Blue Marble - August 2010

Michigan Oil Spill: Recovery is Just Beginning

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 5:40 PM EDT

As Kate Sheppard reported last week, July 26th marked the start of yet another oil spill in the US. A 30-inch pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Partners burst in southwest Michigan, dumping more than a million gallons of oil into a creek feeding into the Kalamazoo River.

Now, the communities of Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties begin the process of cleaning up. Homes surrounding the site remain evacuated per the recommendation of the Calhoun County Health Department due to the airborne presence of benzene—a known carcinogen that is released when oil comes in contact with the air. Signs reading "Recent contamination as a result of the Enbridge Energy oil spill have made this river unsafe to use" line the Kalamazoo River.

Sort-of-good news came earlier this week: The oil had stopped flowing by the end of last week. And on Tuesday, Enbridge, having already launched a spill response website, offered to pay full market value for the more than 200 homes that lie within the spill "red zone," or within 200 feet of the river, that were already for sale.

But the picture is far from rosy. Eighty miles of the 160-mile long Kalamazoo River is already deemed an EPA Superfund site for PCB contamination caused by  paper mill, and reports now show that the oil has already reached this area of the river. The EPA disapproved a series of containment and recovery plans that Enbridge set forth last week, saying they were insufficient. But no matter how solid the plans, the clean-up is likely to take months.  

The EPA claims that it will seek full liability against Enbridge for the spill, which, under the Clean Water Act, could amount to $1,100 to $4,300 for each of the 24,000 barrels spilled. The company has pledged to pay all fines in full. But even its own spokesman Alan Roth admits that "there's still a tremendous amount of work to do." Jay Wilson, a biologist with the state of Michigan said, "We probably won't know the full effects for weeks or months or years."

 

 

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A Win for Whistleblowers

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 3:13 PM EDT

Whistleblowers scored a win yesterday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a previous court decision that had significantly limited the ability of the government watchdogs at the Project on Government Oversight to defend themselves on the stand.

The case actually dates all the way back to 1997, when POGO worked with a whistleblower at the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement). The whistleblower brought to light a number of problems with the royalty in kind program, which basically allows companies driling on federal land to pay the government with oil rather than the royalties owed. POGO filed a False Claims Act lawsuit against the 15 biggest oil and gas companies for underpaying the government for drilling on public lands. POGO won, returning $440 million to the federal government, and shared the proceeds of a settlement from that lawsuit, $383,600, with the whistleblower who helped bring the fraud to light. The DOJ then went after POGO and the whistleblower, claiming that it violated federal law for a government employee to accept the award.

In the 2008 trial, testimony to the jury on why the money had been offered was barred, which POGO says made it impossible to defend themselves. (They weren't even allowed to use the word "whistleblower" on the stand.) Yesterday's ruling overturned that court decision, making it clear that the defendant's intent is crucial to determining whether the law was violated (more background here). This means POGO could now offer a more adequate defense should the Department of Justice decide to take up the case again.

"This is a total acknowledgment of the arguments we've been making for over a decade on this," said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO. "Justice has been trying to demonize POGO's recognition of a whistleblower. We are hoping this is the end of this incredibly long ordeal."

As POGO points out, while the DOJ has been going after them on this issue, the department has declined to prosecute the two key players in the 2008 MMS corruption scandal, Greg Smith and Lucy Denett—even though the Interior Department Inspector General blamed the pair for some of the worst ethics violations in the sex, drugs, and oil scandals at the agency. (Regular readers will recall that years of corruption at MMS have come back to haunt the Obama administration in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.)

"We really are hoping that Department of Justice does look again at the decision not to prosecute those cases," said Brian. "It's demoralizing to the good guys at the agency to let them get away with it."

Are Stronger Chemical Regulations Really Bad For Business?

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

In April, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced The Safe Chemicals Act, a bill that if passed would make sweeping changes to the 34-year old Toxic Substance Control Act. While the old law allowed chemicals to enter the market with little or no testing, the new one would force manufacturers to prove a chemical's safety before introducing it to the market.

Manufacturers worry that the Safe Chemicals Act would put US industry at an economic disadvantage, since other global players, like India and China, have fewer chemical regulations, meaning they don't have to spend as much money proving chemicals are safe for workers and consumers. The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, a trade group, says the act could endanger a sector that employs 800,000 Americans.

Union leaders, though, disagree. They argue that poorly regulated chemicals actually endanger the labor force, since they represent a major health risk to factory workers.

