Tag Archives: oil spill

Oil spill from Syria is close to hitting Cyprus’ shores

An oil leak from Syria’s largest refinery is spreading across the Mediterranean Sea and could reach Cyprus by Wednesday, according to authorities on the island. Satellite imagery confirmed that this spill is larger than initially thought, currently covering around 800 square kilometers (309 square miles).

The coast of Cyrpus. Image credits Dimitris Vetsikas.

Authorities on the island of Cyprus say the oil spill could reach their shores by Wednesday. The spill was first reported on August 23, originating near a thermal power plant in the city of Baniyas. Syrian authorities have not been able to contain the spill so far.

Oil trouble

Authorities in Turkish Cyprus have already taken emergency action to try and keep the crude away from the island’s beaches and from wreaking environmental havoc. Teams with sponges and hoses have been deployed on-site to try and mop up some of the oil. Turkey also plans to dispatch two ships to the island and assist in clean-up and containment efforts, and the Greek Cypriot government is collaborating with the European Maritime Safety Agency to get an oil recovery vessel, as well.

In the meantime, a 400-meter long barrier has been erected off of the Karpas peninsula to prevent oil from contaminating local beaches.

The spill is currently covering an area of around 800 square kilometers (309 square miles). Simulations run by the Cypriot Department of Fisheries and Marine Research suggest that the oil spill could reach the Apostolos Andreas Cape, Cyprus’ northernmost point, within a day, according to CNN. This statement was made at around 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and at the time the oil slick came within 7 kilometers (4 miles) of the coast.

The Guardian, citing “environmental officials in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus – internationally recognized only by Ankara”, report that roughly 20,000 tons of fuel oil have been spilled from the Syrian plant so far.

“We are taking the necessary measures by mobilizing our resources to stop any chances of the spill turning into an environmental disaster,” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Hopefully, everyone will be banding together and doing their utmost best to tackle this spill. The Mediterranean is a wonderful place, and it has already suffered through an oil spill earlier this year, in February, from the coast of Israel. Politically speaking, the actors that have to work together to work this out don’t really have much love for one another. Still, everybody has a lot to lose if they don’t put their differences aside, as the Mediterranean is an important economic sea and a wildly diverse ecosystem.

A French town is using human hair to clean oil pollution from the ocean

Oceans are frequently polluted by oil from spills, routine shipping, run-offs, and illegal dumping. But what if we could prevent that oil from getting to the oceans in the first place? A group of residents from the town of Brignoles in Southeast France has come up with an innovative recycling scheme using human hair.

An oil tanker. Credit Flickr Norbert Moller

The citizens from Brignoles have accumulated 40 tons of hair in a warehouse, sent from salons far and wide. They plan to stuff nylon stockings with it in order to make floating tubes, which they will place near harbors to clean up ocean oil pollution. They have already performed a successful trial in the nearby port of Cavalaire-sur-Mer and have big expansion plans.

Thierry Gras, a hairdresser in Saint-Zacharie near Brignoles and founder of the project Coiffeurs Justes (Fair Hairdressers), explained that hair is lipophilic, meaning it absorbs fats and hydrocarbons. He is now waiting for the project to be approved by anti-pollution and labor officials in order to start large-scale production of the tubes before the end of the year.

The tubes, each around the length of a forearm, can absorb eight times their weight in oil and will be sold at $10.50 apiece. Their manufacturing process starts at the Brignoles warehouse, where hairdressers from all over France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg send their waste hair. It is then sent to a closeny location, where the tubes are manufactured.

“Every day, thousands of hairdressers cut, color, trim and brush your hair. But what happens after? What becomes of these cut hair? What could be its use? How could we add value to this organic matter?,” the website of Fair Hairdressers reads. “You, us, individuals, professionals, citizens, elected officials, communities, we can all act at our level to ensure that this matter is promoted.”

Gras, one of the leaders of the project, told AFP he became interested in fighting pollution when he was a child and heard about the stranding of the Amoco Cadiz tanker off France’s Brittany coast in 1978. Human hair was used back then to mop up the more than 200,000 tons of spilled oil, the first time such an idea was implemented.

He eventually became a hairdresser and was surprised to find out there wasn’t a recycling facility for hair waste, a material that can also be used as fertilizer, isolation material, concrete reinforcement, or in water filtration. Reacting to the news, he came up with the idea of creating hair-filled oil absorbers and founded the Fair Hairdressers association for this purpose in 2015.

The tubes, Gras said, could be used in case of a serious spill, such as the recent one in Mauritius, but the goal is actually to remove micro-pollution on a continuous basis in ports. A dozen tubes are already in use in Cavalaire, soaking up the oil leaked from the engines of the more than 1,000 boats docked in the port.

