[Coral-List] BP Oil Spill Response

David Evans davidjevans1818 at yahoo.com
Thu May 13 01:25:13 EDT 2010

I've been somewhat perplexed since I read this last week.

Is the implication that describing the Gulf Oil Leak as a disaster is somehow a bad thing or inappropriate?

Certainly, the concept of "crying wolf" and getting "bit in the butt" later on is clear enough.

But if you stop to think about the phrase (and attendant fable) of "crying wolf" ... it exists because sometimes there really ARE (WERE) wolves out there that threaten(ed) the shepherd's flocks. Crying "wolf" really wasn't a "bad" thing when there really were wolves out there!

Is this fairly massive leak not considered a "wolf" to this region of the Gulf of Mexico? Is it not a threat?

It was also rather appropriate to "cry wolf" before said wolf actually took any sheep. Crying wolf after the predator took its prey would be considered a bit less than efficient. How have things been so much turned around?

Maybe this is just a matter of definition and scale. What is exactly meant by Disaster? What is exactly meant by Gulf of Mexico? What is exactly meant by Fishery? 

Personally, I'm not sure I've heard a lot of folks crying "the end of the entire Gulf of Mexico", as in becoming a biological desert or the collapse of all fisheries. (I don't think I've heard anyone say that actually...).

If there are a few folks saying that, is that reason enough for the majority of marine scientists to "tamp down" what they have been saying - as in "play it down" so we don't get bit in the butt later on?

If it does mean that, then the "drill baby drill" crowd has already won, if that is what it's all about. Considering the drill baby drill crowd, when has reality ever kept them from saying what they wanted to say toward their own ends anyway?

The media will attempt to paint the "black and white" world that they do anyway. And at times some of them even seem to lean toward some special interest or another. 

But it is still a responsibility to raise valid concerns and label the situation as is fitting, no? Call a spade a spade and all that? ... confidence in one's convictions...

The oil industry and think-tanks certainly have their slick PR efforts and lobbying activity to "adjust" public and political attention and momentum, but is it really wise for the scientific community to "play it down" so as no to stick their collective necks out on this one?

Maybe clarifying what is meant by "measured response" would be helpful.

Is this event more than awful? Is it more than unfortunate? Is it more than a problem?

It turns out that the actual rate of the leak is likely more than the 5000 barrels a day that was estimated early on and continues to be repeated. Some estimates, based on the size of the surface oil as seen through satellite imagery, place the rate of leak many times greater than that.

It turns out that estimates of economic impact on fisheries and biological resources from the Pemex IXTOC 1 leak in 1979 were for the State of Texas waters only (finding no significant negative impacts there). What were the impacts in the Bay of Campeche and more immediate Mexican waters and coasts?

It turns out that the IXTOC leak seems to have been rather harsh on the planktonic community in the Bay of Campeche and Mexican waters. What effects did that have down the line? How was the ecosystem as a whole affected? How does the depth of the wells relate to the extent of the effects? How do the more immediate environments relate to the effects?

Outrage at this leak is an understandable and appropriate response, but scientifically assessed from what is currently known is it not also appropriate to be seriously concerned? 

The outrage is understandable on its own... yet also: it happened during the 40th anniversary of earth day... after many folks warned about this exact occurrence... in the face of drill baby drill chants... when the planet is in serious need of alternate fuels sources anyway... and climate change and human impact are placing ever greater burdens on the environment... The outrage is understandable. 

But scientifically, certainly there are grounds to be terribly disturbed by the very real implications. No? 

Marine scientists work in a field that seems abstract to most folks. There is a barrier at the coast, where land (the beach) ends and "out there" begins... And there is the barrier of the sea's surface itself, where what lies below is almost "another world."  

>From the perspective of a creature that lives in that "other world" I cannot imagine that this leak can be anything other than an exceptionally bad thing in every rational and logical way possible...

The numbers of implications are immense. But why does it have to be "bigger than Valdez" to be a disaster? Why does it have to be bigger than the state of x or y to be a disaster? Why does it have to be the "death of the entire Gulf of Mexico" to be a disaster (not sure who said that... kinda nutty though)? Why does it have to be tactile, visual, and visceral to us to be a disaster? What about to the threatened Gulf Sturgeon no one knows about? or Risso's dolphins? or what about that-much-more toxins being consumed with seafood? or that-much-more area added to the Mississippi Dead Zone? 

Can the Eastern Gulf Ecosystem "survive" and this event still have been a disaster? Can we acknowledge the resilience of nature and natural systems (especially large ones) and this still have been a disaster because the Gulf is now that much more the worse for wear?  

What if all of a sudden, ocean dumping of toxins and wastes became legal and the preferred way of disposal? What if all the oil and dispersants being spewed 5000ft down in the Gulf was purposeful? What would the response be? Why would we respond that way? 

Placing the weight of a massive oil spill (leak) on the ledger of an already strained system does seem to be tempting fate... certainly a cause to be seriously concerned at the least...

