Blue Marble - April 2012

BP's Corexit Oil Tar Sponged Up by Human Skin

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 5:04 AM EDT
Corexit® dispersed oil residue accelerates the absorption of toxins into the skin. The results aren't visible under normal light (top), but the contamination into the skin appear as fluorescent spots under UV light (bottom).

The Surfrider Foundation has released its preliminary "State of the Beach" study for the Gulf of Mexico from BP's ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Sadly, things aren't getting cleaner faster, according to their results. The Corexit that BP used to "disperse" the oil now appears to be making it tougher for microbes to digest the oil. I wrote about this problem in depth in "The BP Cover-Up."

The persistence of Corexit mixed with crude oil has now weathered to tar, yet is traceable to BP's Deepwater Horizon brew through its chemical fingerprint. The mix creates a fluorescent signature visible under UV light. From the report:

The program uses newly developed UV light equipment to detect tar product and reveal where it is buried in many beach areas and also where it still remains on the surface in the shoreline plunge step area. The tar product samples are then analyzed…to determine which toxins may be present and at what concentrations. By returning to locations several times over the past year and analyzing samples, we've been able to determine that PAH concentrations in most locations are not degrading as hoped for and expected.

The report states: "Toxicology studies to determine effects of Corexit® dispersant on dermal absorption rates of carcinogenic PAHs through wet skin are needed to assess risk to human health and safety."

Worse, the toxins in this unholy mix of Corexit and crude actually penetrate wet skin faster than dry skin (photos above)—the author describes it as the equivalent of a built-in accelerant—though you'd never know it unless you happened to look under fluorescent light in the 370nm spectrum. The stuff can't be wiped off. It's absorbed into the skin. 

And it isn't going away. Other findings from monitoring sites between Waveland, Mississippi, and Cape San Blas, Florida over the past two years:

  1. The use of Corexit is inhibiting the microbial degradation of hydrocarbons in the crude oil and has enabled concentrations of the organic pollutants known as PAH to stay above levels considered carcinogenic by the NIH and OSHA.
  2. 26 of 32 sampling sites in Florida and Alabama had PAH concentrations exceeding safe limits. 
  3. Only three locations were found free of PAH contamination.
  4. Carcinogenic PAH compounds from the toxic tar are concentrating in surface layers of the beach and from there leaching into lower layers of beach sediment. This could potentially lead to contamination of groundwater sources. 

The full Surfrider Foundation report by James H. "Rip" Kirby III, of the University of South Florida is open-access online here.

 

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Will Pennsylvania Reverse its Gag Order on Fracking Chemicals?

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 3:56 PM EDT
A natural gas pipeline in Plains Township, Pennsylvania.

As the debate over a controversial "gag" provision in Pennsylvania's new natural gas law ratchets up, state legislators are considering revoking the provision altogether.

The law (known as Act 13), which went into effect on Saturday, allows drilling companies to keep information about the composition of fracking fluid from the public in the name of guarding proprietary information. Pre-existing Pennsylvania law grants an exception to this rule for health professionals, who have the right to request and receive information about fracking fluid composition in order to diagnose or treat a patient who may have been exposed to the chemical.

But as MoJo's Kate Sheppard reported previously, a last-minute provision in Act 13 requires health professionals to sign confidentiality agreements with gas drilling companies, which critics argued would prohibit doctors from discussing the fracking fluid formula with their patients. Gov. Tom Corbett's top energy official since clarified that doctors would still be allowed to share information about fracking fluid chemicals with patients, just not with a broader audience.

"It leads some to believe that it's not about that, but it's about keeping the public in the dark."

That distinction isn't made clear in the statute (PDF), says Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat representing the 17th district. When the bill passed in March, Leach called the provision "broad" and "troubling." Now he plans to introduce a new bill (due out later this week) that will challenge the confidentiality provision and seek to clarify its terms.

"Act 13, as written, raises a number of issues which impede the timely and appropriate provision of health care to patients, and put health care professionals needlessly at legal risk," Leach wrote in a public statement released Friday.

