Category Archives: Lessons from Deepwater Horizon

Here is a small selection of articles about or referring to the catastrophic blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon exploratory oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, April 2010.

Interprovincial Panel Explores Impacts of Fossil Fuel Development in Newfoundland

February 15th, 2015

On Sunday, February 1st, 2015, a public forum and panel discussion was held in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. Forum Photo Irene with CaptionThe panel included Irene Novaczek, adjunct professor of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island; Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Conne River Mi’kmaq Tribal Nation; and economist Michael Bradfield, a member of Nova Scotia’s review panel for hydraulic fracturing..
The forum and panel presentations made the connections between the issue of Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking in Newfoundland and Labrador and broader regional concerns related to oil development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The meeting was well attended, as well as informative, with many community members sharing viewpoints in a lively public forum on the health and welfare of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, oil development and fracking.

The forum was organized and hosted by representatives of the Social Justice Co-operative and Newfoundland and Labrador representatives of the  Save our Seas and Shores  organization  as well as other supportive individuals in the community.

For further coverage on the public forum, The Western Star and The Telegram have published excellent articles on the event. Bob Diamond’s Letter to the Editor of the Western Star offers a wonderful summary of the afternoon panel and discussion. The public forum is available to view in its entirety here.

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Cradled on the Waves: The Gulf at Risk ~~ October 15-18, PEI

September 26th, 2013

SOSS poster - October 14-18 2013-page-0

Read here what The Guardian news of PEI says about the issue and these public talks.

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Photojournalist’s account of Gulf of Mexico disaster

June 8th, 2013

John Wathen is a photojournalist with the Waterkeeper Alliance. In this video, he presents his footage of the Gulf of Mexico taken immediately after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout to an audience in New Zealand.

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Lessons in offshore safety – how is Canada responding?

May 30th, 2013

This blog appears with permission from Ocean Resources.

Lessons in safety
By Ryan Van Horne
Ocean Resources

It has been more than 30 years since Canada’s worst offshore tragedy.

In February 1982, the drill rig Ocean Ranger sank off Newfoundland with a loss of 84 lives. A Royal Commission that criticized industry for poor safety training, equipment, and lax inspection spurred a profound shift in Canada’s offshore.

The Ocean Ranger disaster isn’t the only accident that has an effect on safety in the offshore.

In July 1988, a fire aboard Piper Alpha, a North Sea production platform off Scotland, claimed the lives of 167 men. It is still the worst offshore accident in terms of lives lost.

In March 2009, Cougar Flight 91, which crashed off Newfoundland and Labrador with a loss of 17 lives, led to the Wells Inquiry, headed by former Newfoundland judge Robert Wells. That inquiry made a number of recommendations, most notably the creation of an autonomous and dedicated safety regulator.

More recently, the offshore safety debate was fueled by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. The drill rig exploded, killing 11 crew. The ensuing oil spill was the largest in U.S. history.

With so many tragedies from which to derive lessons, it’s fair to ask if Canadian governments, regulators and industry have learned enough and reacted appropriately.

That’s a question Richard Grant asks often. Grant is the president of Grantec Engineering Consultants Inc., a Hammonds Plains, NS, firm and vice-chair of the Canadian Strategic Steering Committee on Offshore Structures Standards.

“With respect to Ocean Ranger, a large number of lessons have been learned, including those pertaining to proper training of personnel on the rigs, emergency evacuation systems, response times and survival suits,” said Grant, who was a staff member at the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) from 1997 to 2002.

The same cannot be said for lessons that should have been learned from Piper Alpha, Grant says. Piper Alpha was designed as an oil production platform but later converted to gas production, which is what it was being used for when it was destroyed by fire.

Grant says the Canadian Offshore Installation Regulations, which date back to the 1980s, have not been updated to capture issues relating to fire and explosion safety on offshore platforms.

“Other jurisdictions, namely the UK and Norway, have worked diligently and quickly to address the shortcomings pertaining to fire and explosion safety,” says Grant.

For example, in 1995 the UK Health and Safety Executive (HandSE) introduced new regulations for the prevention of fires and explosions for offshore installations.

The HandSE also switched from a certification approach to a verification approach. A key aspect of this is that inspections of offshore installations are performed by “independent competent persons.” Canada, says Grant, is still using the dated pre-Piper Alpha certification approach.