"It Could Be as Toxic as All Get-out"

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 9:53 AM EDT

On Monday, the EPA announced the results of a second round of tests on dispersant, results that they believe justify the use of the chemicals on the Gulf spill. The oil-dispersant mixture was no more toxic than the oil alone, the agency said, and BP's product of choice, Corexit, was just about as toxic as alternatives. But that doesn't mean the debate about the chemicals is over, or that the impact of dumping more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant on the Gulf will be clear any time soon. Senators, the EPA point person, and outside experts sparred on the subject at an Environment and Public Works committee hearing on Wednesday.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) grilled Paul Anastas, the assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development, about how products end up on the list of approved chemicals for spills. The exchange forced Anastas to admit that the EPA only "lists" chemical dispersants based on their efficacy at dispersing oil. The products are only required to effectively disperse 45 percent of the oil. Other tests, like the toxicity of the product, have no bearing on whether they are listed. "It could be as toxic as all get-out, and it still goes on the list as long as it meets the 45 percent effectiveness threshold," Whitehouse said.

Anastas confirmed that companies are supposed to submit toxicity data "as part of the filing," but the EPA does not actually look at toxicity when "listing" these chemicals.

In a later exchange with David Westerholm, director of the office of response and restoration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Whitehouse pointed out that the there's a perception that the dispersants are actually "approved" rather than just listed:

What a layperson would consider to be an approval that this particular chemical is safe for use in these circumstances, never anywhere in this process that I can see actually gets done … But what a regular human would think of as something having been approved never actually happened. Nobody actually ever looked at that and said, 'You know what? That is too toxic to use in these circumstance or is more or less toxic than the other.' And that's why after the fact you had to do the relative toxicity testing after they'd all been preapproved, correct?

"I think that that's a great point," Westerholm replied.

"I can't think of another circumstance in which a regulatory agency approved something for use without actually coming to a formal decision that it is safe to be used and without any process other than that the manufacturer provides some information, then it's posted and then—there didn't appear to be an evaluating moment," Whitehouse continued.

Meanwhile, outside experts painted a much less rosy picture of the dispersant issue than the EPA offered earlier this week. "My colleagues and I that have been studying this situation believe that a massive eco-toxicological experiment is under way," Ronald Kendall, director of Texas Tech University's Institute of Environmental and Human Health told the panel. "We have very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of the dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean."

Other experts noted that dispersed oil isn't necessarily any less of an environmental threat—despite what yeterday's government report may have implied. At least half of the oil is still in the Gulf, even if it's not visible.

"Moving oil below the sea surface presents significant challenges to the organisms residing in this habitat," David Smith, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the Senate panel. "Impacts will be less noticeable, but could be as devastating as oil washing ashore."

So, despite yesterday's sunny picture from the government, there's still a lot we don't know about the impacts of the dispersant and the dispersed oil—and a lot that EPA and NOAA don't know, either.

Idle Iron

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 4:01 PM EDT

There are more than 1,000 idle oil and gas structures in the Gulf of Mexico, platforms and other iron detritus abandoned years ago and left to collapse into the waters. Now Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is calling on the Department of Interior to force oil companies to dismantle and responsibly dispose of their old rigs.

Grijalva, chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, pointed to a 2007 report from Louisiana State University for the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) that found there are 1,227 idle oil and gas structures in the Gulf that aren't serving any purpose right now. "Structures that exist on a lease that have not produced in the last year do not serve a useful economic function," the report concluded. Dismantling the rigs would create jobs for Gulf residents, Grijalva argues. It would also help clean up the region and make the Gulf safer.

"Gulf residents should be put to work removing idle iron as soon as possible," wrote Grijalva. "This would revitalize the regional economy in several ways. By removing outdated structures, Gulf workers would help the structures owners comply with existing regulations and ensure that cleared areas are open to potential future opportunities."

In addition to all those idle rigs, there are more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf, many of which may be inadequately sealed. Dealing with all this old and abandoned oil infrastructure is yet another task that should be prioritized in the wake of the Gulf disaster. Interior asked for additional funding in the 2011 budget to fund new positions to help deal with "aging infrastructure, hurricane damage, and idle iron," which would be a good start.

Green Porno, Carl Zimmer Edition

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

"Sex Week" wrapped up last Friday over at science writer Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom, and a titillating week it was. Each post delved into the seedy underbelly of a species' funky reproductive habits.

The three cases of animal sex that Zimmer discusses revolve around Darwin's principle of sexual selection, which argues that certain aesthetic ornaments within a given species evolve to connote the biological fitness of individuals—think the elegant flair of a male peacock's feathers, or the bright face and backside of a male mandrill (though these secondary sex characteristics are most often pronounced in the male of a given species, it can occur in females, too—see the spotted hyena or the anglerfish). It could be easy for deceitful members of a species to adopt these fitness markers without the mojo to back it up and trick their way into the gene pool. To avoid this situation, perhaps it takes too much time and energy for the weak ones to fake it: the widely accepted (or at least discussed) Handicap Principle states that these sexual signals take an enormous amount of resources to produce and that only the "strongest" individuals, the ones with the most energy to spare, can afford such an investment. This keeps individuals honest and a species strong.

Below, a look at Zimmer's (re)productive discussions. Be sure to read his last post on the arbitrariness of desire, and let us know if you have any interesting animal copulation stories to share. And if you find your reproduction education still lacking, be sure to watch at least one of Isabella Rosselini's jaw-dropping "Green Porno" narratives (here and here).