Big Oil Outspends Obama Ten to One on Energy Ads

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 3:04 PM EDT

Energy issues are shaping up to be a major focus of this year's presidential election, and from the looks of it, oil, gas, and coal interests are willing to do whatever it takes to shape the debate to their liking: A new analysis by the Center for American Progress finds that groups supported by those industries' money have already spent a whopping $16.75 million on energy-related ads in 2012. How does that compare with the Obama campaign and its backers? So far, they've spent just a tenth of that amount—$1.67 million—defending the administration's energy record. Ouch.

Here's a breakdown of some of the biggest anti-Obama spenders and the ads they financed:

  • Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-linked PAC, has spent $2.85 million since January on ads, including $1.7 million on ads criticizing Obama's energy policies. This one that proclaims "No matter how Obama spins it, gas costs too much"—never mind that the president has essentially no impact on gas prices in the short-term.
  • The Koch-financed PAC Americans for Prosperity is spending $6 million on an ad hyping the much-discussed bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra, raising the spectre of "FBI raids" and implying that Obama approved the grant—which was initially advanced by the Bush administration—in order to satisfy major campaign contributors. At the end of the ad, the narrator says "Tell President Obama: Workers Aren't Your Pawns"—rich coming from a group that's sought to undermine worker protections at every opportunity.
  • The American Petroleum Institute, the primary mouthpiece for the oil industry, has spent $4.3 million since January, according to reporting by the Washington Post—a figure which puts them ahead of everyone but a few super PACs in terms of campaign spending. One typical ad asks viewers to stop "another bad idea from Washington"—the "bad idea" being putting an end to oil industry tax breaks—while others simply beat the oil-and-gas-jobs drum. If you haven't noticed the API stamp on many ads, it's because they tend to run under innocuous-sounding names like "Energy Nation," "Energy Citizens," and "EnergyTomorrow," with the API acknowledgement in fine print.
  • The American Energy Alliance, which also receives funding from the Koch brothers, has spent around $3.6 million on ads warning that "nine dollar gas" is on the horizon as a result of Obama administration policies and dropping in sensationalist references to Solyndra, Keystone, and (gasp!) Europe—none of which has anything to do with the hike in gas prices.

And there's more where that came from: The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has pledged to spend $40 million on ads touting the benefits of clean coal—despite the fact that clean coal technology doesn't actually exist, and isn't likely to anytime in the near future—while groups like the US Chamber of Commerce have bankrolled ads for candidates who favor oil interests.

Elizabeth Wilner, a political ad expert with Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group, told the Los Angeles Times that the Center for American Progress' numbers may already be out of date. On target or not, the real figures are sure to grow as the campaign ad wars ramp up. Stay tuned.

Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes?

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

There are plenty of reasons to worry about fracking—groundwater contamination, methane leaks, that flaming tap water thing. But can it really cause earthquakes? That's the question the US Geological Survey set out to answer after a spate of tremors in the Midwest—an area not usually known for earthquakes—alerted scientists to the possibility that some of them might be man-made.

Seismic activity in the Midwest started increasing around 12 years ago but picked up significantly in the past few years, says seismologist Bill Ellsworth, the lead author of a new USGS study examining potential links between fracking and earthquakes in the region. Since 1970, the baseline for earthquakes in the Midwest measuring above a 3.0 hovered at around 21 per year, but beginning in 2001, that number began to rise. There's been a "remarkable increase" in the past few years: The number of 3.0-plus earthquakes rose from 29 in 2008 to 50 in 2009, then to 87 in 2010, and in 2011 to a staggering 134. Something unusual was going on, but what? As Ellsworth and his colleagues at USGS ask in the study, "Is this increase natural or manmade?" And if it's man-made, is fracking—which has ramped up in the region in the past several years—to blame?

Creepy Chernobyl Birdsong

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 3:20 PM EDT
Young male barn swallow.

A new study in PLoS ONE finds that three decades after Chernobyl's nuclear disaster, things just get stranger and stranger. 

Between 2006 and 2009 the authors* of this study used mist nets to capture birds in Chernobyl's nasty zone. They found that age ratios were skewed towards yearlings birds—meaning older birds were dying—especially in the most contaminated areas.

Which implied that bird populations were only being maintained by immigration of young birds from uncontaminated areas nearby.

Equally alarming:

  • Higher rates of mortality in female birds led to a sex ratio strongly skewed towards males in the most contaminated areas.
  • These males then sang disproportionately more frequently, presumably because they had difficulty finding and acquiring mates.
  • The results were not caused by permanent emigration by females from the most contaminated areas.
Male birds caught in Chernobyl's ecological trap sing more often because there's hardly a female to be found. 