Oil spill update: Mauritius pumps out almost all the fuel from the Japanese cargo ship

Thanks to the laudable efforts of salvage crews, almost all the fuel from the giant Japanese cargo ship that has caused a massive oil spill near the coast of Mauritius has been pumped off.

It was a race against time as authorities feared the ship would break apart, but it seems that things are finally under control as most of the oil has been cleaned up, says Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth.

Location of the Mahebourg Lagoon, Mauritius. Image via Google Earth,

The bulk-carrier is believed to have been carried 4,000 tons of fuel oil, 3,000 of which were pumped out. A small amount remains on board, and the rest has been spilled into the ocean. However, if the 3,000 tons hadn’t been pumped out, the spill would have been much, much worse.

The fuel was taken to shore by a helicopter and another ship owned by the same Japanese company, Nagashiki Shipping. Police spokesperson Shiva Cooten said that they “still have work to do but the situation is all under control,” while the Prime Minister celebrated the “excellent work.”

The ship ran aground in late July at Pointe d’Esny, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The area also has wetlands designated as a site of international importance.

The ship sat for over a week before cracks emerged in its hull, leaking around 1,000 tons of fuel into the water and causing an environmental disaster.

Credit European Space Agency

The oil leaked into the Mahebourg Lagoon, a scenic spot known for its turquoise waters. The government banned sand extraction from the lagoon in 2001 and has been working on rejuvenation efforts since then. Results were paying off, as marine life had returned and corals were growing before the spill. The oil spill could have undone all the work done so far and caused even more damage.

The Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and appealed for international help. France replied by sending a military aircraft with pollution-control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion, while Japan sent a six-member team to assist the French efforts. Local coast guards and police units are also at the site, and the local population has also rushed to help.

Dozens of volunteers went to the area to help. Some collected straw from fields and filling sacks to make barriers against the oil or even made their utensils to help. Others have been cleaning up the island’s oil-covered beaches.

The government told volunteers to stop and leave any efforts to officials. But people and local organizations are carrying on, wanting to help and also distrusting the authorities’ efforts in general. Back in 2016, a bulk carrier ran aground in Mauritius. There was a fight on board and the ship lost power before drifting to Mauritius, without the coastguard noticing any of this.

Greenpeace Africa warned that “thousands” of animal species are “at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security, and health”. Meanwhile, Vassen Kauppaymuthoom, a local oceanographer, said residents were “breathing vapors of oil.”

Mauritius is a biodiversity hotspot with a high concentration of plants and animals unique to the region. Its marine environment is home to 1,700 species including around 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals and two species of turtles, making it very rich in biodiversity.

Around 25% of fish in the ocean depend on healthy coral reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US. They protect coastlines from storms and erosion and are the major pillars of the local tourism industry which is a big part of the country’s economy.

Fuel tank collapses in Russia, leaking 20,000 tons of diesel in Arctic river

Nearly 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle in Russia, following the collapse of a fuel tank at a power plant. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency as environmental organizations warned over the impacts of the massive spill.

Credit Flickr

The accident happened on May 29 at the city of Norilsk, one of the world’s most polluted places due to its industrial activity. The oil leaked from a tank in a plant managed by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of palladium and one of the largest producers of nickel, platinum and copper.

“The accident took place at the industrial site of the Nadezhdinski Metallurgical Plant, and part of the spilled petrochemicals, a considerable amount actually, seeped into the Ambarnaya River,” Putin said as he discussed the incident with officials on Wednesday, according to the Kremlin

The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had earlier told President Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on May 31st after “alarming information appeared in social media.” The two-day delay from the onset of the spillage led to Putin harshly criticize the head of the company.

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days after the fact?” Putin asked the subsidiary’s chief, Sergei Lipin. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?” Putin has ordered an investigation into the accident. A manager at the power plant was arrested.

Nevertheless, the president’s claims were dismissed by the company responsible for the spill. Emergency teams were “immediately” sent after the accident to start to clean up, Norilsk Nickel said on its website – adding that the spill happened in a remote area and that no local community had been impacted.

“A regional emergency situation was declared in the city of Norilsk and Taymir region. An emergency response team was set up chaired by the city mayor of Norilsk,” the company said, claiming it was trying to limit damage to the local environment – a challenging task according to environmental organizations.

The second-largest environmental accident in modern Russian history

Alexei Knizhnikov, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, told AFP that the accident is believed to be the second-largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and warned it will be difficult to clean it up due to its size and the geography of the river.