Deepwater Horizon was an example of what can happen when you cut corners, Grant says. It also underscored the diligence required by regulators and the U.S. moved quickly to address that.

Other major players in the offshore industry, such as the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia, have switched to autonomous and dedicated safety regulators, something Grant says is necessary for the substantial reform needed in Canada.

Grant hopes it does not take another offshore disaster in Canada for governments to take a critical look at the regulatory regime. While he advocates a single national regulator, the most important area to focus on is improving the quality of inspections.

Inspectors “need to be highly skilled and they need to know what they are looking at,” Grant says.

There are several benefits to a single safety regulator, he adds, such as consistency, effectiveness and efficiency, and improved safety.

A big problem in Canada is the glacial pace of regulatory change.

“In the past 10 years only one such regulation has been produced for the Atlantic Canadian offshore – the drilling regulations. This speaks volumes about the inefficient regulatory development process in Canada.”

Grant found “many significant deficiencies in the Canadian offshore regulations” while he was with the CNSOPB, and little has been done to correct that.

There are three offshore regulators in Canada: the National Energy Board, the CNSOPB, and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), with the possibility of more.

Grant would like to see a review of the Canadian offshore regulatory system, similar to the one Australia did in 1999 when it used a team or respected international offshore safety specialists.

Andrew Younger, the energy critic for the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, introduced a private member’s bill in the legislature last fall, urging the NDP government to start a conversation with the federal government about a single safety regulator.

Although the bill didn’t pass, that conversation has begun – with Ottawa and the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

“We are working with them to ensure we have structures in place that reflect regulatory best practice for safety,” says Nova Scotia Department of Energy spokeswoman Tracy Barron. “Justice Wells has raised serious issues and it’s important for us to consider his findings.”

Stuart Pinks, CEO of the CNSOPB, thinks Canada has learned from previous accidents and says the safety regime in Nova Scotia is “robust” and the track record proves its adequacy.

“Does it mean that it is absolutely perfect and there can’t be some improvements?” says Pinks. “No, there’s always improvements that can be made and we’re constantly making improvements.”

The Nova Scotia and Newfoundland boards were created consistent with recommendations of the Hickman inquiry into the Ocean Ranger disaster. While some argue that the structure makes safety take a back seat, Pinks disagrees.

“Our decision-making hierarchy is set up such that safety and environmental protection are paramount in our decision making,” he says.

After the Wells inquiry, the CNSOPB looked for ways to give further separation to decision making.

The CNSOPB set up a separate committee at the board of directors’ level — the health, safety and environment committee – “to make sure that health, safety and environment are receiving the paramountcy in decision making that the board has dictated that it should,” says Pinks, who used to be the board’s chief safety officer. “Safety is No. 1 in my mind.”

Newfoundland and Labrador made a similar change based on the Wells inquiry, said C-NLOPB spokesman Sean Kelly.

“We have separated safety and operations to make two departments instead of one,” said Kelly. “Both departments will work closely together to ensure the Board maintains proper oversight of all aspects of offshore safety.”

Some argue that the safety regulator should not have any other role, such as approving exploration licenses. The flip side to that, though, is that the CNSOPB can make sure that safety maintains top priority.

“There are some significant advantages of an integrated regulator and I’ll give you a really good example with our last call for bids,” Pinks says, referring to Shell Canada’s pitch to drill in deep water.

All bidders had to submit a separate technical qualification bid with their commercial bid. If a company did not demonstrate proficiency in drilling in deep water – and experience doing so in the last 10 years – their commercial bid would have been returned unopened.

“We can move health, safety and environmental protection and additional measures right up front to assure that we are only granting licences to qualified and competent companies,” says Pinks.

The CNSOPB co-operates closely with its counterparts in Newfoundland and other jurisdictions. The board is also a member of the International Regulators Forum and routinely compares its regulatory regime to that of other major players in the offshore industry.

“I can pick up the phone and call the UK or Norway and say we’ve got such and such an issue in our offshore,” says Pinks. “Being able to talk to them is a real benefit for us.”

About 10 years ago, Pinks says industry lamented that the level of oversight in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland’s offshore was costly. After Deepwater Horizon, industry expressed gratitude that Atlantic Canada has such a strong regulatory regime.

