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Gary Braasch
Photographer & Journalist
PO Box 1465
Portland, OR 97207 USA
Phone: 503.860.1228

Environmental Photography
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Updated April 21, 2011
A year ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig drilling into the Macondo oil field a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank. Eleven workers on the rig were killed. The collapse of the rig and drill pipe unleashed the largest marine oil spill in history, 4.9 million barrels (207 million gallons), only about 50 miles SE of the Mississippi River Delta.

 

gulf oil spill

Photo Reports Intro

1. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil well gushes crude across the Gulf to beaches and marsh.
2. Crude comes ashore from Gulf Shores to Grand Isle.
3. Clean up workers and local people react to the oil.
4. Oil in the marshes greases up birds and sedges; fishing and shrimping are closed.
5. Shrimping and fishing begin to return but long term effects of oil remain.
5A. The toll on animals and birds continues; rescuers take action.
6. Indians Face Oil Spill
7. Indians Face Oil Spill 2
8. The most endangered sea turtle and the Gulf oil spill 1
9. The most endangered sea turtle and the Gulf oil spill 2

 

Over the nearly 3 months that the oil gushed out of the broken undersea pipe while BP tried to stop it, the surface slick reached a one-day maximum of 29,000 square miles (75,000 square km). In total 68,000 square miles (176,119 sq km) of the gulf, including about 800 miles of marshes and beaches, were touched by the oil in some form as it was pushed by wind and currents. BP used a huge amount of chemical dispersant both at the gusher site underwater and on the surface: 1.8 million gallons of Corexit 9500 and 9527. (Estimates of the oil extent by SkyTruth at www.skytruth.org. For a detailed timeline and history of the oil spill, response and ongoing science, please see the Encyclopedia of Earth).

Tens of thousands of fishers, oystermen, crabbers, oil rig workers, tourist employees and hotel, shop and restaurant owners, and many who support them, were thrown out of work. Most have since returned to their jobs as areas are tested clean of oil, but some localities and occupations, like oyster harvesters in Louisiana, remain hard hit. Delta oyster beds, most of which were damaged not by oil but by release of fresh water down the river to try to keep the oil out, remain largely unproductive. NOAA this week reopened to commercial and recreational fishing 1,041 square miles of Gulf waters immediately surrounding the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, completing the reopening of all of the areas in Federal waters formerly closed due to the oil spill. Markets for Gulf seafood remain off apparently due to lingering concern over the safety of the fish and shrimp.

More than 47,000 federal, state and local people were employed in the clean up operation, and more than 2000 remain on the job today. Billions in economic losses were suffered from Texas to Florida. The independent payment system so far has authorized more than $3.8 billion to be paid to those affected from BP's $20 billion compensation fund, and more than a half-million claims have been submitted. The first nine bills submitted by the US Government to BP for expenses in fighting the oil have been paid in full, totaling $632 million, and a tenth was sent on March 10. The total amount that BP may owe under oil pollution and clean water laws -- not to mention invoices from states and expected lawsuits -- may take years to determine and be paid.

 

Some of that cost will be determined by the legally-required National Resource Damage Assessment
which is managed by NOAA. This will spell out BP's obligation to fund the complete restoration of injured public resources, including the loss of use of those resources by the people living, working and visiting the area. However, scientists working for NOAA on the Assessment can't talk about or publish their research findings until the government makes its case against BP, which could take months more. In addition, research into the spill which BP said last summer it would fund up to $500 million has been delayed. After BP gave out a tenth of the amount, negotiations with states over who would sit on the committee to select the studies for the remaining $450 million stretched on until last month. The committee has yet to review any research proposals, according to an NPR story.

Many scientists with other funding are studying the effects of the oil on workers, communities, seafood and other sea life and habitats. For example: Wilma Subra, an independent chemist allied with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, has found persistent traces of potentially cancer causing chemicals from the oil in people and seafood. A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute study  found that dispersants were still in some parts of the Gulf months after their use. Writing in Nature Geoscience, Samantha Joye of University of Georgia, the first to discover underwater plumes of oil early in the spill, and colleagues estimated that about 500,000 tons of hydrocarbon gases were released into the Gulf by the spill. A Federal study reported on www.restorethegulf.gov/ confirms that on many visibly clean beaches there are layers of oil beneath the surface which could taint the eggs of nesting sea turtles. The National Institutes of Health has begun a study on the long term health effects on up to 75,000 clean-up workers who came in contact with oil and dispersant on the job. Many scientific studies will not be completed for years.