“There has never been such an accident in the Arctic zone,” said Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor. According to Mitlov, the clean-up could cost about 100bn roubles ($1.5 billion) and take between five and 10 years.

Meanwhile, the government is looking for solutions. Russia’s minister of natural resources, Dmitry Kobylkin, dismissed the possibility of burning off the fuel oil due to its size, proposing instead to dilute the oil with reagents. He also suggested pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra, something dismissed by Putin.

Sponge based on common mattress foam could clean up oil spills

Fireboat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ US Coast Guard.

In 2010, mankind experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico led to the discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil, causing irreparable damage to the local ecosystem that is still felt to this day. There are, however, thousands of smaller spills that occur every year, but since they’re not that important you never hear about them in the news.

With this huge environmental challenge in mind, researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Toronto have developed a cheap sponge that can soak up oil relatively fast. The best thing about this sponge is that it can also work on wastewater from fracking (up to over 100 billion barrels a of such water are produced each year). At the moment, the toxic fracking byproduct is either injected deep underground or stored in huge tanks.

The team of chemical engineers led by Pavani Cherukupally sought to find a solution by turning to polyurethane foam, a common material used in everyday household items like mattresses. Although polyurethane foam has good oil absorption properties, it only works well under certain conditions of acidity, which can strengthen or weaken the affinity between oil droplets and the sponge.

“It’s all about strategically selecting the characteristics of the pores and their surfaces. Commercial sponges already have tiny pores to capture tiny droplets. Polyurethane sponges are made from petrochemicals, so they have already had chemical groups which make them good at capturing droplets,” said Cherukupally.

“The problem was that we had fewer chemical groups than what was needed to capture all the droplets.”

The researchers developed a coating that alters the foam’s texture, chemistry, and charge, thus making it more suitable for a broad range of situations. When viewed under a microscope, the coating contains hair-like particles of nanocrystalline silicon that act like fishing rods for the oil droplets.

“The critical surface energy concept comes from the world of biofouling research—trying to prevent microorganisms and creatures like barnacles from attaching to surfaces like ship hulls,” Dr. Cherukupally said in a statement.

“Normally, you want to keep critical surface energy in a certain range to prevent attachment, but in our case, we manipulated it to get droplets to cling on tight.”

When tested under four different scenarios of acidity, the coated foam soaked up between 95% and 99% of the oil and did so in no more than three hours.

The material can be washed with a solvent that extracts the oil, crucially allowing the foam to be reused.

Hopefully, this technology will soon become commercially available because, right now, our options are extremely limited and not very effective. For instance, British Petroleum used controversial chemicals called dispersants to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill by breaking up the oil into smaller drops. The small size of the droplets allows microbes to digest the oil more easily while also emulsifying the oil in the process, harming the ocean ecosystems.

“Current strategies for oil spill cleanup are focused on the floating oil slick, but they miss the microdroplets that form in the water,” said Amy Bilton, a professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the new study.

“Though our sponge was designed for industrial wastewater, adapting it for freshwater or marine conditions could help reduce environmental contamination from future spills.”

In the future, the researchers would like to use sponges to treat contamination from the gas, mining, and textile industries.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Chile oil spill: 40,000 liters spilled in pristine Patagonia

According to official reports by the Chilean Navy, some 40,000 liters of oil (approximately 10,600 gallons) have been spilled.

The Chilean navy works to contain damage from the oil spil on Guarello Island in Chile on July 27. Image credits: Chilean Navy / Twitter.

This year has been relatively quiet when it comes to oil spills, even if there has been at least one major oil spill every year since the 1980s. In this one, diesel oil has spilled into the waters Patagonia, in Chile.

Patagonia is a biodiversity hotspot encompassing the vast southernmost tip of South America. It’s shared by Chile (to the west) and Argentina (to the east), with the Andes Mountains as the dividing line. A tweet by Oceana Chile, a nonprofit ocean conservancy, describes the area affected by the oil spill — a part of the Patagonian archipelago, about 1,740 miles (2,800km) south of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

It’s not exactly clear why the spill happened. The Chilean navy sent ships to carry out an investigation, as well as contain the damage as much as possible.

“The marine pollution control centre was activated,” Ronald Baasch, commander of the navy’s Third Naval Zone, told local media.

The oil is the responsibility of the Chilean mining company CAP. The company has said that the problem is contained. They’ve also said that they are working with the navy to clean and monitor the area. A container sleeve has been deployed in the area, and work on removing oil from the environment is also being carried out.

“As an additional measure, a process of permanent monitoring of the area has been coordinated through a specialized foundation,” the company’s statement said.