Nova Scotia has enough challenges such as climate and tricky geology, it shouldn’t make reaping the benefits of its offshore resources more difficult by having an unnecessarily sticky regulatory regime.

For oil companies, time is money and so their biggest concern with the regulatory process is efficiency.

“They want a process that holds them to high standards, but is done in the most expedient way possible,” Pinks says.

Canada is switching to goal-based regulations because technology advances quickly and prescriptive regulations can become outdated.

Prescriptive regulations set goals for what industry must achieve in terms of managing safety and managing environmental protection. It allows for the adoption of new technology and new practices very quickly.

This presents a challenge, though, as the job of a safety inspector becomes more difficult under a goal-based regime.

“The competency expectations of your inspectors and your surveyors does go up under a goal-based regime,” Pinks says.

To account for that, CNSOPB has what he calls “a robust training budget” and much of that training is done internationally.

Proponents of a separate safety regulator point to the benefits of such a change, but it must be remembered that it is not a panacea. In the United Kingdom, which has a powerful and autonomous safety regulator, there were two helicopter crashes around the same time that Cougar Flight 91 crashed into the North Atlantic – one three weeks before and the other three weeks after.

There are inherent dangers in the offshore industry and proponents of change would be wise not to focus solely on the structure of a safety regulator.

Even Justice Wells did not do that, although his name has become synonymous with that idea.

Wells said the safety on offshore installations has been greatly improved and that helicopter travel is probably the most dangerous part of the industry.

Many criticized Transport Canada following Cougar Flight 91, but it is not simply an aviation issue. There are risks with respect to flying helicopters in an ocean environment and industry needs to mitigate those as much as possible.

Lastly, anyone responsible for improving offshore safety would do well to heed this advice from Justice Wells.

“The bright light of public scrutiny is the best way to ensure … we get safety right, while at the same time understanding that it is an ongoing journey which never ends at a final destination.”

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PEI Save Our Seas and Shores take 1,200 signatures to Legislature, Premier Ghiz gives limited response, and Richard Raiswell makes political commentary

May 1st, 2013

Concerns over oil drilling brought to P.E.I. Legislature
May 1, 2013
The Guardian (PEI)
Teresa Wright

A group of concerned citizens calling on the Prince Edward Island government to declare a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence brought their concerns to the P.E.I. legislature Tuesday.
Representatives from Save Our Seas and Shores brought forward a petition with more than 1,200 signatures, asking the P.E.I. government to take the lead in opposing an offshore oil prospect being explored by Corridor Resources Inc.

The petition was tabled in the P.E.I. legislature Tuesday.

“We’re very concerned about the effects on the Gulf of St. Lawrence if seismic testing and drilling for oil goes ahead,” said Ellie Reddin.

“People remember in 2010 the big oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, well, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a lot smaller and the effects could be devastating for tourism and our fisheries industries as well as for people with coastal properties.”

Corridor Resources has applied to the CanadaNewfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board to drill a well east of Prince Edward Island.

The area known as the ‘Old Harry’ prospect in the Laurentian Channel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the largest undrilled prospects in Eastern Canada and is estimated to hold up to two billion barrels of recoverable oil or up to five trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.

If regulatory approval is obtained, the proposed well should be drilled by the end of 2014, according to the company’s website.

The drilling project has garnered much concern and criticism by individuals and groups across Atlantic Canada and the Iles de la Madeleine who are worried about the devastating effects a possible spill or blowout.

Grade 8 students Lilly Hickox and Caroline Galloway decided to turn their concern into action.

They saw volunteers with Save our Seas and Shores at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market and were inspired to help spread the group’s message and recruit support.

They took brochures and signs to their school and encouraged fellow students and teachers to sign their name to the petition.

The two students gathered almost half the total number of signatures on the petition.

We think it’s important to preserve the environment, and we don’t want an oil spill because it could kill marine life and there are endangered species too that could be at risk,” Galloway said.

“Hopefully, our work will result in positive results so that they will stop the plans for oil drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Hickox said.

Premier Robert Ghiz said he hopes the environmental reviews done by the federal offshore petroleum board overseeing this project will be diligent in ensuring it will not go ahead if it poses a risk to the waters off P.E.I.

“It’s something that we’ll watch, but we trust the systems that are in place now to ensure that the regulations and environmental procedures are being followed,” Ghiz said.


