You can’t measure what you can’t see.
For all the non-stop news coverage of the massive oil spill that fouled the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion at an offshore rig a year ago Wednesday, there is still much about the damage that’s not visible to the naked eye — at least not yet.
The explosion, the flames, the glops of oil that smothered and killed not just birds but the marshes where they fed are all burned into the nation’s collective memory. Even so, many questions remain about one of the largest accidental petroleum spills ever.
For instance, government and university scientists are still trying to reach consensus on where all the oil went.
“After humans spilled the oil, Mother Nature took over,” says atmospheric chemist Tom Ryerson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “She gets to say where it all goes.”
Research is providing some answers about the short-term impact the spill had on the health of both humans and the Gulf Coast marshes. So far, the results are encouraging but the final verdict may have to await results of longer-term studies.
Meanwhile, efforts to resume drilling continue, even as some experts say new safeguards in place to prevent another spill don’t go far enough.
“It’s just a matter of when, not if, we have another deep-water disaster,” says engineering expert Robert Bea of the University of California-Berkeley. As gas nears $4 a gallon and unemployment stays high, he says, “there’s a horrible pressure to get a vital industry back to work.”
Even as cleanup crews rake up the last of the oil that washed onto beaches, questions remain. Many along the Gulf Coast have put the incident behind them and are getting on with their lives. Others can’t until they get some answers.
One of the few fortunate things about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the relative calm of the northern Gulf of Mexico last summer, says physical oceanographer Robert Weisberg of the University of South Florida. “While the oil was spilling, at least on the surface we could see where it was going.”
After the spill was effectively capped on July 15, however, that little bit of certainty went away, Weisberg says.
Where did all the oil go?
“That’s the $64 billion question,” Ryerson says. Some of the oil ended up eaten by microbes and some of it ended up — or will become — embedded on the seafloor or on beaches or in marshes. “The heavier stuff will wash up on beaches 20 years later,” he says.
Even the amont of oil that was spilled remains a mystery. Federal officials estimated the amount at more than 200 million gallons of crude, while acknowledging the estimate could be off by plus or minus 20 million gallons. BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig, argued in December that the government’s oil spill size estimate was 20% to 50% too high.
Tracking the oil also has been complicated by:
Dispersants. About 1.8 million gallons of the dish-washing-soap-like chemical attacked the oil at the surface and the sea bottom. The dispersants, aimed at breaking the oil into tiny bubbles easy for microbes to eat and for water to dissolve, also made the oil hard to see.
Deep water. A sizable amount of the oil remained trapped below the surface, some of it traveling in a cloudy mass that, in a June survey,was measured to stretch at least 23 miles from the well toward Mexico.
“We’re still learning just what a deep-sea spill looks like,” Ryerson says.
In a series of studies in the journal Science, David Valentine of the University of California-Santa Barbara and colleagues have shown that lightweight propane and methane gases from the leak appear to have largely been eaten by deep-sea microbes, one of the surprises of the spill.
But estimates of how much crude oil has been eaten by microbes vary wildly. In October, Science magazine published one Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute report suggesting only trace amounts had been consumed, while in the same month the magazine released a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory-led report suggesting faster-than-expected microbial consumption of much of the oil.
“The easiest thing in the world is to track the oil when it comes to the surface,” Weisberg says. “Understanding where it went underwater, we just don’t have enough observations to say. We just don’t know.”
What are the health effects?
“If I had to summarize it, I would put one big question mark,” says Gary Wiltz, who directs the Teche Action Clinic, a network of seven health clinics that serves more than 25,000 people along Louisiana’s coast.
Immediate physical problems linked to the spill haven’t materialized, doctors and researchers say. “What we’re seeing the most of are psychological and mental health problems,” Wiltz says.
The biggest concern: worrying about the future. Many of the patients at his clinics were working fishermen who have seen their sources of income disappear.
These are people who worked full time. “A lot of them quit school, so they have no other skill set,” Wiltz says of his patients. “They’re very good at what they’re doing, but they can’t do it now; they can’t fish their way out of it,” and that’s causing lots of psychosocial problems.
“Over 75% of people are reporting feeling tired, having trouble sleeping, pain in the back, legs and arms, and various gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Howard Osofsky, head of the psychiatry department at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
Osofsky was one of a team of researchers who wrote a paper in the April 7 New England Journal of Medicine on the health effects of the spill.
Domestic violence rates spiked, as Jefferson Parish, one of the hardest hit, showed an 86% increase in women and children at shelters from April to June. Crisis calls from the New Orleans area to the statewide hotline increased 81% from April to June, according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“I don’t think any of us think these were brand-new abusers,” says Beth Meeks, executive director of the coalition. It was just that the abusers were out of work and around their families more.
As for direct health effects, “we just don’t know yet,” says Maureen Lichtveld, chair of the environmental policy department at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
“As a physician, it’s tough to say ‘We don’t know.’ But there have not to date been any rigorously designed scientific studies” to determine direct effects, Lichtveld says.
Lichtveld, who was senior author on the New England Journal paper, and others are especially concerned about the effect that eating potentially contaminated seafood might have on pregnant women and their babies.