However, the Chilean navy has reported that only around 15,000 liters (approximately 4,000 gallons) had been contained as of Sunday.

Although the response has been swift, the spill is still dangerous, particularly considering the pristine area in which it happened. Coastal Patagonia is home to some of the largest coastal colonies of marine mammals and birds anywhere.

“It’s an extremely grave situation considering the pristine nature of the waters in which this environmental emergency has occurred,” Greenpeace Chile Director Matías Asun told the CNN. “It must be considered that the zone is extremely difficult to access and that it is an area of great richness of marine mammals, like whales and dolphins, which could see themselves seriously affected in their habitat given that when coming to the surface to breathe they could meet this layer of oil.”

Oil spills threaten all marine life. They coat the water with dark residue, blocking sunlight from reaching the subsurface, and affecting the plankton which serves as a foundation for all marine wildlife. It also spreads chemicals through the environment, affecting creatures’ ability to feed and reproduce.

Animals who rely on scent to find their babies or mothers cannot due to the strong scent of the oil. Oil can also be ingested by animals or absorbed on birds’ feathers, with devastating consequences.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was 8 years ago. The ocean is still struggling to recover

Eight years ago, mankind created one of the biggest environmental disasters in history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill led to the discharge of 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3) of oil, and nature still hasn’t recovered, a new study has found.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill approaching the coast of Mobile, Alabama, on May 6, 2010.

The spill area hosts 8,332 species, all of which are threatened by the hydrocarbon leaks. A 2014 study of the effects of the oil spill on bluefin tuna found that toxins from oil spills can cause irregular heartbeats leading to cardiac arrest. A further study also found that the toxins could severely damage the internal organs of predators and even humans in the area — directly contradicting BP, the oil company responsible for the spill.

To make matters even worse, the oil dispersant Corexit, previously only used as a surface application, was released underwater in unprecedented amounts. The goal was to make oil more easily biodegradable, but the plan backfired as the oil and dispersant mixture permeated the food chain through zooplankton — from which it proceeded to spread across the entire ecosystem. Chemicals from the spill were found in migratory birds as far away as Minnesota, with a devastating effect on marine wildlife. A 2016 study reported that 88% of 360 baby or stillborn dolphins within the spill area “had abnormal or underdeveloped lungs”, compared to 15% in other areas.

Birds were also severely affected, both directly and indirectly. Here, an oiled brown pelican near Grand Isle, Louisiana. Image credits: Governor Bobby Jindal.

No matter where and how you look, the scale of the disaster is shocking. Alas, it gets even worse: new study found that the basic building blocks of life in the ocean have been altered, indicating that the ocean still hasn’t recovered from the oil spill.

“At the sites closest to the spill, biodiversity was flattened,” study lead author and University of Southern Mississippi microbial ecologist Leila Hamdan told The Guardian. “There were fewer types of microbes. This is a cold, dark environment and anything you put down there will be longer lasting than oil on a beach in Florida. It’s premature to imagine that all the effects of the spill are over and remediated,” she said.

Researchers took sediment samples from shipwrecks scattered up to 150 km (93 miles) from the spill site to study how and if micro-biodiversity has recovered. Shipwrecks are biodiversity hotspots, so it’s a good place to see how life recovered. Researchers wrote:

“More than 2,000 historic shipwrecks spanning 500 years of history, rest on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. Shipwrecks serve as artificial reefs and hotspots of biodiversity by providing hard substrate, something rare in deep ocean regions. The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill discharged crude oil into the deep Gulf. Because of physical, biological, and chemical interactions, DWH oil was deposited on the seafloor, where historic shipwrecks are present. This study examined sediment microbiomes at seven historic shipwrecks.”

Results weren’t encouraging. Microbes are still struggling to recover, and since they are affected, the entire food chain that’s built upon them is also affected. There’s a good chance we have still yet to see all the far-reaching consequences of this event.

“We rely heavily on the ocean and we could be looking at potential effects to the food supply down the road,” she said. “Deep sea microbes regulate carbon in the atmosphere and recycle nutrients. I’m concerned there will be larger consequences from this sort of event.”

The timing of the study is also very fitting — it comes just as a new measure by the Trump administration opens up 90% of U.S. coasts to offshore oil drilling, dismantling ocean conservation measures put in place by former president Barack Obama in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon calamity. This means that this type of disaster will become much more likely in the future, much to the chagrin of scientists and conservationists.

Journal Reference: Leila J. Hamdan, Jennifer L. Salerno, Allen Reed, Samantha B. Joye & Melanie Damour. “The impact of the Deepwater Horizon blowout on historic shipwreck-associated sediment microbiomes in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” Scientific Reports.