In an interview with CBC, Premier Robert Ghiz responded to the petitions saying that there is no need for a moratorium on drilling in P.E.I. waters because P.E.I. doesn’t have any oil. The story of the petition was also covered in The Telegram (St. John’s) on May 2nd. Richard Raiswell, a political columnist with CBC radio’s Mainstreet, takes notice of Premier Ghiz’s careful wording, and shares his own thoughts about oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Should the provincial government on Prince Edward Island take steps to prevent drilling for natural gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence? Commentary by Richard Raiswell.

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What BP Doesn’t Want You to Know About the 2010 Gulf Spill (Newsweek)

April 23rd, 2013

Apr 22, 2013
Mark Hertsgaard

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill was even worse than BP wanted us to know.

“It’s as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid.” That’s what Jamie Griffin says the BP man told her about the smelly, rainbow-streaked gunk coating the floor of the “floating hotel” where Griffin was feeding hundreds of cleanup workers during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the workers were tracking the gunk inside on their boots. Griffin, as chief cook and maid, was trying to clean it. But even boiling water didn’t work.

An agonizing 87 days passed before the BP oil spill was finally sealed off. According to US government estimates, 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude had escaped into the Gulf, making this disaster the largest unintentional oil leak in world history.

“The BP representative said, ‘Jamie, just mop it like you’d mop any other dirty floor,’” Griffin recalls in her Louisiana drawl.

It was the opening weeks of what everyone, echoing President Barack Obama, was calling “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” At 9:45 p.m. local time on April 20, 2010, a fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had killed 11 workers and injured 17. One mile underwater, the Macondo well had blown apart, unleashing a gusher of oil into the gulf. At risk were fishing areas that supplied one third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., beaches from Texas to Florida that drew billions of dollars’ worth of tourism to local economies, and Obama’s chances of reelection. Republicans were blaming him for mishandling the disaster, his poll numbers were falling, even his 11-year-old daughter was demanding, “Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?”

Griffin did as she was told: “I tried Pine-Sol, bleach, I even tried Dawn on those floors.” As she scrubbed, the mix of cleanser and gunk occasionally splashed onto her arms and face.

Within days, the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches. She lost her voice. “My throat felt like I’d swallowed razor blades,” she says.

Then things got much worse.

Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of workers on the cleanup, Griffin soon fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments. By July, unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws. In August, she began losing her short-term memory. After cooking professionally for 10 years, she couldn’t remember the recipe for vegetable soup; one morning, she got in the car to go to work, only to discover she hadn’t put on pants. The right side, but only the right side, of her body “started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled—my ankle would get as wide as my calf—and my skin got incredibly itchy.”

“These are the same symptoms experienced by soldiers who returned from the Persian Gulf War with Gulf War syndrome,” says Dr. Michael Robichaux, a Louisiana physician and former state senator, who treated Griffin and 113 other patients with similar complaints. As a general practitioner, Robichaux says he had “never seen this grouping of symptoms together: skin problems, neurological impairments, plus pulmonary problems.” Only months later, after Kaye H. Kilburn, a former professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and one of the nation’s leading environmental health experts, came to Louisiana and tested 14 of Robichaux’s patients did the two physicians make the connection with Gulf War syndrome, the malady that afflicted an estimated 250,000 veterans of that war with a mysterious combination of fatigue, skin inflammation, and cognitive problems.

Meanwhile, the well kept hemorrhaging oil. The world watched with bated breath as BP failed in one attempt after another to stop the leak. An agonizing 87 days passed before the well was finally plugged on July 15. By then, 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, according to government estimates, making the BP disaster the largest accidental oil leak in world history.

In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning animator Mark Fiore created this humorous and poignant take on the BP oil spill.

Yet three years later, the BP disaster has been largely forgotten, both overseas and in the U.S. Popular anger has cooled. The media have moved on. Today, only the business press offers serious coverage of what the Financial Times calls “the trial of the century”—the trial now under way in New Orleans, where BP faces tens of billions of dollars in potential penalties for the disaster. As for Obama, the same president who early in the BP crisis blasted the “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and government regulators two years later ran for reelection boasting about how much new oil and gas development his administration had approved.