Recent reports on effects of the oil may be read in the NY Times and here, and Wall Street Journal. Reminders of the longer-term threats to the Gulf and the Mississippi Delta may be read here and on the portfolios on this websit.

A national commission to study the oil rig explosion and oil spill concluded that the event "could have been prevented and was caused by a series of mistakes" by BP, its contractor Halliburton and Transocean, who owned the rig. It said that deepwater oil exploration "has risks for which neither industry nor government has been adequately prepared" and that "fundamental reform will be needed in both the structure of those in charge of regulatory oversight and their internal decision making process to ensure their political autonomy, technical expertise, and their full consideration of environmental protection concerns." The commission called for the oil industry to increase "dramatically" the safety of drilling and the ability to respond to and clean up oil spills -- neither of which have kept pace with the technology for drilling in deep water. Even though the Interior Department did separate the functions of the Minerals Management Service -- renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement --- to make inspection and enforcement more independent, the agency says  that it has neither the funding nor the personnel to adequately monitor the industry. The writer Carl Safina and others have pointed out that despite BP's willingness to pay the full tab for the disaster, the Federal law remains in place requiring only $75 million in payments for an oil spill.

pelican

As of the week of April 11, 2011, according to the official wildlife count maintained by NOAA at www.restorethegulf.gov/fish-wildlife , 1,149 sea turtles were found dead or affected by the oil, and 809 of those were Kemp's ridleys, the most endangered of the five species in the Gulf. Total number of dead birds collected was 8233 and about 3000 were found alive and brought to cleaning and rehabilitation centers. These are just the official numbers. How many more turtles, birds and marine mammals died without being found, or were caught in BP's oil burns, may never be known. In the Northern Gulf, an unusual number of strandings and deaths of turtles and dophins is occurring this spring, according to NOAA. 194 dead stranded turtles have been found since January 2011, and a sampling of 26 animals showed no visible external or internal oil; the most common apparent cause of death was drowning, such as from being caught in nets or being affected by a biotoxin. NOAA said tests are continuing. More about sea turtles here and here.

The active ripples of this disaster include effects on community jobs, income, health, and damaged ecosystem functions on which millions of lives depend. The oil blowout made a rift in thousands of lives and stressed the communities. Most people appear to be buoyant on relief that the well has been sealed and hopeful that tourism will return and seafood will regain its prominence in diet and income. However, these feelings are anchored down by questions and doubts about the accuracy of government seafood testing, the whereabouts of the oil, BP's role in the future, public perception of what the spill did to the region, and the long-term damage caused by the petroleum industry. More details are in the blogs and reports reprinted on this page.

World View of Global Warming coverage.

Environmental photographer Gary Braasch spent 31 days over three months in the Gulf region, documenting the huge BP Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster.

Each day on location was matched by at least two days of research, prep and editing the resulting 8,802 digital images and interviews with scores of witnesses. The goal was to create an archive which might have long-term use by a wide range of media and which would provide the basis for repeat visits to follow the implications of the event. The work was supported by a grant from an environmental foundation, several smaller donations, a magazine assignment and photo licensing.

The bigger goal of coverage, as stated by the foundation that supported the work, was try to make it "an opportunity to have the public shift and have people and policy understand the effects of our fossil fuel based economy." This is a long-term project. Efforts will be made for months to come to keep the photos actively available and aimed at the broad view, as well as to return to follow up.
vanity fair

Blog posts, articles and other contemporary information during the spill.

Posted below are consolidated blogs, articles and "Climate Photo of the Week" reports issued during the oil spill. No attempt has been made to update any statistics or descriptions (see above for some final numbers). Rather this is maintained as a record of impressions and observations during this extraordinary event.

September 20, 2010
BP Gulf Gusher is finally sealed but its ripples reach far into the future, showing long term effects of our dependance on fossil fuels.

Loss of Mississippi Delta marshland is a threat to communities by direct erosion from petroleum production and by sea level rise from burning of the fossil fuel.

gulf

gulf

Pointe Au Chien Indian Tribe Chairman Chucky Verdin points out the broadening channels, dead trees and open water which now dominate tribal land in the Mississippi Delta, where the top photo was made. These "lands" were much more solid ground when he was a youth, he said. Oaks which once shaded settlements now are dead from salt water intrusion, thanks largely to Mississippi River channel flow changes to benefit shipping and oil development. Ancient native ceremonial mounds now being threatened by erosion from a widening channel. Loss of marshland in southern Louisiana and the danger to the tribal town itself is the greatest long-term problem for the Pointe Au Chien Indians, and it is being made worse by sea level rise.

