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Written by Miranda Huey   
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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Recent Oil Spills

The BP oil spill was a rare, catastrophic event unlike any other oil spill. For starters, it’s the largest oil spill in United States history.1 While most oil spills have been caused by collisions of ships carrying oil, the BP oil spill was caused by a large blowout. Such a large blowout, or a fire-starting explosion from oil drilling, hasn’t occurred in the past 40 years.2 The BP oil spill is also the first blowout ever to spill oil from a depth of 1 mile under the surface.3 The uniqueness and scale of the event are making people wonder two main questions: “Why did this happen?” and “What does it mean for the environment?”

It all started in an incident that has now been overshadowed by the oil spill: the April 10th explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.4 In a twist of irony, some BP executives had been onboard the rig that fateful day to celebrate how none of workers had been seriously injured for the past 7 years.5 However, underneath it all, many involved had taken serious risks with safety precautions against blowouts. Because of this series of mistakes and oversights, a methane bubble was able to rise all the way up to the top of the rig and expand suddenly in the form of an explosion.

The investigation into the event discovered multiple safety problems that were ignored: 1) Four weeks before the blowout, a crewman accidentally pushed a drill pipe into the blowout preventer. When a crewmember found broken pieces of a gasket from the blowout preventer float up to the surface, that person was told not to worry. However, without a proper seal, there was no way to test whether the well was building pressure.6 2) One of two control pods for the blowout preventer was known not to work some point earlier, yet it was not tested properly.7
3) In sealing the well, Halliburton used salt water instead of the standard heavy drilling fluid as plugs, and then installed experimental cement before the last plug was installed.8 The cement then failed and broke through the existing plugs, allowing a methane bubble to rise all the way to the rig and explode.9

The court continues to sort out who was responsible for each of the mistakes and what role each mistake played in the disaster.10 However, there seems to be a consensus that the government should have played a much stronger role in enforcing safety standards. The Louisiana head of the regulatory body, the Mineral Management Service (MMS), confessed that he hadn’t heard or checked if the blowout preventer was in good working order before he authorized drilling operations. In fact, studies done by MMS suggested that the blowout preventer that Deepwater Horizon was using, shear rams, had a relatively high chance of failure.11 In general, despite the rapidly growing number of drill sites, in 2009 MMS did less than 60% of the amount of inspections as it did in 2005.12 Despite all this,
much of the damage could have been prevented if there were a remote-control shut-off system for the blowout preventer. Such a system is required in Norway and Brazil, but not in the United States.13

A public soap opera then began. Eight days after the Deepwater Horizon incident, the Coast Guard announced that oil was flowing from the well five times faster than anticipated. A little over a week later, BP tried to use a containment dome to siphon off the leak, but the crude oil froze and clogged up the siphon. After another week, BP successfully caught some oil by sticking a tube down the riser to the well. Another week later, the “top kill” method of pumping the heavy drilling fluid to clog the well fails.14 Finally, nearly two months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP tests a new cap over the well pipe, seeming to succeed in stopping the leak, at least for the moment.15

One hundred eighty-five (185) million gallons later,16 the consequences are numerous and incalculable. Tar balls and patties have already washed ashore beaches.17 So far, 62 dead mammals, 2,283 dead birds, and 472 dead turtles have been reported in the BP impact area.18 Although it is not known whether these deaths were caused by oil, experts estimate these numbers to only be a fraction of the total deaths caused by the oil spill. Most will die at sea. Since it happened in the middle of spawning season, the next generation of fish could be severely diminished, dealing a sharp blow to fisheries and the marine ecosystem.19 Since this is the first deep-sea oil spill at such depth, no one can accurately predict what effect the oil plumes will have on the complex ecosystem of deepwater wildlife.20

Scientists are discovering little clues to the puzzle. Pryosomes, long and wiggly sea creatures that provide sustenance to endangered sea turtles, are sharply declining in numbers is the area immediately surrounding the spill source. This may be the cause of the increase in turtle deaths. Young crab shells also have been found to contain drops of oil.21 Birds, turtles, and fish often feast on young crabs, which could cause those creatures to get sick or to die as well. Many worry that this carrying and transference of oil between animals could distribute the toxic chemicals far beyond where oil would have reach alone in the water.22 If the oil gets up the food chain into human food supplies, it could cause cancer and brain damage.23