Ed Barry, Argonne researcher, wrings an Oleo Sponge after a test #sciencecanbemessy. Credit: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

Revolutionary material can absorb 90 times its weight in spilled oil. It can be squeezed like a sponge and then reused

A novel material could become the go-to solution for managing scary oil spills that can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. Thanks to carefully tailored structure, the sponge-like material simply loves to soak in hydrocarbons being capable of absorbing 90 times its weight in crude oil.

Ed Barry, Argonne researcher, wrings an Oleo Sponge after a test #sciencecanbemessy. Credit: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

Ed Barry, Argonne researcher, wrings an Oleo Sponge after a test #sciencecanbemessy. Credit: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

Although there’s a downward trend in numbers of large oil spills, i.e. greater than 700 tonnes, these are still a major cause of environmental concern. BP’s 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, spewed  2.5 million gallons of oil a day for months killing hundreds of birds and marine life, as well as the lives 11 crew members. The long-term effects on the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem, however, remain largely unknown — what’s certain is the area is devastated for years.

Cleaning an oil spill is never a pretty or easy job and two oil spills are alike due to variations in oil types, locations, and weather conditions involved. Typically, engineers would first start with containment using booms to confine the spill and skimmer equipment to collect the oil it from the water surface. Large quantities of dispersants are also dumped on the spill to break up the oil and speed its natural biodegradation. Additionally, there are commercially available sorbents specifically designed to absorb oil. These can be effective, depending on the situation, but their main drawback is that they have to be discarded immediately after use, just like you would throw away a paper towel soaked with last night’s mess from the kitchen.

Seth Darling and colleagues at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois wanted to make a sorbent that can be used more like a sponge than a paper towel. It consists of polyurethane foam coated with silane molecules which have a chemical affinity of liquid hydrocarbons. The foam, which is commonly found in everything from home insulation to cushions, is littered with ‘nooks and crannies’ where oil molecules can latch on to.

The challenge was to find just the right mix of silane since too little chemical interaction didn’t make the material absorbent and too much kept the oil trapped inside the foam.

They eventually reached a satisfying equilibrium and lab tests suggest the material, called the Oleo Sponge, can be soaked and have its contents squeezed multiple times without any noticeable loss in capacity.

To make sure, though, that these sponge can handle oil spills effectively, Darling and colleagues performed a large-scale test in a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett. The researchers submerged six-square-meter square pads made from Oleo Sponge into the pool, right behind a pipe that was spewing crude oil for the test. After the pads were well soaked, these were sent through a wringer to remove the oil. The process was repeated several times over a couple of days.

“The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all,” Darling said.

All of the tests turned out very promising but the ultimate test is still the high seas. It’s not clear yet if Oleo Sponge can perform well under the high pressure of the deep sea. However, Oleo Sponge is definitely one of those innovative materials that look poised to make a lasting impact.




New oil spill spews 90,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico

An offshore of Royal Dutch Shell is responsible for a new oil spill which covered a 13- by 2-mile sheen of oil on the waves.

An oiled brown pelican near Grand Isle, Louisiana after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

It’s sad that a 90,000-gallon spill is considered minor – almost too minor to even report. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which is part of the U.S. Interior Department, said Shell Offshore Inc. reported a crude oil spill from its Brutus platform, about 90 miles south of Timbalier Island, Louisiana. No injuries were reported.

“There are no drilling activities at Brutus, and this is not a well control incident,” the company said. “Shell is determining the exact cause of the release by inspecting the subsea equipment and flowlines in the Glider field. The company has made all appropriate regulatory notifications and mobilized response vessels, including aircraft, in the event the discharge is recoverable. There are no injuries.”

At a global level, oil spills are surprisingly common, with several major ones taking place each year – in some places more often than others. The Gulf of Mexico seems a particularly prone area, with the most notable spill being the Deepwater Horizon Spill, which killed 11 people and spewed out 4.9 million barrels (210,000,000 U.S. gallons; 780,000 cubic meters), being one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.

“The last thing the Gulf of Mexico needs is another oil spill,” Vicky Wyatt, a Greenpeace campaigner, told EcoWatch. “The oil and gas industry’s business-as-usual mentality devastates communities, the environment, and our climate. Make no mistake, the more fossil fuel infrastructure we have, the more spills and leaks we’ll see. This terrible situation must come to an end. President Obama can put these leaks, spills, and climate disasters behind us by stopping new leases in the Gulf and Arctic. It’s past time to keep it in the ground for good.”