The BP oil spill has brought all this into sharp focus. National groups including the Clinton Global Initiative's Gulf Action Network are recognizing the larger implications. This is an issue of national energy choices, since a large part of the land erosion and subsidence is due to gas and oil pumping and a network of oil industry canals and pipelines which has cut the marsh to shards. The Delta is suffering an ongoing loss of land at a rate of about 40 square miles each year --more than 2 and a half acres an hour -- due also to changes made in the river flow, the recent series of hurricanes since Katrina, and natural subsidence and wave action. A photo story on the Pointe Au Chien community is in the portfolios above. Please look here for a story about the community, the spill and the loss of land.


August 20, 2010

BP's Gulf Gusher Goes On -- Shorelines, birds and animals, fishers and shrimpers, native Americans still are heavily affected by the largest oil spill in US history.

Agencies and BP try to downplay the oil since the well was shut off, and progress can be measured -- but strong effects are clearly seen now, from the oil that is still on the beaches and the pelicans, to the health threats that haunt shrimpers and the small communities which depend on the Gulf

The BP Gulf oil disaster is just not going away soon, even if government agencies and oil company press releases tend to make the public think it might. The recent announcements opening more fishing and shrimping grounds and Administration statements implying that only a quarter of the nearly 5 million barrels of crude remain at large tend to downplay the very obvious current physical and social effects. The active ripples of this disaster include effects on community jobs, income and health; and damaged ecosystem functions on which millions of lives depend. Some scientists question the NOAA estimate of remaining oil, and it is clear that the study of where the oil really went and what the future effects will be is just beginning.

gulf oil spill

Traveling across the region in mid August on the third major journey of our coverage of the BP oil gusher, I saw less dark, heavy oil to be sure, and we witnessed the opening of some fishing and shrimping areas. But oil is still at large on beaches where clean up workers sometimes outnumber vacationers who normally would be thronging to beat the heat just before school starts. The astonishing sight of workers wielding tiny garden pool nets and small shovels to sift out the multi-millions of tar balls on Gulf Shores AL beach is warning the oil will be sticking to feet and in the ecosystem for a long time. Even on beaches like Grand Isle LA where a more industrial heavy-equipment approach to scouring the surface was undertaken, workers said there was lots of oil under the sand where they were told not to dig.

Pelicans, gulls and other birds are still being brought in to the rescue center at Hammond LA in large numbers -- more than a thousand more birds were found dead, or alive and in need of care, just since August 19 (per numbers on USFWS/NOAA's consolidated wildlife report). Questioning revealed, we think for the first time, the list of bird species brought in alive to rescue centers since April 20 (species have not been part of the wildlife report, for some reason). Terns and gulls were by far the most rescued, followed by the more photogenic brown pelicans. Northern gannets, herons and egrets, shorebirds, roseate spoonbills, loons and grebes also came in in large numbers. Other birds brought in alive include white pelican, ruddy duck, skimmers, bufflehead, scoter, coot, cormorant and oyster catcher. As of August 31, a total of 7438 birds have been found in the area, only 2041 were alive, and 1133 have been treated and released. When we visited the bird center with some fellow Oregonians, the staff was washing and caring for brown pelicans from rookeries near Hopedale and Lake Bourne. Avian rescue teams had stayed away from many rookeries in fear that early rescue attempts would disturb eggs and cause many chicks to jump from nests trying to escape -- but now fledglings are getting into oily trouble in large numbers.

gulf oil spill

 

Sea turtles in distress or oiled also have been found out in the open Gulf more frequently in recent weeks. As it has been for the entire spill, most of them are juvenile endangered Kemp's ridley turtle whose main habitat is the sargassum floating seaweed in the gusher area. More than 500 turtles have been found dead, according to USFWS and NOAA, and about an equal number were alive and under care. A few of the rescued ridleys have just been released into the eastern Gulf north of St. Petersburg and offshore of Gulfport. At the same time the program continues to excavate and relocate all of the approximately 700 sea turtle nests along the Gulf to keep the hatchlings from swimming into oil-polluted water. So far 278 nests have been dug up, almost all are of the threatened loggerhead species, and the eggs moved to an incubation center at Kennedy Space Center. More than 14,000 hatchlings have been released into the Atlantic -- rather than the Gulf into which they would naturally crawl, which clearly is still not favorable to the turtle. Loggerheads nest on both coasts of Florida, so a release into the Atlantic may not be a stretch.