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Gulf of Mexico seafood industry nervous

April 16th, 2013

Deformities originally found on shrimp and lobsters have eased up, but not on crabs. According to Darryl Felder, a University of Louisiana biologist, “People are bringing in (crabs) that are really messed up. The crab catches are really down and what they’re getting have big lesions on them – lesions and fungal or bacterial infections.”

“The fishing’s pretty good,” said Bob Spaeth, Southern Offshore Fisheries Association president. “But our biggest concern is the future. We’re worried about egg-bearing because of chemically altered genetics of some of the fish. We aren’t sure what the larvae are going to turn out like.” He’s particularly worried about what will happen four to five years from now, when a generation of fish of certain sizes might turn out to be missing due to oil-related diseases. “if we lose two or three years of sizes then the fisheries will collapse and we’ll have to shut down,” Spaeth said. “And that would affect all fisheries, both commercial and recreational.”

Read the whole article from April 16 – 2013

Related article here.

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Canadian singer-songwriter pens song for the Gulf “Disregard the Fish”

April 6th, 2013

Watch “Disregard the Fish” – a protest song against oil and gas development in the Gulf featuring singer-songwriter Lizzie Shanks on vocals, soaring over imagery of the existing beauty of the now pristine Gulf of St. Lawrence, juxtaposed against the devastating realities in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. theheliotropeproject

Save Our Seas and Shores is grateful to Lizzie Shanks and Carey Gurden of  The Heliotrope Project for the gift of this moving vocal and visual tribute to the Gulf! Spread it around folks!

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Offshore exploration will not lead rural Nova Scotia to prosperity

April 5th, 2013

The Nova Scotia Commission on Building our New Economy is examining the province’s rural economic prospects in a series of community meetings held around the province.

Acadia University president and commission chair Ray Ivany, called the commission’s work a chance for Nova Scotians to discuss potential future prosperity for rural areas in NS.

“Nova Scotia is on the brink of its greatest opportunity in generations. We’ve got the shipbuilding contracts, offshore exploration and construction of the Maritime Link… It’s exciting. But I believe that our local economies throughout Nova Scotia – not just in HRM – can thrive, not simply survive, by understanding these opportunities, and sharing ideas about building a better future.”

One wonders what planet Mr. Ivany lives on to suggest that offshore oil exploration can build a better future for Nova Scotians. Not everyone agrees with him.

The Pictou Advocate covered the meeting in Stellarton, NS. In the April 3, 2013 edition, the article notes:

“Some residents have been skeptical of the exercise due to growing concern over oil and gas exploration, such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, proposed to extract possibly viable underground natural gas supplies inland, as well as exploratory drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that stakeholders fear would harm the gulf’s fishery.”

The article goes on to quote a local resident, Trudy Watts, who is president of a community development cooperative in the area who stated:

“The blowout of the Deepwater exploratory oil well in the Gulf of Mexico – and the resulting damage to tourism, fishery and restaurant industries – should be enough to bump offshore exploration off Mr. Ivany’s Top 3 list,” she said. “I hope that the commission is truly open to a diversity of ideas that will no doubt include enhancing our fishery and tourism sectors, as part of the way we build a smart, sustainable economy that includes rural Nova Scotians.”

We can only hope that the commission’s interim report, due to come out later in April, will showcase the ideas for a healthy sustainable future which include an oil free Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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Gulf Seafood Deformities Alarm Scientists (Al Jezeera)

April 4th, 2013

This article is originally from Al-Jezeera, reposted on oceanNRG blog
The blogger had 40,000 hits on his site after reposting this article from Al-Jezeera mostly from North America, Canada, the UK, and Australia. As he said, “Many people around the world also have an emotional connection with the ocean, its use and its bounty.”

March 18, 2013

New Orleans, LA – “The fishermen have never seen anything like this,” Dr Jim Cowan told Al Jazeera. “And in my 20 years working on red snapper, looking at somewhere between 20 and 30,000 fish, I’ve never seen anything like this either.” Dr Cowan, with Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and CoastalSciences started hearing about fish with sores and lesions from fishermen in November 2010.

Cowan’s findings replicate those of others living along vast areas of the Gulf Coast that have been impacted by BP’s oil and dispersants. Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists and seafood processors have told Al Jazeera they are finding disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab and fish that they believe are deformed by chemicals released during BP’s 2010 oil disaster.

snapperdeformityAlong with collapsing fisheries, signs of malignant impact on the regional ecosystem are ominous: horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws, eyeless crabs and shrimp – and interviewees’ fingers point towards BP’s oil pollution disaster as being the cause.