The authors write that their findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the adult survival rate of female birds is particularly susceptible to the effects of low-dose radiation, resulting in male skewed sex ratios at high levels of radiation:

Such skewed age ratios towards yearlings in contaminated areas are consistent with the hypothesis that an area exceeding 30,000 km2 [11,500 square miles] in Chernobyl's surroundings constitutes an ecological trap that causes dramatic excess mortality.

How creepy is that? Vibrant bird song as a sign of death and destruction.

Background radiation (mSv/h) in the Chernobyl region and location of study sites. Adapted from European Union.: Credit: Anders Pape Møller et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:doi:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0035223.g001Background radiation (mSv/h) in the Chernobyl region and location of study sites. Adapted from European Union: Credit: Anders Pape Møller et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0035223.

*I wrote about an earlier paper from members of this team regarding Fukushima's birds here .

The open-access paper:

  • Møller AP , Bonisoli-Alquati A , Rudolfsen G , Mousseau TA (2012) Elevated Mortality among Birds in Chernobyl as Judged from Skewed Age and Sex Ratios. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35223. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035223

Prozac: What's Race Got to Do With It?

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 2:40 PM EDT

When Prozac first landed on pharmacy shelves in 1987, it immediately hit the jackpot. The new drug represented a novel class of antidepressants with fewer side effects and dramatically lower chances of overdose, and it was even successfully marketed for use as a diet pill. Now, the billion-dollar antidepressant industry funnels meds to roughly one out of every ten Americans—more than 33 million people a year. Yet given their prevalence, new research has public health experts scratching their heads about a worrisome trend: whether or not patients get prescribed these meds may stem from broader factors that have nothing to do with mental health at all—namely, race and health insurance status.

Consider one study from February. Scientists at the University of Michigan analyzed prescribing patterns among physicians treating patients diagnosed with major depression. Analyzing medical data from over 125 million patients, they found that doctors were far more likely to prescribe antidepressants to white patients and those with private health insurance, versus minorities and those using Medicare or Medicaid. Patients with Medicare or Medicaid who did manage to get prescriptions were around 60 percent less likely to be prescribed newer generation antidepressants like Prozac. Instead, physicians often opted to prescribe cheaper, older varieties.

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Cuba's Mysterious Ultra-Deep-Water Oil Rig Surfaces

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 3:41 PM EDT

 Possible location of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background NASA.

Possible location identified by SkyTruth of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background courtesy NASA.

In February Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF began drilling its first well in Cuba's offshore oilfields in the Florida Straits. Swift currents run through this deep body of water connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean.

The US Geological Survey has estimated the site of this well, the North Cuba Basin, contains 5.5 billion barrels of petroleum liquids and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, almost all in the deep water. From Reuters

The newly built, high-tech rig is operating in 5,600 feet of water, or what the oil industry calls "ultra-deep water," in the Straits of Florida, which separate Cuba from its longtime ideological foe, the United States. Sources close to the project said such wells generally take about 60 days to complete. Repsol, which is operating the rig in a consortium with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp, has said it will take several months to determine the results of the exploration.The well is the first of at least three that will be drilled in Cuban waters with the Scarabeo 9, which was built in China and is owned by Saipem, a unit of Italian oil company Eni. 

 

Detail idenitified by SkyTruth from the Envisat AASAR satellite radar image of Florida Straits, 30 March 2012. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig.": Image courtesy European Space Agency.Detail identified by SkyTruth from a satellite radar image of the Florida Straits. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig:" Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Now SkyTruth believes they've located the site of the well and the Scarabeo-9 drilling rig in this European satellite image (above):

This Envisat ASAR image, shot at 11:43 pm local time on March 30, shows a trio of very bright spots about 17 miles north-northwest of Havana.  We think the largest of these spots, with an interesting cross-shaped "ringing" pattern often seen on radar images of big, boxy metal objects, is the Scarabeo-9 rig.  The other two spots may be crew vessels or work boats. The location marked in orange is a report we just got through the SkyTruth Alerts that a small possible oil slick was sighted nearby during a US Coast Guard overflight yesterday morning. We don't think this is anything alarming; it's probably just some of the typical oily crud you'll get from an active drilling operation at sea.