BP to pay US government $20.8 billion fine for Gulf oil disaster

A federal judge has approved the $20.8 bn settlement for BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This fine will account for civil claims against the company set forth by the Department of Justice and five Gulf states. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch previously called the settlement “the largest with a single entity in American history.”

An oiled brown pelican near Grand Isle, Louisiana

In September 2014, a federal judge has called major oil company BP (British Petroleum) “reckless”, and oil services giants Transocean and Halliburton “negligent” following the major oil spill of 2010. The US District Judge Carl Barbier has ruled that BP’s “gross negligence” was responsible for the 11 lives which were lost and the 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 cubic meters).

It’s one of the largest environmental disasters in history, The spill area hosts 8,332 species, and several peer reviewed studies and governmental reports have shown that the environmental damage (both in short and the long run) is inestimable. However, when it comes to fines and lawsuits, everything has to be quantified, and this sum was deemed acceptable by both sides.

BP has reportedly already spent $28 billion on cleanup and compensation, but their measures were nowhere near as effective as predicted. If those figures seem absurdly high, then you need to understand the scale at which BP operates. The company has revenues on the order of hundreds of billions, while their net profit was generally around $10 billion – so the fine is basically their profit for a couple of years. The company reported a net loss of almost $8 billion in 2015, but this includes the cleaning money and a part of the fine. They had several years to prepare for this, and while other companies would have been completely dismantled by such a punishment, BP seems to be able to land on is feet.

Out of the settlement money, $5.5 billion will go toward penalties incurred under the Clean Water Act, most of the money will be given to five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — and 400 local government entities to cover damages from the spill.

Workers at a site affected by one of the spills. Photo via twitter ‏@vozdelatierra

Two oil spills in the course of one month wreck havoc in the Amazon

Two major oil spills in the course of only one month are threatening Amazonian wildlife and local communities. Peru’s General Directorate of Environmental Health issued a water quality emergency last Wednesday, but critics voice that this is simply too late — more than three weeks since the first spill spewed more than 2,000 barrels in the regions of Amazonas and Loreto. Shockingly, a third spill has been reported by the local media in Peru, but this has been refuted by the the oil company responsible for the pipelines.

Workers at a site affected by one of the spills. Photo via twitter ‏@vozdelatierra

Workers at a site affected by one of the spills. Photo via twitter ‏@vozdelatierra

The first rupture happened on  Jan. 25 in the municipality of Imaza-Chiriaco, Amazonas region. Between 2,000 and 3,000 barrels of crude were spilled into various waterways, among which a tributary to the great Amazon river. The second spill occurred on Feb. 3 in Datem del Marañon province and resulted in oil reaching the Mayuriaga River and then the Morona River.  It took three days for Petro-Perú  — the state-owned oil company responsible for the damage — to contain the crude using various barriers. Petro-Perú claims that about 90% of the oil has been contained, but heavy rains in the region has overrun the barriers and a lot of oil with it. There were also worrisome reports that child labour was used during the cleanup.

This pipeline, one of many that dot the Amazon basin, is 42 year old and clearly corroded. It could burst at any moment. Photo taken by inspectors from the Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental in Peru.

This pipeline, one of many that dot the Amazon basin, is 42 years old and clearly corroded. It could burst at any moment. Photo taken by inspectors from the Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental in Peru.

Though these efforts are somewhat commendable, locals aren’t happy. The drinking water is contaminated, and the fish are dead. The damage to the local ecosystem can’t be assessed at this time, but past experience tells us that the toll is great.  “People in the communities are suffering from dizziness and vomit because of the obnoxious smells,” said Edwin Montenegro, president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Amazon of Peru. Government reaction is slow, so  communities have resorted to trying to clean up the toxic oil themselves.

Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told Spanish newspaper El País that the oil company’s infrastructure was obsolete and in dire need of an upgrade. The firm will be fined 59 million Peruvian nuevo sols ($16.8 million) for the spill, which won’t worry anyone from  Petro-Perú or provide the proper incentive for these sort of incidents not to happen again.

These news should concern everyone on the planet. Unfortunately these sort of events are very common, with these two spills being only the most recent in a long history of oil and gas leaks in the area. Since 2010, there have been at least 11 spills. One such spill from 2014 released a comparable 3,000 barrels affecting 20,000 families, yet again as a result of a faulty Petro-Perú pipeline. When, the pipelines don’t spill, they indirectly harm the environment as well. More than 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased by the government to oil companies, and in the case of many of these leases the pipeline cross indigenous territory. This causes a lot of outsiders to move into the area, from loggers to colonists.