Eyeless shrimp

eyeless-shrimpTracy Kuhns and her husband Mike Roberts, commercial fishers from Barataria, Louisiana, are finding eyeless shrimp. “At the height of the last white shrimp season, in September, one of our friends caught 400 pounds of these,” Kuhns told Al Jazeera while showing a sample of the eyeless shrimp. According to Kuhns, at least 50 per cent of the shrimp caught in that period in Barataria Bay, a popular shrimping area that was heavily impacted by BP’s oil and dispersants, were eyeless. Kuhns added: “Disturbingly, not only do the shrimp lack eyes, they even lack eye sockets.”

“Some shrimpers are catching these out in the open Gulf [of Mexico],” she added, “They are also catching them in Alabama and Mississippi. We are also finding eyeless crabs, crabs with their shells soft instead of hard, full grown crabs that are one-fifth their normal size, clawless crabs, and crabs with shells that don’t have their usual spikes … they look like they’ve been burned off by chemicals.”

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded, and began the release of at least 4.9 million barrels of oil. BP then used at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants to sink the oil. Keath Ladner, a third generation seafood processor in Hancock County, Mississippi, is also disturbed by what he is seeing. “I’ve seen the brown shrimp catch drop by two-thirds, and so far the white shrimp have been wiped out,” Ladner told Al Jazeera. “The shrimp are immune compromised. We are finding shrimp with tumors on their heads, and are seeing this everyday.”

While on a shrimp boat in Mobile Bay with Sidney Schwartz, the fourth-generation fisherman said that he had seen shrimp with defects on their gills, and “their shells missing around their gills and head”. “We’ve fished here all our lives and have never seen anything like this,” he added. Ladner has also seen crates of blue crabs, all of which were lacking at least one of their claws.

Darla Rooks, a lifelong fisherperson from Port Sulfur, Louisiana, told Al Jazeera she is  deformedcrabfinding crabs “with holes in their shells, shells with all the points burned off so all the spikes on their shells and claws are gone, misshapen shells, and crabs that are dying from within … they are still alive, but you open them up and they smell like they’ve been dead for a week”. Rooks is also finding eyeless shrimp, shrimp with abnormal growths, female shrimp with their babies still attached to them, and shrimp with oiled gills.

“We also seeing eyeless fish, and fish lacking even eye-sockets, and fish with lesions, fish without covers over their gills, and others with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills.” Rooks, who grew up fishing with her parents, said she had never seen such things in these waters, and her seafood catch last year was “ten per cent what it normally is”. “I’ve never seen this,” he said, a statement Al Jazeera heard from every scientist, fisherman, and seafood processor we spoke with about the seafood deformities. Given that the Gulf of Mexico provides more than 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US, this phenomenon does not bode well for the region, or the country.

BP’s chemicals?

“The dispersants used in BP’s draconian experiment contain solvents, such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber,” Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist and Exxon Valdez survivor told Al Jazeera. “It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known”.

The dispersants are known to be mutagenic, a disturbing fact that could be evidenced in the seafood deformities. Shrimp, for example, have a life-cycle short enough that two to three generations have existed since BP’s disaster began, giving the chemicals time to enter the genome.

Pathways of exposure to the dispersants are inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact. Health impacts can include headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage. They are also teratogenic – able to disturb the growth and development of an embryo or fetus – and carcinogenic.

Cowan believes chemicals named polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), released from BP’s submerged oil, are likely to blame for what he is finding, due to the fact that the fish with lesions he is finding are from “a wide spatial distribution that is spatially coordinated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon, both surface oil and subsurface oil. A lot of the oil that impacted Louisiana was also in subsurface plumes, and we think there is a lot of it remaining on the seafloor”.

Dr Wilma Subra, a chemist and MacArthur Fellow, has conducted tests on seafood and sediment samples along the Gulf for chemicals present in BP’s crude oil and toxic dispersants. “Tests have shown significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline,” Subra told Al Jazeera. “We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation.”

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PAHs “are a group of semi-volatile organic compounds that are present in crude oil that has spent time in the ocean and eventually reaches shore, and can be formed when oil is burned”. “The fish are being exposed to PAHs, and I was able to find several references that list the same symptoms in fish after the Exxon Valdez spill, as well as other lab experiments,” explained Cowan. “There was also a paper published by some LSU scientists that PAH exposure has effects on the genome.”