 

Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010.: NOAA.Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010: NOAA.

It's unnerving to think of the downsides of drilling so deep there's no hope of managing a spill without disastrous side-effects. It's unnerving to think of the long-term effects of such spills.

I recently wrote of the fate of the Gulf of Mexico's dolphins—particularly the slow and painful demise of the Barataria Bay, Louisiana, population—in the aftermath of BP's epic fustercluck.

Now NRDC highlights what we know so far about the ongoing unusual mortality event underway with dolphins in the Gulf:

  • The die-off has persisted for 25 months.  
  • The longest die-off prior to this lasted 17 months and was directly linked to a red tide.
  • More than 600 bottlenose dolphins have been stranded in the BP spill region since the disaster.
  • Roughly 95 percent of those have been found dead.
  • Animals whose bodies are recovered in a die-off are the tip of an iceberg, since only 1-in-50 to 1-in-250 marine mammals that die at sea are recovered on Gulf shores. 

So 600 dead bottlenose dolphins could scale up to between 30,000 and 250,000 dead marine mammals since BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Tennessee Passes Law Protecting Science Deniers

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 1:57 PM EDT
Tennessee Republicans: Cut that science stuff out.

The state that once put John Scopes on trial for teaching about evolution is at it again: Yesterday, Tennessee legislators approved a bill that would allow public school teachers to challenge scientific consensus on issues like evolution and climate change under the guise of "academic freedom." The bill directs administrators to create an environment that encourages students to "explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects." While it doesn't require that teachers critique consensus views of evolution, climate change, and "the chemical origins of life," it does allow teachers to introduce "alternative" theories, however baseless, without reproach, and makes state education standards fuzzier at the classroom level.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Bo Watson, insists that the bill is just misunderstood, saying that it would allow students to bring up ideas they'd heard at home for discussion and charging that its opponents have "mischaracterized" it. But the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and American Civil Liberties Union say that's just an excuse for a law that allows teachers to undermine scientific evidence for political and religious reasons. Said Hedy Weinberg of the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU in a statement released prior to the bill's passage, such measures "seek to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding evolution and the origin of life as pseudo-science and inject them into their science class curricula." While Republican Governor Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law, he did not sign it, saying that it would make science education standards less clear.

The Tennessee law is the latest sign that conservatives are seeking to link evolution and climate change in debates about science education, and attempting to make both into contested issues in the public sphere despite consensus among scientists. Louisiana is the only other state with a law that allows the teaching of "alternative" approaches to accepted scientific knowledge on evolution and climate change, but a number of states have introduced "Academic Freedom" laws, many of which are modeled on a template put forth by intelligent design boosters at the Discovery Institute. Back in February, leaked documents from the conservative-libertarian Heartland Institute described principals and teachers as global warming alarmists and suggested ways to get K-12 schools to adopt educational material critical of global warming.

There are signs of a backlash: In Louisiana, state Senator Karen Carter Peterson introduced a bill to repeal the state's Science Education Act, which promotes "open and objective discussion" of scientific issues, specifically naming evolution, global warming, and human cloning. States like Iowa and New Hampshire have rejected "Academic Freedom" laws. Pro-science parents are trying to teach their kids about climate change at home. And scientists themselves are fighting back, demanding that scientific knowledge be accurately represented in classrooms.

Classy Hardwood Floors Tied To Sex Abuse in the Amazon

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Sawmills line the banks of the river to receive raw lumber from the forest. Here it is processed to rough planks before conditioning and further export.

Cedar and mahogany are woods known for their ability to class up a living room. Both woods are common in high-end furniture; cedar is often used in flooring, and mahogany makes for some fine moldings. But it doesn't come cheap: The wood from one mahogany tree costs about $11,000 on the lumber market; a cedar tree runs about $9,000. The Peruvian Amazon is a major source of these woods for the American market, and a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found that between 2008 and 2010, 35 percent of inspected shipments from Peru contained wood from illegal logging operations; the researchers say that the overall figure (including non-inspected shipments) is estimated to be as high as 88 percent. 

