New study nails BP on its never-ending Gulf tar balls


BP continues to tell the public that its 2010 oil spill is receding into the pages of history, that the cleanup is essentially over and that the devastation caused by the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon is now behind us. But the evidence tells a different story. From western Louisiana all the way to Florida, tar balls and even larger oily blobs called tar mats continue to assault the white-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast — and scientists have now improved their technique to ID the source of the pollution.

Just this month, experts at one of the world’s top oceanographic centers — Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Massachusetts — issued a report showing that their technique for fingerprinting the tar balls in the Gulf and tracing the weathering of the spilled oil has improved. The bottom line: Most of the oil pollution in the Gulf continues to come from BP’s accident:

How do we know this oil is from this particular spill? Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine have developed a technique that can detect oil from specific spills years after they happen and reveal how that oil has changed over time in the sea. Every oil reservoir has its own specific amounts of biomarkers, which are molecular fossils that scientists can use for identifying the source of spills, like human fingerprints.

Researchers were able to connect the biomarkers found in oil-filled sand clumps, collected over a 28-month period, that washed up on shore from the Gulf of Mexico near the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Some had degraded since then, which occurs after prolonged exposure to the natural environment.

“These biomarkers are not as resilient as once thought, and they may provide a future window into determining how much, and how quickly, these oil components may linger in the environment when exposed to air, sunlight, and the elements,” said Chris Reddy, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a coauthor of the sand-patty study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on Thursday.

This kind of technique gives scientists an idea of what happens to oil once it hits the high seas—and stays there. Much of the oil from the 2010 spill has either degraded, evaporated, or been removed by humans, and when it reaches shore these days, it doesn’t come in its usual liquid form.

In fact, quite a bit of BP’s oil continues to come ashore on a regular basis — even more when we have major storms, which tend to increase this time of year. In New Orleans, one journalist — Tom Young of the Legal Examiner — has done an outstanding job of staying on the story and tallying up the unending wave of BP-caused pollution. Here’s an excerpt from a piece that he published just last week:

Yesterday, FDEP environmental specialist David Perkinson conducted a post-response monitoring survey on Escambia County, Florida beaches, with a focus in the Fort Pickens area.

Numerous Surface Residue Balls (SRBs or “tar balls”) were found throughout the area. These hardened balls are often filled with deadly, flesh-eating bacteria. Do not handle without protective gloves.

Yesterday’s findings indicate that oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill is still quite prevalent. A total of 226 tar balls were collected during the survey, amounting to nearly three pounds of Deepwater Horizon oil product removed from these sections of beach – by just one person.

Since the end of BP’s official cleanup efforts in June 2013, over 44,000 tar balls and 2,100 pounds of Deepwater Horizon oil have been documented and removed from Florida’s beaches alone (not including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas). On an average survey day, the FDEP team (one to two people) covers no more than 1,000 yards of beach, less than 1% of Florida’s shoreline that was impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Therefore, these numbers represent a very limited snapshot of residual oiling on Northwest Florida’s beaches.

And the remarkable thing is this. You would think that after more than four years, the wave of oil from the Macondo field would have died down. To the contrary, this week’s piece in the National Journal on the new research notes that experts believe as much of 60 percent of the oil from the BP spill is still in the Gulf, suggesting this pollution will last for years to come.

If I wanted to, I could write a blog post every single day about new findings of tar balls and other oily goo washing up on our beaches. I don’t do that, but I do think it’s very important from time to time that I remind you that this is an ongoing crisis.

It’s important because BP has been trying to sell the American people on the bogus notion that the crisis is over and is trying to bamboozle the legal system into reducing the amount of claims that it has to pay, when there is no justification for either. And it’s important because federal regulators want to go full steam ahead with lots of new offshore oil leases — despite reports that problems such as flaws in the blowout preventer haven’t been addressed over the last four years. It’s important because it’s impossible to fathom how the Gulf could ever cope with a second spill of this magnitude.

To find out more about the new study on testing of tar balls in the Gulf, please read:

Here’s the latest from Tom Young in the Legal Examiner on tar ball pollution in the Gulf:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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