The University of South Florida released the results of a survey whose findings corresponded with Cowan’s: a two to five per cent infection rate in the same oil impact areas, and not just with red snapper, but with more than 20 species of fish with lesions. In many locations, 20 per cent of the fish had lesions, and later sampling expeditions found areas where, alarmingly, 50 per cent of the fish had them.

“I asked a NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] sampler what percentage of fish they find with sores prior to 2010, and it’s one tenth of one percent,” Cowan said. “Which is what we found prior to 2010 as well. But nothing like we’ve seen with these secondary infections and at this high of rate since the spill.”

“What we think is that it’s attributable to chronic exposure to PAHs released in the process of weathering of oil on the seafloor,” Cowan said. “There’s no other thing we can use to explain this phenomenon. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Official response

Questions raised by Al Jazeera’s investigation remain largely unanswered. Al Jazeera contacted the office of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who provided a statement that said the state continues to test its waters for oil and dispersants, and that it is testing for PAHs. “Gulf seafood has consistently tested lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health,” the statement reads. “Louisiana seafood continues to go through extensive testing to ensure that seafood is safe for human consumption. More than 3,000 composite samples of seafood, sediment and water have been tested in Louisiana since the start of the spill.”

At the federal government level, the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency – both federal agencies which have powers in the this area – insisted Al Jazeera talk with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA won’t comment to the media because its involvement in collecting information for an ongoing lawsuit against BP. BP refused Al Jazeera’s request to comment on this issue for a television interview, but provided a statement that read: “Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is among the most tested in the world, and, according to the FDA and NOAA, it is as safe now as it was before the accident.” BP claims that fish lesions are common, and that prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident there was documented evidence of lesions in the Gulf of Mexico caused by parasites and other agents.

The oil giant added:

“As part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which is led by state and federal trustees, we are investigating the extent of injury to natural resources due to the accident. “BP is funding multiple lines of scientific investigation to evaluate potential damage to fish, and these include: extensive seafood testing programs by the Gulf states; fish population monitoring conducted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Auburn University and others; habitat and water quality monitoring by NOAA; and toxicity tests on regional species. The state and federal Trustees will complete an injury assessment and the need for environmental restoration will be determined.”

Before and after

But evidence of ongoing contamination continues to mount. Crustacean biologist Darryl Felder, in the Department of Biology with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is in a unique position. Felder has been monitoring the vicinity of BP’s blowout Macondo well both before and after the oil disaster began, because, as he told Al Jazeera, “the National Science Foundation was interested in these areas that are vulnerable due to all the drilling”.Gulf of M monitoring

“So we have before and after samples to compare to,” he added. “We have found seafood with lesions, missing appendages, and other abnormalities.” Felder also has samples of inshore crabs with lesions. “Right here in Grand Isle we see lesions that are eroding down through their shell. We just got these samples last Thursday and are studying them now, because we have no idea what else to link this to as far as a natural event.”

According to Felder, there is an even higher incidence of shell disease with crabs in deeper waters. “My fear is that these prior incidents of lesions might be traceable to microbes, and my questions are, did we alter microbial populations in the vicinity of the well by introducing this massive amount of petroleum and in so doing cause microbes to attack things other than oil?” One hypothesis he has is that the waxy coatings around crab shells are being impaired by anthropogenic chemicals or microbes resulting from such chemicals.

“You create a site where a lesion can occur, and microbes attack. We see them with big black lesions, around where their appendages fall off, and all that is left is a big black ring.” Felder added that his team is continuing to document the incidents: “And from what we can tell, there is a far higher incidence we’re finding after the spill.” “We are also seeing much lower diversity of crustaceans,” he said. “We don’t have the same number of species as we did before [the spill].”

Felder has tested his samples for oil, but not found many cases where hydrocarbon traces tested positive. Instead, he believes what he is seeing in the deepwater around BP’s well is caused from the “huge amount” of drilling mud used during the effort to stop the gushing well. “I was collecting deepwater shrimp with lesions on the side of their carapace. Under the lesions, the gills were black. The organ that propels the water through the gills, it too was jet-black. That impairs respiratory ability, and has a negative effect on them. It wasn’t hydrocarbons, but is largely manganese precipitates, which is really odd. There was a tremendous amount of drilling mud pumped out with Macondo, so this could be a link.”

