported that dozens of staffing agencies appeared in the aftermath of the worst off-shore oil spill in US history, setting up recruiting tents in parking lots and peppering Craigslist with promising jobs. Burris himself reported applying to ten different staffing agencies, many of which quickly disappeared almost as fast as they arrived.

"They sucked up info, and no one ever heard from them again. They either didn't get a contract, or they just ran off with our info and sold it to other companies," Burris said.

Rates of pay varied dramatically. Workers recruited by P2S were paid $18 to $20 per hour at the peak of the clean-up. Supervisors were paid $32 an hour. Workers were toiling up to 80 hours per week.

However, the P2S situation was not mirrored in workers represented by some other agencies, who were risking potential health problems for about $10 an hour and perhaps one or two shifts per week.

And if the clean-up was scaled back, or abandoned too soon, what impact will that have on residents and businesses affected by the BP oil spill? Tavarez Richardson, who participated in a P2S clean-up crew for the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, told the News-Journal that when he was laid off, it felt as if there was still work to be done.


Lawsuit asks if science was manipulated in oil spill estimates

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Newspapers
September 17, 2010

WASHINGTON — An environmental whistleblower group charges in a lawsuit that the Obama administration is withholding documents that would reveal why it issued an estimate on the gravity of the Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout that later was proved to be far too low.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued Thursday in federal court, claiming that federal officials are withholding hundreds of pages of reports and communications between scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, who were tasked with making the estimates, and Marcia McNutt, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, who chaired the technical group and released a summary of its findings.

The controversy over the oil flow estimates is part of a broader question about whether political appointees at the top of the Obama administration have manipulated and publicized incorrect or incomplete scientific information in an attempt to tamp down anxiety and anger over the world's worst oil accident.
The failure to assess the damage from BP's spill also is seen as hampering the government's continued efforts to clean up the Gulf.

"This lawsuit will produce Exhibit A for the case that science is still being manipulated under the current administration," Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the environmental organization, said in a statement.
"Our concern is that the administration took, and is still taking, steps to falsely minimize public perception about the extent and severity of the BP spill, a concern that the administration could start to dispel by releasing these documents," Ruch said.

Ruch said that some of the missing information was thought to show that the USGS knew in May, when it released an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, that there was a completed estimate that was much higher.

In August, after the well had been capped, the government produced a new estimate as much as five times higher, based on better information from pressure readings and other analysis. It said that the oil flowed at a rate of 62,000 barrels of oil per day at first and later slowed to 53,000 barrels a day, with a margin of error of plus or minus 10 percent. Based on that finding, the official estimate is that 4.1 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf from April to July.

Questions also have been raised about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's report in August that said that 74 percent of the oil had been captured, dispersed, skimmed or burned, or had evaporated or dissolved. NOAA hasn't released scientific findings to back up that assessment.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's lawsuit doesn't target NOAA, however. The nonprofit environmental protection group acts on behalf of concerned government insiders.

The advocacy group sought the documents on estimates of the oil flow under the Freedom of Information Act. The USGS posted some of the requested materials on its website, but the group said in its lawsuit that it had sought hundreds more that the agency didn't release.

Those include communications between McNutt and her staff and members of the flow-rate technical team, including e-mails and minutes of conferences, and all reports by the team that contain estimates of the maximum oil leak rate.

The technical group was supposed to look at the worst-case scenario, and it isn't known whether it gave a higher estimate to the government's oil-spill response center, Ruch said.

USGS spokeswoman Anne-Betty Wade referred questions to the Department of Interior, whose spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claims that McNutt originally didn't reveal that the May figures were a minimum estimate. The agency updated the news release in June.

Early on, after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April, officials put the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. They raised that to 5,000 barrels based on overhead visual estimates and stuck to that figure for weeks, even after it became apparent that much of the oil was remaining below the surface and out of sight.
The oil spill data isn't the only issue that's worrying the group.

In March 2009, not long after he was sworn in, Obama issued an executive memorandum that said his administration would adopt policies to protect scientific integrity. He directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop those policies by July 9, 2009. The policies still haven't been issued.

"We pointed out the reason the Bush administration could manipulate science was because there were no rules against it, and there still aren't," Ruch said.

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