But a small number of Gulf shore nests were laid by Kemp's ridley, and how those baby turtles will fare is unknown. None of the hatchlings is being tagged, as they are apparently too small to do so, so the fate of these involuntary refugees may never be known. With a natural survival rate to maturity of one in 1000, only about 70 turtles in the whole program will reach adulthood after more than 20 years, and probably fewer than half will be females (the relatively cooler temperature along the Gulf makes for more males; warmer temperatures in nesting beaches in Mexico turn the embryos more often female). Statistically, less than one will be a female Kemp's ridley. When and if those females come ashore in 2030 and after, how will anyone know they are among the BP Gulf oil spill diaspora?

The people of the Gulf coast are not about to leave, but the oil blowout made a rift in their lives and stressed the communities. Most people appear to be buoyant on relief that the well has been sealed and hopeful that tourism will return and seafood will regain its prominence in diet and income. However these feelings are anchored down by questions and doubts about the accuracy of government seafood testing, the whereabouts of the oil, BP's role in the future, public perception of what the spill did to the region, and the long-term damage caused by the petroleum industry.

Talking with people from Louisiana to Alabama (sometimes sharing the road with a group of concerned Portlanders), we learned that shrimpers have been hard hit, and the income of $1500 to $2000 a day for working for BP has been welcome, if not a windfall. For suppliers and packers, there has been no immediate source of income; P&M Seafood in Biloxi reportedly went from serving 80 boats last July to having just one boat come in this July. A few, from individual fishermen to heads of shrimp packing companies, expressed no doubt about the cleanliness of the water and wholesomeness of the seafood. Richard Gollott of Golden Gulf Coast Packing in Biloxi, and also a member of the State Commission on Marine Resources, said that shrimpers who express reservations about the water and seafood testing "don't know what damage they are doing" to the industry. "There's been no oil reported in Mississippi" for over a month, he said flatly (while tar balls were collected at Gulfport and light oil was washing up on Ship Island). He was getting his shrimp to process from boats netting near the Texas border, which flash-freeze the catch to get it back to Biloxi.

Many others were not so sure about what's in the water and how it is being tested. Shrimpers in D'Iberville MS who claimed to have collected oil from underwater in Mississippi Sound were having their samples tested. Part of the deeper effects of the oil spill is an apparent increase in tensions between some "white" and Vietnamese fishing communities along the coast, while community organizers attempt to increase solidarity on this disaster which affects everyone. In small towns in the central Louisiana Delta, most shrimpers apparently decided to stay with their BP Vessel of Opportunity contract and not net up for the first day of shrimping in close-in state waters, August 15 -- but a few boats did go out into the bayous. It is in between the brown and white shrimp season now, so catches we saw come in were small -- but clean appearing. Some families, like in the Indian community of Pointe Au Chien LA, which eats mainly seafood they catch, have not eaten the local fish since oil was seen close to the village in May. Women there doubted they would eat it now. And everyone questioned whether there would be a market and a demand to help keep prices up -- would consumers believe the catch was clean?

marsh disappears

 

August 3, 2010

As the gusher is stopped, Gulf of Mexico's woes include marsh loss and a near-record dead zone.

As the BP Macondo well is finally shut down -- we all hope -- the Gulf of Mexico can begin to recover from damage created by the 4.9 million barrels of oil (205,800,000 gallons) which poured into the waters over nearly three months. Scientific teams for the government Deepwater Horizon Response, which have steadily increased their calculations of the total flow of crude over the three month gusher, now estimate that 53,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from BP's well immediately preceding its closure. According to the government press release, they think that at the beginning of the spill 62,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from the well. "Not all of this oil and gas flowed into the ocean," says the release, because "containment activities conducted by BP ... captured approximately 800,000 barrels of oil prior to the capping of the well." The NY Times calculated that these estimates would make this spill far bigger than the 3.3 million barrels spilled by the Mexican rig Ixtoc I in 1979, previously believed to be the world's largest accidental release of oil.