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Improving Malaria Treatment...or, Why You Should Have Paid Attention in Geometry Class

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 2:21 PM EDT

Prior to the 1970s, doctors weren't aware that there was more than one type of diabetes. It was a group of Stanford researchers who made the discovery when they were analyzing a data set containing six bodily measurements from 145 patients who either had or were at risk of the disease. They applied a mathematical technique that essentially allowed them to graph the six-dimensional data set in three-dimensional space, while still preserving certain relationships between the data points. Looking at the graph, they noticed that diabetes sufferers clustered into two main groups. These groups represented what is now known as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Drawing a distinction between the two forms of the disease undoubtedly has improved the quality of life for millions of people over the past few decades, as it has enabled the development of more specialized treatments. The moral of the story: There is a lot hidden in the data we collect. And sometimes to uncover it, we simply need to change the way we look at the information.

Sugarcoating the Truth

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

My favorite part of the latest government claim is that as much as a quarter of BP's oil has dissolved in the warm Gulf waters. Like sugar. How benign is that? Sounds like a little leftover oil sweetens the ocean.

Dissolved oil is still oil. Just like dissolved sugar still tastes like sugar. Ever tried to dilute the taste of sugar out of your cup of coffee? Not possible.

That's how it will taste to marine life too. Oily.

Dissolved oil is not benign. It's still lethal. Particularly to small life, like plankton, a community that includes the larval and juvenile stages of almost all marine life. It may prove fatal to those who eat contaminated plankton, which is everyone in the ocean one or three links along in the foodweb.

NOAA has released a report devoid of data or methods, which has not been peer reviewed—meaning it meets none of the requirements for scientific publication.

Today's mainstream headlines say: Most of the Oil is Gone. But 53.5 million gallons of oil remain at large. Unspin this report and it ought to read: Five Exxon Valdez's Still Foul Gulf. At least.
 

BP Spill: Where is the Oil?

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 11:33 AM EDT

The federal government just released that spill report I referred to earlier. The report confirms the government's claim that only about a quarter of the oil spilled from the well—or roughly 51.5 million gallons—remains at or just below the surface in the Gulf. Another quarter of the oil was dispersed, either naturally or via the nearly two million gallons of chemical dispersant, into the depths of the sea.

This is good news, but this doesn't mean the problem is solved. There's still a lot of oil out there—about nine and a half Exxon Valdez spills in total. So, while other news outlets are reporting headlines like, "Nearly 3/4 of BP spill oil gone from Gulf," it's actually closer to half. And, most importantly, the impacts of dispersing so much of that oil throughout the water column are still not well understood.

Also, as several others have pointed out to me, the report doesn't include much in the way of specifics on the supporting data used to reach these conclusions. I'm trying to get more background from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on that.

Here's the graph included in the government report:

BP's Magical, Disappearing Oil Spill

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 9:47 AM EDT

By now you've probably seen the headlines on a forthcoming government report that finds that three-quarters of the oil from the 4.9 million barrel Gulf spill has "evaporated, dispersed, been captured or otherwise eliminated." The remaining oil, the government report says, is diluted and poses little threat. From the New York Times piece:

A government report finds that about 26 percent of the oil released from BP's runaway well is still in the water or onshore in a form that could, in principle, cause new problems. But most is light sheen at the ocean surface or in a dispersed form below the surface, and federal scientists believe that it is breaking down rapidly in both places.

A few things to note. Most importantly, just because the oil has dispersed doesn't mean it disappeared. It's now spread under the water, thanks to the at least 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants used on the spill. This is what the dispersants were designed to do in the first place. But fact that the has dispersed doesn't mean it poses no problems. While the headline and lead of the Times piece are rather rosy, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which lead the work on this new report, noted that there are still many unanswered questions. Indeed, the unprecedented use of dispersants still leaves much to be studied. "I think we don’t know yet the full impact of this spill on the ecosystem or the people of the gulf," said Lubchenco. The piece continues:

Among the biggest unanswered questions, she said, is how much damage the oil has done to the eggs and larvae of organisms like fish, crabs and shrimp. That may not become clear for a year or longer, as new generations of those creatures come to maturity.

Meanwhile, some researchers are finding evidence that oil and dispersants are making their way into the food chain, despite assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this week that they are not.

There was at least some good news on the dispersants this week, as the EPA announced that its own studies concluded that the oil-dispersant mix is not any more toxic than the oil alone. But as Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, points out, there's still bad news:

So the good news is that the dispersant doesn’t appear to be increasing the acute aquatic toxicity of the oil released into the Gulf. The bad news is that the oil is pretty toxic, and the dispersant certainly doesn’t help directly with that. And of course, the bigger questions about longer-term effects of dispersants and dispersed oil are not addressed by the new data.

Yes, the dispersed oil is still toxic, and it's still there, under the water, even if we can't see it.