I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

September 7, 2010

Aftermath of the Gulf oil spill

More from Yale Environment 360, but these have to do with the Gulf oil spill.

The Legacy of the Gulf Spill: What to Expect for the Future?

by John McQuaid

The Gulf of Mexico’s capacity to recover from previous environmental assaults — especially the 1979 Ixtoc explosion — provides encouragement about the prospects for its post-Deepwater future. But scientists remain worried about the BP spill’s long-term effects on the health of the Gulf and its sea life.

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Accident Waiting to Happen (May 10, 2010)

by John McQuaid

The oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico has shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm.

McQuaid notes:

“The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a classic “low probability, high impact event” — the kind we’ve seen more than our share of recently, including space shuttle disasters, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. And if there’s a single lesson from those disparate catastrophes, it’s that pre-disaster assumptions tend to be dramatically off-base, and the worst-case scenarios downplayed or ignored. The Gulf spill is no exception.

McQuaid addresses the issue of risk in

Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University and an expert on industrial accidents, wrote a book called Failure to Learn about a massive explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City in 2005 that killed 15 people. He says that disaster has several possible insights for the oil spill: one was that BP and other corporations sometimes marginalize their health, safety, and environmental departments. “The crucial voice for safety in Texas City was shielded from the site manager, and the very senior agency people in the BP corporate head office in London had no role in ensuring safety at the site level,” he said. “The organizational structures disempowered the voices for safety and I think you’ve got the same thing here” in the Gulf spill.

But the more profound problem is a failure to put risks in perspective. BP and other companies tend to measure safety and environmental compliance on a day-to-day, checklist basis, to the point of basing executive bonuses on those metrics. But even if worker accident rates fall to zero, that may reveal nothing about the risk of a major disaster. “These things we are talking about are risks that won’t show up this year, next year — it may be 10 years down the road before you see one of these big blowouts or refinery accidents,” Hopkins said. “This same thing happened in the global financial crisis. Bankers were paid big bonuses for risks taken this year or next year, but the real risks came home to roost years later.”

That assumption — that catastrophic risks were so unlikely they were unworthy of serious attention — appears to have driven a lot of the government decision-making on drilling as well. The Minerals Management Service, a division of the Interior Department, oversees drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Since the 1980s, the MMS has routinely granted  a blanket exemption from doing a comprehensive environmental impact statement to individual drilling operations, according to Holly Doremus, a professor of environmental law at Berkeley. The Washington Post and the Associated Press reported last week that BP’s Deepwater Horizon lease received that exemption (called a “categorical exclusion”) last year. It was based on several analyses that downplayed the risks of a major oil spill. One, published in 2007, estimated the “most likely size” of an offshore spill at 4,600 barrels. NOAA’s current, conservative estimate of the Gulf spill put its total at more than 80,000 barrels, increasing at a rate of 5,000 per day.

Of course, “Energy companies have aggressively lobbied to avoid formally analyzing worst-case scenarios since the Carter administration first required them in instances where there was uncertainty about the risk of disaster….”

So, will we have learned?

Interviews

A Louisiana Bird Expert Assesses Damage from the Spill

The images of pelicans and other Gulf of Mexico seabirds drenched in oil have stirred sadness and outrage around the world. But, says conservationist Melanie Driscoll, the unseen effects are probably far greater, with some birds perishing out of sight, far from shore, and others facing spill-related declines in the fish on which they depend.

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August 24, 2010

First report released on global economic burden of cancer

First Global Economic Cost of Cancer Report released by American Cancer Society and LIVESTRONG®

Press release

Also reported on the Global Fight Against Cancer Blog, “American Cancer Society and LIVESTRONG® Release First-of-its-kind Study ‘Global Economic Cost of Cancer’

Link to report summary

This was also reported on by the Associated Press, “Report: Cancer is the world’s costliest disease.”  Costs, not including direct medical costs, are estimated at $895 billion.