Under the water, most of this oil still lurks, in plumes or layers mixed with the dispersant --- which was also pumped into the Gulf in record amounts. The result of this stew are still to be determined. Meanwhile, the "dead zones" -- areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen, in the northern Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River delta -- continue to be a scourge on the ecosystem. These areas where few fish or other creatures can survive are caused when nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from farmland up the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers stimulate high rates of algal growth which uses up most of the oxygen. This year, according to Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University, "they covered 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) of the bottom and extended far into Texas waters. The relative size is almost that of Massachusetts. The critical value that defines hypoxia is 2 ppm of oxygen, because trawlers cannot catch fish or shrimp on the bottom when oxygen falls lower. This summer's "dead zone" is one of the largest measured since the team of researchers from began routine mapping in 1985."

dead zone

On the surface of the water where water and land mix in the rich marshland, as this week's photo hints, the Mississippi Delta is suffering an ongoing loss of land at a rate of up to 40 square miles each year. Brought on by man made changes in the flow of the Mississippi, the recent series of hurricanes since Katrina, natural subsidence and wave action, and oil drilling and ship activities, the delta's productive marshland is eroding away at a record pace.

Accordiing to the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration authority, "Louisiana has already lost coastal land area equal to the size of the state of Delaware. This loss is at an average rate of an acre every 38 minutes. If the current rate of loss is not slowed by the year 2040, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands will disappear, and the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas." The straight line canals and constant ship traffic to serve the oil and gas industry are responsible for about a third of this land loss.


Call to Action: .A National Mission? The Gulf, the President, our fossil fuel addiction and each of us

Essay by Gary Braasch about the real part of our total use of liquid fuel which we get from the Gulf --- about 8 percent according to the Energy Department -- and how easily we could do without it.

The United States burns through about 370 million gallons of gasoline a day, and almost all of it is for our cars, SUVs and light trucks. If we wanted to make a national mission – as the President has said -- of using less petroleum for all the good reasons, from preventing more Gulf disasters to making us healthier to limiting global warming, we should start right now. We don't need to be drilling in our precious Gulf waters and allowing BP and the other corporations to poison it and our system of government. This is especially true now that the Senate has failed to take action on a comprehensive climate, energy and "green jobs" bill.

For example: We get about 1.7 million barrels of crude oil a day from all the Gulf oil rigs. According to figures from the Energy Department, most of it is used in the US and from it refineries can make about 33.5 million gallons of gasoline a day. At the average mileage our cars and smaller trucks get, about 20 mpg, this is enough gas to drive 670,000,000 miles every day. For the 254 million cars and light trucks on the road it comes down to about 2.64 miles of driving per day. Per vehicle. 2.6 miles less daily driving on average to eliminate the need for most offshore Gulf oil. READ MORE...


July 17, 2010

July 15 -- the day the oil was stopped (pending tests...) and the day when even more world heat records were announced.

What a day July 15 was: BP reported that its latest attempt to cap the runaway Gulf of Mexico well had stopped the flow, and they were testing to see if they would be able to pipe off all the oil. On this same day, NOAA's National Climate Data Center said that June was the fourth straight month of record high world surface temperatures and that the entire first half of 2010 was warmer than all other January-June periods measured since the end of the 19th century. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985. While US cities baked in record heat, so did broad areas of Europe. That day, Gary Braasch accompanied a Louisiana state wildlife biologist looking for oiled sea turtles in the sargassum seaweed offshore in the Gulf. NOAA reports that 668 sea turtles -- green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and by far mostly Kemp's ridley turtles -- have been found in the oil area as of July 16.

Two hundred one were alive when picked up out in the Gulf or along shore. Many of the rescued turtles are being treated and cared for at the Audubon Aquatic Center in New Orleans, where on July 8th we saw tanks holding more than 100 young turtles for eventual release when the water is healthy for them again. On July 14, we saw workers for a BP contractor trying to mop heavy crude oil from crucial marsh vegetation in Terrebon Bay, Louisiana, by repeatedly tossing absorbent material into the grasses and dragging it around until it came up black and heavy with oil. It did not appear very effective against the oil coating the soil and every grass, sedge, and rush for many yards of wetland. We could see oil on some of the nesting and roosting islands for brown pelicans in Terrebon Bay. Across the oil spill area, NOAA says a total of 3269 birds including pelicans have been reported brought in -- 1174 were alive when brought in and 509 have been released. From the Mississippi Delta to Florida Panhandle, approximately 550 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline is currently oiled, and more lurks offshore from the huge flow before it was halted this week.