Some drilling mud and oil well cement slurries used on oil extraction rigs contains up to 90 per cent by weight of manganomanganic (manganese) oxide particles. Felder is also finding “odd staining” of animals that burrow into the mud that cause stain rings, and said: “It is consistently mineral deposits, possibly from microbial populations in [overly] high concentrations.”

A direct link

Dr Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of biology at Louisiana State University, co-authored the reportGenomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes that was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2011.

Whitehead’s work is of critical importance, as it shows a direct link between BP’s oil and the negative impacts on the Gulf’s food web evidenced by studies on killifish before, during and after the oil disaster. “What we found is a very clear, genome-wide signal, a very clear signal of exposure to the toxic components of oil that coincided with the timing and the locations of the oil,” Whitehead told Al Jazeera during an interview in his lab. According to Whitehead, the killifish is an important indicator species because they are the most abundant fish in the marshes, and are known to be the most important forage animal in their communities.

“That means that most of the large fish that we like to eat and that these are important fisheries for, actually feed on the killifish,” he explained. “So if there were to be a big impact on those animals, then there would probably be a cascading effect throughout the food web. I can’t think of a worse animal to knock out of the food chain than the killifish.”

But we may well be witnessing the beginnings of this worst-case scenario. Whitehead is predicting that there could be reproductive impacts on the fish, and since the killifish is a “keystone” species in the food web of the marsh, “Impacts on those species are more than likely going to propagate out and effect other species. What this shows is a very direct link from exposure to DWH oil and a clear biological effect. And a clear biological effect that could translate to population level long-term consequences.”

Back on shore, troubled by what he had been seeing, Keath Ladner met with officials from the US Food and Drug Administration and asked them to promise that the government would protect him from litigation if someone was made sick from eating his seafood. “They wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I’m worried about the entire seafood industry of the Gulf being on the way out,” he added grimly.

‘Tar balls in their crab traps’

Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer, as well as a marine and oyster biologist, has “great concern” about the hundreds of dolphin deaths he has seen in the region since BP’s disaster began, which he feels are likely directly related to the BP oil disaster. “Adult dolphins’ systems are picking up whatever is in the system out there, and we know the oil is out there and working its way up the food chain through the food web – and dolphins are at the top of that food chain.”

Cake explained: “The chemicals then move into their lipids, fat, and then when they are pregnant, their young rely on this fat, and so it’s no wonder dolphins are having developmental issues and still births.” Cake, who lives in Mississippi, added: “It has been more than 33 years since the 1979 Ixtoc-1 oil disaster in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, and the oysters, clams, and mangrove forests have still not recovered in their oiled habitats in seaside estuaries of the Yucatan Peninsula. It has been 23 years since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska, and the herring fishery that failed in the wake of that disaster has still not returned.”

Cake believes we are still in the short-term impact stage of BP’s oil disaster. “I will not be alive to see the Gulf of Mexico recover,” said Cake, who is 72 years old. “Without funding and serious commitment, these things will not come back to pre-April 2010 levels for decades.” The physical signs of the disaster continue. “We’re continuing to pull up oil in our nets,” Rooks said. “Think about losing everything that makes you happy, because that is exactly what happens when someone spills oil and sprays dispersants on it. People who live here know better than to swim in or eat what comes out of our waters.”

Khuns and her husband told Al Jazeera that fishermen continue to regularly find tar balls in their crab traps, and hundreds of pounds of tar balls continue to be found on beaches across the region on a daily basis. Meanwhile Cowan continues his work, and remains concerned about what he is finding. “We’ve also seen a decrease in biodiversity in fisheries in certain areas. We believe we are now seeing another outbreak of incidence increasing, and this makes sense, since waters are starting to warm again, so bacterial infections are really starting to take off again. We think this is a problem that will persist for as long as the oil is stored on the seafloor.”

Felder wants to continue his studies, but now is up against insufficient funding. Regarding his funding, Cowan told Al Jazeera: “We are up against social and economic challenges that hamper our ability to get our information out, so the politics have been as daunting as the problem [we are studying] itself. But my funding is not coming from a source that requires me to be quiet.”

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