The report's authors point out that because of lack of oversight, illegal logging is widespread in Peru—despite the fact that it received $150 million yearly in international support for its forest conservation programs. Although timber operations cash in on the dodgy practices, the overall effect is detrimental not only to the environment, but also to the economy and local people. Researchers in Loreto, where much of the activities take place, estimate that illegal logging losses (due to "tax evasion, non-payment of required fees, and devaluation of standing timber") cost Peru $250 million annually, 1.5 times more than the country earns from all its timber exports combined. The humanitarian cost of logging is also considerable. Consider this moving testimony from one former logger:

Maria, a single mother nearing 50 years of age, had no job. thus, when a neighbor told her about temporary work available as a cook in a logging camp, she thought she had been presented with a good opportunity. The pay seemed good to her: 300 soles per month (approximately US $110), above the average pay for a cook in the city of Iquitos. She would have to leave her children and move to the camp, but it would only be for three months. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned. Six months later, she ended up fleeing.

In order to convince her to move to the jungle and leave her children, the habilitadores gave her 250 soles (approximately US $90) as an advance payment. She left Iquitos and traveled one day by river to join up with other people who knew how to get to the camp. From there, days to the middle of the jungle.

Getting there was not the most difficult part. Maria was the only woman in the camp and was surrounded by approximately 25 men, most of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30, and all of whom were strong enough to fell trees measuring more than one meter in diameter. Maria's nightmare began when she realized that the men expected her to not only cook them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but also provide them with sexual favors.

Maria remembers each night as being a nightmare. "I was there for six months. I barely slept from my fear, always worried that something was going to happen. when I knew they wanted to attack me, I couldn't sleep. thinking they were coming, I would wake up. so that they would think I was awake, I would move, I would get up, I would light my lantern, that is the way I was there, I would sleep on my side. And suddenly it was time to wake up."

Study: We're Screwed Without Wolves and Bears

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 2:53 PM EDT
A wolf in Yellowstone

Deer have been a blight on suburbia for a while now, munching their way through tract-housing gardens and making some highways extremely dangerous for motorists, as their populations have exploded. (In DC, where they live in abundant numbers in the city's biggest park, Rock Creek Park, they're known by neighbors as rats with antlers.) Deer are also radically changing places like the forests of the Adirondacks by devouring young tree shoots from the storied maples and leaving nothing but beech. But a new study finds that it's not just deer populations that are wreaking havoc on North American ecosystems. It's all of the large mammals that graze on plants.

Moose, elk, and deer populations are at historic highs, according to an extensive review by scientists at Oregon State University. And they're taking their toll on young trees, reducing biodiversity of forests and contributing to climate change as a result. The leading cause of the disrupted ecosystems is the disappearance of the predators, namely wolves and bears. Researchers found that large mammal densities were six times higher in areas without wolves than in those with them. 

"These issues do not just affect the United States and a few national parks," said William Ripple, an OSU professor of forestry and lead author of the study, in a statement. "The data from Canada, Alaska, the Yukon, Northern Europe and Asia are all showing similar results. There's consistent evidence that large predators help keep populations of large herbivores in check, with positive effects on ecosystem health."

Wolf and bear populations have been decimated by humans who fear them for many reasons, but mainly by ranchers who see them as a major threat to valuable livestock. But humans have been far less successful in dealing with the resulting explosion of big game that's come as a result. I was in my home state of Utah for the past couple of weeks, where it's pretty common to find lots of deer alongside the highways, where they cause a lot of car accidents. But this time, i was shocked to pass elk and moose among the road kill, the leftovers of what must have been horrible collisions given the animals' size. My dad told me that the moose had gotten so out of control that they were hanging out in people's backyards like domesticated animals.

Hunting, according to the Oregon scientists, is a poor substitute for the efficient wolves and bears, and it doesn't do much to reduce the herds. (See our slideshow for more on why we need wolves.) In Utah, where hunting is a childhood rite of passage, that's clearly the case. The moose occasionally get so thick in populated areas that they have to be relocated in other ways.

Back in 2001, I was driving down Parley's Canyon from Park City to Salt Lake and saw the wreckage of a helicopter overturned in an icy reservoir. The helicopter had hit a power line while trying to airlift a moose, one of 15 to 20 the state was trying to remove from the canyon to improve highway safety, particularly in the run up to the 2002 Olympics, when the traffic was expected to be especially thick. The helicopter crash killed three people. These sorts of stories make a return of the wolf look like a pretty reasonable alternative.