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 6, 2010

A chemical pot pourri

This is a real hodge-podge of items.

Bisphenol A

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently announced the findings of a study that found BPA in a large percentage of paper receipts it had collected.  http://ewg.org/BPA_Found_In_Receipts

Chemicals in cosmetics

Another resource EWG maintains is the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/

Speaking of cosmetics, Annie Leonard (“The Story of Stuff”) has come out with “The Story of Cosmetics”, a look at chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.  The Story of Stuff blog looks at the cosmetics industry’s reaction.

Learning and developmental disabilities and other diseases and conditions

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) covers a wide range of topics, from learning and developmental disabilities to the CHE Toxicant and Disease Database, a searchable database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and approximately 180 human diseases or conditions, to the Metabolic Syndrome Discussion Group.

BP (not just oil spills)

The CHE site also includes news items like:

6 Aug Thousands sign on for $10 billion BP suit. The revelation that BP’s Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene for more than a month has ignited a furor in the port community that has suffered its share of deadly industrial accidents and toxic spills. Houston Chronicle.

Yes, before the BP oil spill there was the BP Texas City refinery explosion.  The U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted an investigation.  I believe that they are looking into whether these incidents show that BP fostered a culture of cutting corners.

Chemicals and depression?

Was reading Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, where he argued that depression is a true illness.  (At least that’s what I’m getting out of it.)  He makes a couple of points that struck me.  One, on p. 156 he states that there is a connection between diabetes and depression.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite a source for that.  And if true, it’s not clear which caused which.  That is, does having diabetes make it more likely that you would be depressed?  Or does depression in some way connected to the development of diabetes.  Or could diabetes and depression be caused by the same agent?  (Or some combination of the above.)

He also talks about how long-term stress can result in increased levels of corticotropin and that such stress can lead to depression and illness.  Of course, corticotropin is but one element of the neuroendocrine system.  And with many of these things, there are feedback loops that get out of whack if enough recovery time is not available.  That’s actually why some scientists have proposed that a chronic lack of sleep can cause obesity over the long haul.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer and NIOSH are looking at whether “shift work” (along with a number of chemicals) can be considered carcinogenic.

Leptin: An example of what we didn’t know

Leptin, the appetite hormone, was not discovered until 1994 (though its effects had been observed much earlier).  (Zhang Y, Proenca R, Maffei M, Barone M, Leopold L, Friedman JM (December 1994). “Positional cloning of the mouse obese gene and its human homologue”. Nature 372 (6505): 425–32. doi:10.1038/372425a0. PMID 7984236.) I mention that because chemical industry apologists seem to ignore the fact that we’ve learned a lot about the human body in the last 15-20 years.  And the more we learn, the more we discover how chemicals can mess up our systems.

Regarding leptin, I found the following using the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus service.

A National Cancer Institute fact sheet on physical activity and cancer states that “increasing physical activity may influence insulin and leptin levels and influence breast cancer prognosis.”

An EPA report, “A Decade of Children’s Environmental Health Research:  Highlights from EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program,” cites an EPA-funded study that found that “autistic children showed higher levels of leptin (a hormone that affects the regulation of body weight, metabolism, and reproductive function, and influences the immune system) in their blood when compared to typically developing children (Ashwood et al. 2007; R829388C002).”

Citation: Ashwood P., Kwong C., Hansen R., Hertz-Picciotto I., Croen L., Krakowiak P., Walker W., Pessah I.N., and Van de Water J. 2007. “Brief report: Plasma leptin levels are elevated in autism: association with early onset phenotype?” J. Autism Dev. Disord. Advanced online publication (DOI 10.1007/s10803-006-0353-1).  Abstract

So our bodies are these incredibly complex systems.  Some chemical companies would have you believe that the stuff they make, even the synthetic chemicals that human beings have never been exposed to before, have absolutely NO effect on our health.

Truth is, despite the Environmental Defense Fund saying that we’re not guinea pigs, we all are.  (See previous post: “Tired of being a guinea pig?“)

“Would you like BPA with those fries?”

July 29, 2010

Oil, oil everywhere

Gulf oil spill

100 days of oil: Gulf life will never be the same (AP, July 28, 2010)

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_gulf_oil_spill100_days

BP’s oil spill caused by fed’s “dangerous culture of permissiveness” (McClatchy, July 20, 2010)

http://news.yahoo.com/s/mcclatchy/3572169

House Energy and Commerce committee questions current and former Department of the Interior secretaries about the Minerals Management Service.