Disperstants used by BP for oil spill didn’t do much

When British Petroleum (BP) caused the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in April 2010, the environmental damage reached gargantuan proportions. The oil company used dispersants, but the technique was actually counter productive, just creating the appearance of the oil going away.

Controlled fire of the BP oil spill. Image via Wiki Commons.

After the 172 million gallon (650 million liter) spill, BP applied a chemical dispersant called Corexit 9500 by plane in order to disperse the oil and help natural microbes to eat the oil faster. The oil appeared to dissipate, and that was deemed sufficient by most people, who didn’t monitor the microbes and chemicals, said University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye.

She thought this was not really satisfying, so she recreated the situation in the lab, using the dispersant, BP oil, and water from the gulf. What she found was that the dispersant didn’t help the microbes at all – if anything, it actually hurt them.

“The dispersants did a great job in that they got the oil off the surface,” Joye said. “What you see is the dispersants didn’t ramp up biodegradation.” In fact, she found the oil with no dispersant “degraded a heckuva lot faster than the oil with dispersants,” Joye said.

In order to be as broad as possible with their lab simulations, she and her team studied the response of almost 50,000 species of bacteria in the Gulf, seeing how they reacted to water with oil, and water with oil and dispersant. The trends were similar for all species: dispersants simply didn’t help, they just created the appearance of helping.

Let’s translate this a bit; after the major oil spill, BP used a substance that prevents big puddles of oil forming on the surface of oceans, but doesn’t do anything to prevent it from spreading to sea life; it made the oil sink, basically.

Not only does Corexit not help, it can actually prevent some microbes from eating the oil, and to make it even worse, it’s actually toxic, and tends to bioaccumulate; but wait, it gets even worse. One paper concluded that the oil hazard was 52 times higher for wildlife due to the use of Corexit, because it broke the oil droplets and made them easier to ingest. So what BP did only made it seem like they’re doing a good thing, when in fact, it made things even worse.

Journal Reference: Chemical dispersants can suppress the activity of natural oil-degrading microorganisms.

British Petroleum fined a record $20.8 billion for oil spill

In a monumental decision, British Petroleum (BP) was fined $20.8 billion for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; this upgrades the initial deal from the $18.7 that were previously discussed and represents the largest corporate settlement in US history. This money is additional to the reported $28 billion spent on cleanup and compensation.

The oil spill, as seen by NASA's satellites.

The oil spill, as seen by NASA’s satellites. Image via Wikipedia

“The historic civil penalty also sends a clear message of accountability for those who pollute the U.S. environment,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant.

Out of that sum:

  • $8.1 billion for natural resources damage claims, under the Oil Pollution Act. This includes additional money spent on cleaning and monitoring the area
  • $4.9 billion will go to the five Gulf states to compensate for economic damage
  • $1 billion will go to local governments to compensate for economic damage
  • $1.1 B will be managed by the U.S. Coast Guard for response and emergency response efforts
  • $4.4 B will go to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund in the U.S. Treasury Department

The Justice Department settlement includes $700 million saved for natural problems that might appear in the future – it was recently reported that a tar mat appeared in March in the area, and the oil was matched to the one from BP.

Paying a fine this big, you’d expect a company to be ruined (not to mention the image prejudice BP suffers), but it looks like the London giant will just shake it off. Their revenue was US$ 358.7 billion, while their reported profit is $4 billion. Furthermore, this money won’t all be given up front at once, but will be spread out over multiple years, so they have a pretty good chance of just shrugging it off year after year. But let’s not trivialize this – this is a monumental decision, and we should take our victories where we can get them. Will it hurt BP? Yes, obviously. Is the fine high enough? That’s debatable; does it cover the damage it did? Again, debatable, but probably not. But this decision sets a precedent – one that should have been made years before.

A pelican affected by the oil spill. Image via Wikipedia.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is widely considered to be the worst oil spill in US history; it killed 11 workers, set the entire rig on fire and started a massive spill which took 87 days to stop. The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 cubic meters). The spill area hosts 8,332 species and numerous studies have tried to quantify the environmental damage, which was gargantuan.

By 98 to 1, U.S. Senate passes amendment saying climate change is real

It’s hilarious and sad at the same time: the US Senate had to vote whether or not climate change is real, and not a hoax. Thankfully, the vast majority of the Senators agreed with science, and by 98 to 1, they voted that climate change is indeed real.

Hilarious, yet saddening: US Senators had to vote that climate change is real is, while arguably necessary, just as silly as Tolkien’s Ents voting whether or not the hobbits are orcs.