LIVESTRONG® also sponsored a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which presents the results of research and analysis on the health
and economic burden of cancer, global expenditures for cancer control and the funding gap relating to achieving a global expenditure standard for treatment and care.  (It’s not clear what the relationship between these two reports is.)

The Economist/LIVESTRONG® report on the global burden of cancer

LIVESTRONG® Summary

Full report: “Breakaway: The global burden of cancer—challenges and opportunities” (PDF, 73 pp.)

The primary collaborators on this project were Nancy Beaulieu and David E. Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health, Lakshmi Reddy Bloom of Data For Decisions LLC and Richard M. Stein of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The American Cancer Society reports that in 2009 the National Institutes of Health estimated the total cost of cancer as $228.1 billion.  That included direct medical costs and indirect costs due to loss of productivity due to illness and premature death.

The recent global report did not include direct medical costs.

Other resources

World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

August 23, 2010

National Academies’ meeting on what caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill

A committee of the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council is conducting a technical analysis of the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It held its first public meeting Aug. 12 and 13 to gather information on government oversight and regulation of deep water oil exploration and drilling.

That was the third meeting of the committee.  The fourth is being held today and tomorrow.  See the National Academies’ Project System for more info.

Background documents from the Aug. 12-13 meeting can be found at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/BlowoutPrevention/documents/index.htm.  They include PowerPoint presentations from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, American Petroleum Institute, Coast Guard, Marshall Islands, and American Bureau of Shipping.  Right now they’re available only in PowerPoint so you will need that or one that can open PPT docs.

Under Related links you will find a link to a 1990 National Research Council report on Alternatives for Inspecting Outer Continental Shelf Operations.

In addition, the summary of the Institute of Medicine’s June workshop on Assessing the Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on Human Health is now available at http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2010/Assessing-the-Effects-of-the-Gulf-of-Mexico-Oil-Spill-on-Human-Health.aspx.

Sept. 15 meeting on Breast Cancer and the Environment, Washington, DC

The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Breast Cancer and the Environment will hold its third meeting in Washington, DC, on September 15-16, 2010.  The afternoon session on the 15th will be open to the public.

The agenda for the public session includes invited presentations and a brief opportunity for public comment.  One of the invited presenters is the executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, which conducts and sponsors research on the links between the environment and breast cancer, other environmental health issues, and green chemistry.  Silent Spring maintains science review databases and other tools on the environment and breast cancer.

Its publications include the Guide to Breast Cancer Cohort Studies and

Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer

Zota, A.R., A. Aschengrau, R.A. Rudel, and J.G. Brody. 2010. Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: a case-control study. Environmental Health, 9:40. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-9-40
Abstract, Article, Press Release

Attending the IOM meeting

If you’re interested in attending the IOM meeting or commenting you should probably contact the Institute beforehand. (You can register for the meeting online.)

They’ve listed the contact information on the meeting page, but below is the information as of today:

Activity Contact Information

For More Information Contact

Ashley McWilliams

Phone: 202-334-1910
Fax: 202-334-2862
E-mail: BreastCancerandtheEnvironment@nas.edu

Mailing Address

Keck Center
W726
500 Fifth St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
This Institute project is sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.  Links to the two previous meetings and background material can be found on the project page. (Susan G. Komen for the Cure® also sponsors the Silent Spring Institute’s science review databases.)

August 22, 2010

Resources on how your privacy online is threatened

A recent Wall Street Journal series, “Your Privacy Online: What They Know”, described the efforts by internet marketers and tracking firms to compile information on just about everyone.

Other resources

Center for Democracy and Technology

CDT’s Guide to Online Privacy

Issues:

CDT’s Deeplinks Blog covers issues ranging from Anonymity to Locational privacy to Online behavioral tracking.

Dotrights.org

Describes what information about you is gathered online and how it is used. Sponsored by ACLU of Northern California.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center – http://epic.org/

Covers a wide range of privacy issues.

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