Gulf focus shifts, but where is all the oil? (AFP, July 27, 2010) – http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20100727/sc_afp/usoilpollutionenvironmentsurface

Some 1.8 million gallons of the controversial chemical Corexit were poured into the Gulf from a short time after the spill began until early July.  (For more on dispersants, see below.)

“Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface however or that our beaches and marshes aren’t still at risk. We are extremely concerned about the ongoing short-term and long-term impacts to the Gulf eco-system,” said [NOAA Administrator Jane] Lubchenco.

Mother Jones magazine’s Blue Marble Environment site comments on the AFP story above:

Mainstream Media Helps BP Pretend There’s No Oil

http://motherjones.com/rights-stuff/2010/07/mainstream-media-helps-bp-pretend-theres-no-oil

Media Runs Defense for BP, Again

“Disasters are Just a Normal Part of Doing Business for These Oil Companies”

Cites a new National Wildlife Federation report on oil disasters, “Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit”

Report: Oil Disasters Common in Last Decade (National Wildlife Federation press release)

Also at http://motherjones.com/files/NWF_OilSpillsExplosions_pages.pdf (though it wouldn’t load for me)

Dispersants

Is the EPA Playing Dumb on Dispersants? | Mother Jones (July 20, 2010)

An Environmental Protection Agency staff member is accusing his employer of being coy when it comes to dispersant use in the Gulf. Career whistleblower Hugh Kaufman says EPA officials know that the chemicals present a threat to public health and the Gulf ecosystem and should be banned; they just don’t want to say so.

EPA Whistleblower Accuses Agency of Covering Up Effects of Dispersant in BP Oil Spill Cleanup

“Rush transcript” of interview on DemocracyNow.org

With BP having poured nearly two million gallons of the dispersant known as Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico, many lawmakers and advocacy groups say the Obama administration is not being candid about the lethal effects of dispersants. We speak with Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response and a leading critic of the decision to use Corexit. [includes rush transcript]

BP Gulf Disaster Act Two: The Corexit Calamity (Triple Pundit)

http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/07/bp-gulf-disaster-act-two-the-corexit-calamity

Stone Hearth Newsletters Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill blog

Chinese Oil spill

First details on China oil spill’s cause emerge (AP, July 23, 2010) – http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/as_china_pipeline_explosion

Michigan oil spill

Oil pipeline leak pollutes major Michigan river (AP, July 27, 2010) – http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100727/ap_on_bi_ge/us_michigan_river_oil_spill

Yet Another Oil Disaster … in Michigan (Mother Jones)

Crews work to keep oil spill from Lake Michigan (July 29, 2010) – http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100729/ap_on_bi_ge/us_michigan_river_oil_spill_24

New Gulf oil accident

Barge hits well near Gulf, sends oil, gas spewing (AP, July 27, 2010) – http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100727/ap_on_re_us/us_oil_well_accident

Apparently it hit an abandoned wellhead.  (See my earlier blog post, “Anticipating health effects from the BP oil spill,” for information about abandoned wells.  Or look at a list of GAO reports on abandoned wells and other oil and gas management issues for the same.)

July 9, 2010

Anticipating health effects from the BP oil spill

Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop

The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine held a workshop to examine a broad range of health issues resulting from the Gulf oil spill.

Home Activity page at http://www.iom.edu/Activities/PublicHealth/OilSpillHealth.aspx.

The workshop, “Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill,” was held June 22 and 23 in New Orleans. During the first day’s sessions, speakers and panelists discussed the potential adverse health effects for humans stemming from the oil spill for various populations. The second day’s sessions explored current monitoring activities, the types of research methods and data sources currently available, and questions to consider when developing short- and long-term surveillance and monitoring systems.

Presentations covered the groups at risk of exposure and possible acute, chronic, and delayed health effects.

Official U.S. Government Web Site on the Spill Response

http://www.restorethegulf.gov/

This site is apparently replacing the Deepwater Horizon website.  It contains news and links to resources from many Federal agencies.  For example, the Small Business Administration has a Disaster Assistance site for providing loans to affected small businesses.

Today’s news (from the old website) includes news that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will devote $10 million to research the potential human health effects of the oil spill. The NIH National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) will recruit clean-up workers and Gulf residents to collect biological samples, health histories, and information about the clean-up work they performed and the nature of their oil exposure.

White House site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/deepwater-bp-oil-spill

The White House blog provides a timeline of the government’s response to the spill at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/issues/Deepwater-BP-Oil-Spill.