July 3, 2010

The Battle of BP -- Oil Disaster continues to spread from the runaway well.

The BP oil spill is now into its third month with no end in sight. On July 3 Gary Braasch flew to the site of the doomed Deepwater Horizon well with Southwings pilot Tom Hutchings. For miles the Gulf is shiny with oil, with long streamers of thicker red oil. The drill location, which pilots and others now call "The Source," gives the jarring impression of a naval battle, with the two huge flames of gas and crude and all the attendant vessels. With strong east winds and currents, the oil that is not being just burned off by the Q4000 (on left with flames) or captured and separated from methane by the Discoverer Enterprise (burning methane on right) wells up and is carried toward the coast. According to BP, on July 3, a total of approximately 25,198 barrels of oil were collected or flared by the two systems and 57.0 million cubic feet of gas were flared. In these days after the passage of Hurricane Alex, the winds are pushing most of the uncaptured oil -- more than 50,000 barrels a day by some estimates -- toward the Mississippi Delta.

June 29, 2010

Grande Isle, Louisiana - Beaches empty of summer visitors await more oil instead.

The usual summer flood of summer tourists, beach house renters, and fishermen has been swept away here at this small community at the outer edge of the Mississippi Delta. In its place, the empty beach is girt with a two foot high inflated boom to stop an expected resurgence of oil from the Deepwater oil gusher. This was one of the first places to see the oil, back in May, and since then most of that seems to have been cleaned up, leaving tar balls and light brown "mousse" mark the tide line. In the place of the summer tourists, Grand Isle has been invaded by a semi-military BP/US Government oil clean up operation which brought in miles of boom, huge tented logistics centers, many trucks and front-end loaders and thousands of people. Local boats usually out shrimping or fishing have been rigged to skim oil from the water and about 1800 clean up workers are bussed in daily. Many of the workers are from other communities as far away as from New Orleans. Oil on the Gulf has recently been coming on shore more to the east in Florida, but strong SE winds from Tropical Storm Alex are expected to bring heavier oil back to Grand Isle and the sensitive wetlands of Barataria Bay in the Delta. Oil sheen is visible everywhere in these waters. Approximately 213 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline is currently oiled—approximately 69 miles in Louisiana, 45 miles in Mississippi, 45 miles in Alabama, and 54 miles in Florida.

June 1, 2010

Thus the BP oil disaster is very large, serious and wide-ranging. Thick oil and tar are invading the sensitive wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, killing birds, vegetation and sealife, as we are seeing on the web and TV reports. Less obvious are the potential adverse effects of toxic chemicals that are in crude oil. This is such an enormous spill that even minor chemical constituents of crude oil possibly can endanger human and ecosystem health. To give some idea of the scale of the issue, EPA is monitoring air quality for many organic compounds that are volatile (VOCs) or semi-volatile (SVOCs), according to its website, including benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(k) fluoranthene, chrysene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene, inideno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene, and naphthalene. These SVOCs have the potential to cause cancer. EPA reports that so far the sampling indicates no significant concern for long-term health effects from these compounds.

EPA is sampling total volatile organic compounds and individually sampling for benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene. These are the VOCs in crude oil that have the greatest potential to cause or contribute to long-term health risks when inhaled. EPA is sampling for 23 different compounds in water and 29 chemicals that are components of crude oil in sediment, as well as for hydrogen sulfide gas and the chemicals found in the Corexit dispersants used in great quantities: EGBE (2-butoxyethanol), and dipropylene glycol mono butyl ether, which have the highest potential to get into the air in any significant amounts.

NOTE, November 20, 2010: For EPA reports on its testing, see here  

For a story about an independent chemist's reports and citizen statements about ill effects from the oil and dispersants, see here