Other factors also bode ominously. Although they seem like our best possible ally in cleaning up the oil spill, a boom in oil-eating microbial organisms might be the biggest threat. In addition to eating oil, these rapidly multiplying microbes are using so much oxygen that water within the oil plumes has 30% less oxygen than it normally does. If the trend continues, animals in the plumes could suffocate.24 Another problem is that oil that stays on the surface as oil slicks can block off the sun from phytoplankton, which uses the sun as its main energy source. Since phytoplankton is essentially the base of the food chain for most marine animals, this could have disastrous effects on fisheries and wildlife. Fortunately, if the oil leak continues to be stopped, the slicks will probably fade away in a short period of time.25

The oil spill has had an impact on humans as well. Thousands of local fishermen, charter boat operators, hotel owners, and restauranteurs have found themselves out of work because of the oil spill.26 No seafood yet has been found tainted, but some say there will likely be more in the long run because of the effects have not yet developed.27 Although many remain angry at BP for doing this to them, often those same people have no choice but to work for the BP cleanup crews as an alternate means of making of living.28 Unfortunately, at least 75 spill cleanup workers have felt at least some symptoms from contact with toxic oil and have received treatment. If prolonged enough, the benzene and toluene found in oil can damage the brain, liver, and kidneys for a long period if time.29

Some argue that cleanup efforts are not actually helping the local wildlife recover, but rather, are making things worse. Now 44,300 people are on the Gulf coastline trying to clean up the oil. Scared of humans, birds often flee their nests, abandoning their chicks long enough for a fatal exposure to the burning sun.30 Some cleanup crews are simply accidentally stepping on wildlife.31 While beaches may seem bare, ghost crabs, mollusks and worms actually live on or in the sand without often being seen by the human eye.32

The most controversial cleanup tool of all is the oil dispersant Corexit. The 1.8 million gallons sprayed so far were intended to help oil mix with ocean water, preventing it from washing ashore33 and allowing it to more easily evaporate.34 Although the EPA has cleared the dispersant to be as safe as other dispersants, the sheer volume used has made many feel wary. The dispersant is classified as a high potential human hazard, in that it could cause central nervous system depression, unconsciousness, nausea, liver and kidney damage, and red blood cell hemolysis.35 Dispersants may also be even more toxic when mixed with the toxic chemicals in oil.36 The dispersants may also break up too much oil so that oil-eating microbes can digest the oil easier, leading to a sudden drop in dissolved oxygen levels.37 Interestingly, this same dispersant is banned from being used on oil spills in the U.K.38

The ultimate effects of the oil spill may continue to unravel for a long time. A similar spill off the coast of Mexico in 1979 led to decades of emerging tar balls and patties.39 Oil has seeped 2 feet deep into beaches, which can allow new oil to emerge on the beach as layers of sand wash away.40 Now in uncharted territory, the only thing scientists can agree on is their uncertainty. The least appreciated, yet most effective action that can be taken now, scientists say, is doing more studies.41 For at least a little while, regulators, courts, and oil companies will start focusing on how to prevent the next oil spill. As corporations push technology to the limit, another disaster could be a likely reality. Hopefully, next time, all the right people will plan for possible environmental disasters seriously.

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17http:// id/ 38283502/ ns/ disaster_in_the_gulf/
21http:// id/ 38262136/ ns/ us_news-environment/
25http:// id/ 38283502/ ns/ disaster_in_the_gulf/
27http:// id/ 38262136/ ns/ us_news-environment/
28http:// id/ 38299007/ ns/ us_news-environment/
30http:// news/ 2010/ 07/ 100706-science-environment





39http:// id/ 38283502/ ns/ disaster_in_the_gulf/
40http:// news/ 2010/ 07/ 100702-gulf-oil-spill-beaches-florida-nation/

Comments (1)
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1. 12-04-2011 00:09
Who's responsible for this mess? That has been a question of everyone. Execs at Transocean received 2010 safety bonuses regardless of being involved in the worst oil spill in United States history. Transocean, which investigators determined was complicit in the 2010 Gulf oil spill, said 2010 was the safest year in the company's history. After a firestorm of criticism, Transocean announced that the safety bonuses would be donated to the families of the 11 worked killed in the blast. Maybe these families could be able to use this money rather than taking out a [URL=]cash advance[/URL] for necessities.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 12 October 2012 )