EPA testing of dispersant toxicity

On June 30 EPA posted information about the first round of toxicity testing at http://www.epa.gov/bpspill/dispersants-testing.html.  The testing was done using eight dispersants.  EPA also plans to test the toxicity of the dispersants mixed with crude oil.

Links to worker health and safety resources from OSHA and the CDC can be found on the EPA site.

Maps and data

The latest information about the oil spill’s trajectory, the position of NOAA’s research ships, spilled oil’s coastal location and the areas closed to shipping can be found at geoplatform.gov/gulfresponse/.

To access the data materials generated for and by the Deepwater Response Incident, you can go to data.gov/restorethegulf/.

Oil containment effort

McClatchy is reporting that the effort is facing two key moments, connecting a third ship to the oil containment system and replacement of the “top hat” – http://news.yahoo.com/s/mcclatchy/20100707/sc_mcclatchy/3559853

Oil drilling moratorium

Obama loses moratorium bid on offshore oil drilling

Court refuses stay in deepwater drilling case
Court rejects bid to restore drilling moratorium

Apparently the courts don’t believe that there’s justification for a moratorium.  This despite the fact that an Associated Press investigation found that federal regulators do not typically inspect plugging of these offshore wells or monitor for leaks afterward.  (See “Enviro groups stunned that govt ignoring 27K wells”)

Of 50,000 wells drilled over the past six decades in the Gulf, 23,500 have been permanently abandoned. Another 3,500 are classified by federal regulators as “temporarily abandoned,” but some have been left that way since the 1950s, without the full safeguards of permanent abandonment.

Abandoned offshore oil wells

The story reports that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in 1994 that leaks from abandoned offshore wells could cause “an environmental disaster.”  GAO recommended that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) set up an inspection system.  (Which MMS didn’t do. ) Although MMS did commission a 2001 study on such wells.  According to that study MMS officials were

“concerned that some abandoned oil wells in the Gulf may be leaking crude oil.” But nothing came of that warning.

The GAO report is “Offshore Oil and Gas Resources: Interior Can Improve Its Management of Lease Abandonment.”

RCED-94-82, May 11, 1994
Summary (HTML)   Full Report (PDF, 50 pages)     Recommendations (HTML)

From the summary at http://gao.gov/products/RCED-94-82

Among GAO’s findings:

  • MMS does not have an inspection strategy targeting its limited resources to ensure that wells are properly plugged and lease sites cleared
  • in March 1993, the active OCS leases in the Gulf of Mexico had estimated lease abandonment costs of about $4.4 billion, but were covered by bonds that totalled only $68 million

GAO’s recommendation (below) was closed, but not implemented.

Recommendation: In order to better protect the environment from the effects of OCS oil and gas lease abandonment and the federal government from incurring the costs of such abandonment, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, MMS, to require MMS to develop an inspection strategy for targeting its limited resources to ensure the proper plugging and abandonment of OCS wells and the clearance of lease sites.

Comments: After reviewing the results of the March 1996 study of techniques for removing offshore structures, MMS has decided that its inspection program is adequate. MMS does not intend to develop a different inspection strategy.

So not only is it an environmental disaster waiting to happen, MMS wasn’t even getting money from the oil companies that it was supposed to.

I’ve posted a list of other GAO reports on oil and gas management at https://amidthemaddingcrowd.wordpress.com/gao-reports-on-oil-and-gas-management/.

June 27, 2010

More on the oil spill and the dispersants

Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund has been blogging about the oil spill dispersants being used on the BP oil spill.

Most concerning is the fact that EPA data show dispersants plus oil are more toxic than either alone.

Meanwhile, the Society of Environmental Journalists Daily Glob blog reported on June 25 that “Spill-Related Measures Advance in Congress”.

NOAA

NOAA Response – Provides a wide variety of information about the Deepwater Horizon Incident, including trajectory maps and links to such sources as IncidentNews (http://www.incidentnews.gov/), which provides information from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) about the BP oil spill and other incidents.

GeoPlatform.gov/gulfresponse (http://www.geoplatform.gov/gulfresponse/) is a new online tool that provides you with near-real time information about the response effort.  Developed by NOAA with the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of Interior, the site offers you a “one-stop shop” for spill response information.

The site integrates the latest data the federal responders have about the oil spill’s trajectory with fishery area closures, wildlife data and place-based Gulf Coast resources — such as pinpointed locations of oiled shoreline and current positions of deployed research ships — into one customizable interactive map.

Other mapping sites the Daily Glob links to include:

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