Calling the leaking oil a natural product to make it seem less "dangerous" is just insulting, considering the number of natural toxins out there in the world that we would not want to be dumping into the sea at the rate of this oil leak. And comparing this gusher of a leak to the natural seeps and evolved communities that depend on them just seems plain disingenuous.

Personally, I'm concerned about what follow-on effects this leak and applied dispersants will have in the food web out there; ultimately leading to fish markets and dinner tables. What happens to the planktonic community that is affected. Where does it end up? How many toxins were already out there off the Mississippi Delta? How much sargassum community is out there right now and has become entrained in the slick? What about the deeper sea off the shelf - what will the fallout bring there? How will it affect sperm whales and their food sources? What about hard bottom communities? How about looking at the hard bottom/reef communities living on the hundreds of rig platform legs in that area to test for effects on hard bottom communities? 

Can the appropriate measured response be agreed to be somewhere between "death of the Gulf of Mexico" and "an unfortunate problem?"

David J. Evans


Message: 2
Date: Fri, 7 May 2010 15:23:57 -0400 (EDT)
From: Steve LeGore <slegore at mindspring.com>
Subject: [Coral-List] BP Oil Spill Response
To: Coral List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
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I am going to contribute something that may well be unpopular, but I believe it must be said.  I implore the scientific community to abstain from crying wolf about the BP oil spill.  Cries of ?disaster? and ?destruction of fisheries? will, I believe, ultimately return to bite us in our collective asses.

Look, I am not stupid or uninformed.  My Ph.D. dissertation research at the UW (Seattle) concerned toxicity of Prudhoe Bay crude.  I have responded to several oil spills and I managed the year-long field sampling response to the Ekofisk Bravo Blowout in the North Sea ? at the time the largest spill in history.  I have participated in training oil spill responders, and I evaluated IMO response procedures and policies to the Desert Strom spills in the Persian Gulf.

The BP spill is of course a problem that should not have happened.  Spilled crude oil makes a mess; it oils birds and turtles and is potentially devastating to air-breathing marine mammals.  BP must be held accountable for its shortcomings, which are many and profound.  BP should be encouraged to return to the days when its Environmental Affairs Department reported to its Chairman of the Board rather than its PR Department Head ? as it did when BP earned the respect of the world?s entire environmental community.

However, we must remember that crude oil is not as toxic as refined petroleum products.  It is a mix of many hydrocarbons, including many heavy complex compounds as well as lighter fractions.  Leaving aside potential carcinogenicity, it is the latter that generally exhibit toxicity.  Fortunately, crude oil floats, and in doing so it provides opportunity for the more toxic lighter fractions to differentially evaporate into the atmosphere, removing them from the water column environment.  These same lighter fractions tend to dissolve into the water column, but fortunately they do so only to a limited extent.  They are, almost by definition, hydrophobic.  The only light component that dissolves to an appreciable extent is benzene, which, if I remember correctly, can reach 17 ppm in a super saturated state.  This means that there is a profound limit to the depth at which these compounds can exert their toxic impacts.  They are generally limited to the top
 few centimeters of the w
ater column, which is of concern for floating eggs and some other planktonic components.

Yes, the rough weather and wind following the spill will tend to exacerbate these issues, causing more mixing and potentially affecting availability of toxins to marine organisms.  And yes, the extreme depth at which this oil is released in the marine environment may well create unprecedented opportunities for mixing and dissolution.   These factors may well enhance impacts of the spill in the GoM, but what concerns me much more profoundly is the wholesale use of dispersants.  The furor to control the spill, and BP?s concern for its public image with a  view to oil-coated shorelines, have resulted in pouring amounts of dispersants into the marine environment that I would have personally thought unthinkable before this spill.   Dispersants are in themselves toxic and run the risk of disrupting lipid-based cell membranes of fish eggs and other plankton.  They also emulsify spilled hydrocarbons, making them more biologically available in the water column.. 
 I question whether BP
  would have used so much of these ill-advised compounds if public pressure had been more measured.

Oil spills are nasty when they reach shore.  There is no question about it, and the oil will indeed cause many environmental problems in these environments for many years to come, depending on how much oil reaches these areas..  But the oil will most likely NOT cause destruction of all GoM fisheries for the foreseeable future.  Deepwater fisheries likely will be affected more by fouling of gear by oil than by oil killing the target fish.

Yes, this spill is awful and was almost certainly preventable.  And yes, it will likely cause very unfortunate damage to the marine environment and marine fisheries, especially in shoreline environments that it may strike.  And yes, BP and its partners must be held fully accountable.  But the spill will not turn the GoM into a biological desert.  By screaming ?Murder? I believe well-meaning environmentalists run the risk of providing ?Drill Baby Drill? people an argument when the ultimate environmental effects fail to measure up to extreme panic calls.  Let us please be measured and realistic so as to not provide a free advantage to those who would overlook the real issues involved here.

Steve LeGore

Steve LeGore, Ph.D.
LeGore Environmental Associates, Inc.
2804 Gulf Drive N.
Holmes Beach, Florida 34217 USA
Tel: 941/778-4650
Fax: 941/778-4761
Cell: 941/447-8010
GMT + 4 hrs


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