People along the Gulf eat a lot more seafood than other Americans and catch much of it themselves. “At one community meeting, someone noted that an average serving was four to five shrimp and one man held up his hand and said, ‘Do you mean 4 pounds of shrimp, because that’s what we put on our po’boy (sandwiches.)’”
How are the marshes?
One of the biggest fears from last year’s oil disaster was that waves of crude would wash into the Gulf Coast’s sensitive marshes, crippling the ecosystem. But initial analysis shows that the spill did little immediate harm, federal and state scientists say.
The total amount of oiled marshes has shrunk from 430 miles of shoreline, at the height of the spill, to around 150 miles today, most of it in Louisiana, says Jacqueline Michel, a geochemist and shoreline cleanup coordinator working for NOAA. That’s a tiny fraction of the state’s 6,250 miles of shoreline, she says.
The lightness of the crude that spewed from the Macondo well, chemical dispersants sprayed at it and the more than 50 miles of warm ocean the oil needed to travel to reach shore helped weaken it and buffer much of the marshes, Michel says. “This is still a big spill but the amount of shoreline oiling is not as big as people feared,” she says.
The worst-hit marshes remain the Bay Jimmy area of southern Louisiana and the crow’s foot of tributaries and marshes near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Michel says. In those areas, thick oil has seeped into the mat of the marshes, near the roots, posing a risk to the Roseau cane, Spartina grass and other vegetation, as well as to animals that breed and live there, she says.
State biologists had a few weeks to brace against the incoming oil and sectioned off 130 sensitive marsh areas with boom and other barricades, limiting the amount of damaged marsh, says Todd Baker, oil spill coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Oiled marshes still could accelerate coastal erosion, a problem the state has been wrestling with for years, he says. Overall, however, the marshes seemed to have weathered the disaster. “It certainly could have been a whole lot worse,” Baker says.
Of greater concern to biologists is the long-term effect of oil in marshes. Heavy oil could still be found just a few inches below the sand in some stretches of marshes, posing potential long-term risks to crabs and other critters that burrow in them, says John Pardue, head of Louisiana State University’s Hazardous Substance Research Center. He has been studying the spill’s impact on the region.
A good barometer will arrive later this spring, when new shoots try to grow out of the oily marshes, he says, adding that long-term research is needed.
“If we come back here 30 years from now and dig down, are we still going to see it?” Pardue says. “It’s not as simple as visibly looking for oil. It’s going to take a little deeper effort.”
Is deep-sea drilling safer?
A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, deep-water drilling has resumed in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere around the world.
On April 8, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) approved its 10th “deep-water” drilling permit since the disaster.
The approvals rest on “significant new safeguards to protect the environment beyond what has ever existed before,” the bureau said in a statement. Among them, a newly approved containment well cap for catastrophic spills — to be employed if there is another blowout preventer failure — that can handle 60,000 gallon-a-day leaks, the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
“Drilling now is likely to be significantly safer,” says presidential oil spill commission co-chairman William Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency chief under the first President Bush. “The government is no longer so lackadaisical in its oversight; the industry has stood up, and the inspections are more rigorous.”
The industry agrees: “Our unprecedented response to last year’s Gulf accident, our ongoing efforts to raise the bar on safety standards and our record of workplace safety all speak to our commitment to safety,” the American Petroleum Institute’s Jack Gerard said in a statement praising the restart of Gulf drilling.
Some independent observers don’t think these new safeguards have changed the industry’s risk-taking culture.
In January, the Oil Spill Commission appointed by President Obama released a report describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster as symptomatic of a series of mistakes that “place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.”
“I think we need to keep our eye on the (oil) industry,” Reilly says. “They need to follow through on the commitments they have made and we need to see support for the new safety inspections.” On Thursday, Reilly and his co-chairman, former Florida senator Bob Graham, called for Congress to fund more federal oil rig inspectors in its 2011 budget.
One long-standing piece of the puzzle in the disaster became clear with the March release of the ocean energy bureau’s report on the failed blowout preventer at the heart of last year’s tragedy.
The blowout preventer is the five-story, 300-ton stack of valves sitting atop the seafloor equipment connecting the oil well to the floating rig above. It should have cut off the flow of oil from the well to the sea. The report by a Norwegian engineering group found that a bent piece of pipe, buckled by the initial explosion, essentially had jammed the cut-off mechanism meant to prevent crude reaching the ocean.
In its recent approvals, the bureau says it has required deep-water drillers to show, with such improvements as the newly approved cap, that they can “promptly regain control of and contain a well in the event of a deep-water blowout that is not stopped by a blowout preventer.” That’s because the blowout preventers approved for the new wells are the same as the one that failed last year.
“If we were waiting on the perfect — and you’re absolutely right — unattainable blowout preventer, we wouldn’t have approved all of these permits and others that are getting ready to be approved,” bureau director Michael Bromwich told a congressional panel this month.
“There is no guarantee,” Bromwich added, that there won’t be another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon, given the tremendous technical difficulties of drilling at sea through miles of rock to tap high-pressure, methane-rich crude.
“There will be another disaster as soon as people forget about this one,” Evers says. “I give it about 15 years.”