May 27, 2010
BP Gulf Oil Gusher is Worst US Oil Spill by Far

The underwater gusher of crude from the BP rig wreckage in the Gulf is the greatest oil spill disaster the U.S. has ever suffered. The flow from the Deepwater Horizon well has been unstoppable for more than a month, but progress was being made at stemming the flow by May 27th. The Interior Department released its new estimate from two different teams of scientists that the well has been spewing between 504,000 and more than a million gallons a day -- which is up to 23,000 barrels a day. Earlier, NPR's Richard Harris first asked scientists to analyze a video of the oil billowing from the oceanfloor pipe and they calculated "an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the [first] official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day." The N Y TImes also reported on scientists whose estimates were up to 100,000 barrels The Valdez ship spill in Alaska in 1989 spilled 11,000,000 gallons, which is 261,000 barrels. Oil slick, "mousse" and tar balls have begun to reach the rich and irreplaceable marshland of the Mississippi Delta and beaches on Alabama's Dolphin Island. The most important fishery in the nation has been shut down. The growing slick has been moving west beyond the mouth of the Mississippi R., but the crude is expected to eventually foul beaches which create billions of dollars in tourism around the Gulf. Florida's beaches are estimated to be worth $19 billion a year to the state's economy.

Hearings in Washington and New Orleans have begun, with questions focused on how the rig blow-out occurred, what responsibility will be taken by BP and the two other companies involved, and how the drilling was given an ill-fated easy pass as "safe" by the U.S. government. It is unconceivable to many that BP, with $5.6 billion in profits just last quarter, could botch the drill pipe seal and also not have a detailed plan for an accident. Others point out that oil companies have leaked a lot of oil and have not had to show much safety or emergency expertise with Bush Administration policies, which largely remain in place. A report on Living on Earth said "...federal officials responsible for enforcing the law in public waters exempted the BP rig from a full environmental impact analysis." The Government Accounting Office found that in Alaska oil drilling oversight, the Interior Department did not have instructions about judging oil company plans against the National Environmental Policy Act, and that offshore drilling was considered not to have any significant environmental impact. The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that President Obama apparently disregarded clear warnings from NOAA of the dangers to coastal areas when he announced plans to increase offshore oil exploration (see below) -- this plan is now in review. There is plenty of evidence bubbling to the surface that the safety equipment which was supposed to seal the well in case of accident was faulty in many ways. The New York Times has a continuing collection of many information sources, including an interactive map of the oil slick.

Our addiction to oil is not soon to be cured, but we need to understand the risks it carries not only because of global warming, but also to our coastal land and waters. These ecosystems are riches beyond calculation and are not replaceable at any cost. It is so much less expensive to immediately employ our ingenuity and industrial strength to use much less oil than we do now.

Swimming into disaster -- endangered sea turtle disproportionately killed and oiled in the BP Deepwater oil spill.

turtle

The fate of the most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp's Ridley, Lepidochelys kempii, was caught up in the BP oil spill because its juvenile habitat is centered in the oil spill area. An assignment for Vanity Fair to follow the turtles during the oil disaster gives perspective to the fact that during the oil spill, of the 589 sea turtles officially listed as found dead, 461 were Kemp's ridleys. Of the 535 turtles found alive with various effects of the oil, 326 were Kemp's. This is a very high proportion -- 787 out of a total of 1124 -- considering there are only about 6-8000 known nesting females. How many more turtles died without being found, or were caught in BP's oil burns, may never be known. Newly hatched Kemp's ridley turtles head into the Gulf from their Mexican hatching beach in July and August, and swim straight toward their sargassum sea weed habitat in which they will mature -- which is also the area with about 4000 oil and gas rigs, and which was polluted by the BP oil spill. The turtle has been protected since the 1970s as populations dropped from 42,000 nesting females to only about 700. A major threat has been from poaching of the eggs from beaches and shrimp and fishing nets. Now with strong conservation and protection, more than 6000 adult females are known to be actively nesting (and usually more than one nest per year), and this year in Mexico about 12,000 nests successfully hatched out about 700,000 tiny babies. Only one hatchling per thousand is estimated to make it to maturity -- thus the loss and damage to so many Kemp's ridleys in the oil spill may barely be balanced by this year's hatchlings. New portfolios follow this story from the beaches in Mexico to the sargassum near the oil spill and the rescues that saved many young turtles.

 

Photo Reports Intro

1. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil well gushes crude across the Gulf to beaches and marsh.
2. Crude comes ashore from Gulf Shores to Grand Isle.
3. Clean up workers and local people react to the oil.
4. Oil in the marshes greases up birds and sedges; fishing and shrimping are closed.
5. Shrimping and fishing begin to return but long term effects of oil remain.
5A. The toll on animals and birds continues; rescuers take action.
6. Indians Face Oil Spill
7. Indians Face Oil Spill 2
8. The most endangered sea turtle and the Gulf oil spill 1
9. The most endangered sea turtle and the Gulf oil spill 2

 

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