The vote was part of an amendment regarding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which would carry oil from the Canadian sands to the US.

The problems with the Keystone pipeline are many and far reaching. First of all, oil sands explorations like the one in Canada leave toxic traces, and the Canadian oil sands specifically have a history of pollution and contamination; this move would also greatly encourage oil sands exploration, which causes more emissions than conventional exploration. Indeed, the main concern is about greenhouse gas emissions. Research showed that the Keystone XL pipeline could produce 4 times more emissions than previously thought. There is also a major risk of oil spills along the pipeline, which would traverse highly sensitive terrain, with threatened wildlife and pristine waters.

As it usually happens in the US, the project polarized Republicans and Democrats, with the first supporting the building of the pipeline, and the latter opposing it. Many Republican senators actively speak against climate change, with Senator James Inhofe even calling climate change “a hoax”. To make things even worse, Inhofe is heading the Senate Environment Committee. Let me rephrase that: a man who believes that 99% of the scientific community is wrong is in charge of the government money going to environmental infrastructure. Yep, nice going there, US.

So anyway, several Democrats have filed largely symbolic amendments to a bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They are designed to put senators on the record on whether climate change is real and human-caused. This wouldn’t change things by much legally, but it put things into an interesting perspective – if lawmakers do agree that climate change is real and humans are causing it, then they will have to justify not taking measures to protect it (and even taking measures to accelerate climate change).

“We may not agree on the solutions, on the paths forward, or even on some of the details, but I do believe it’s time for us to begin to agree on a basic set of facts,” said Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI), who is offering a climate amendment, on the Senate floor today.

But things took quite a surprising turn, when Senator Inhofe took back his words and admitted that climate change is real, but went on saying that humans aren’t causing it. Needless to say, that’s also not correct – we are causing climate change.

“Climate is changing,” he said, “and climate has always changed.” The hoax that he has talked about, he suggested, is that there are people who think they are so “arrogant” and “powerful” that “they can change climate.”

With an overwhelming majority, the US senate decided climate change is real.

Inhofe was one of the last senators to vote, in favor. The only ‘NO’ vote came from Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS).

The only thing that’s left now is to vote if we are indeed causing it. Who knows, maybe one day politics will finally catch up to science.



BP’s fine for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be lower than expected

A federal judge decided this week that British Petroleum will pay a maximum of $13.7 billion for its 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, saying that the oil spill was not as extensive as United States officials claimed. The sum is several billions lower than all parties involved were expecting – except for BP, of course.

An oiled Brown Pelican near Grande Isle, Louisiana. Image via Wiki Commons.

In September 2014, a federal judge has called major oil company BP (British Petroleum) “reckless”, and Transocean and Halliburton “negligent” following the major oil spill of 2010. The US District Judge Carl Barbier has ruled that BP’s “gross negligence” was responsible for the 11 lives which were lost and the 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 cubic meters). The spill area hosts 8,332 species, and several peer reviewed studies and governmental reports have shown that the environmental damage (both in short and the long run) is inestimable.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill approaches the coast of Mobile, Ala., May 6, 2010. Image via Wiki Commons.

The legal terms here revolve around negligence: under a “gross negligence” ruling Barbier issued in September, BP could be fined a statutory limit of up to $4,300 for each barrel spilled. However, a simple “negligence” ruling, which BP sought, caps the maximum fine at $1,100 per barrel – about 4 times lower.

Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) observed in emulsified oil on April 29, 2010. Image via Wiki Commons.

The fine might seem huge – and it is, in a way. The maximum sum is $13.7 billion… which goes without saying, is a lot of money. But when you put it into perspective, things change significantly. BP’s annual profit was almost $24 billion in 2013, and shows no reason of dropping from the $20 billion ballpark in the future. So for the 4.9 million barrels of oil which killed countless animals and caused an unprecedented environmental disaster, the company will have to pay about half of its annual profits. Doesn’t seem so much now, does it ?

Even after the Clean Water Act fines are set, BP may face other bills from a lengthy Natural Resources Damage Assessment — which could require BP to carry out or fund environmental restoration work in the Gulf — as well as other claims.

Oil skimming vessels (distance) in the Gulf of Mexico. Image via Wiki Commons.

So far, 810,000 barrels were collected during the clean-up, and even the imperfect cleaning efforts have cost BP more than the fine. As a matter of fact, without the fines, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has cost BP some $42 billion already – not counting the negative publicity.



Children are cleaning up an oil spill in Bangladesh – with their bare hands

On 9 December 2014 an oil spill occurred at the Sela river of Sundarbans, Bangladesh, a UNESCO World Heritage site. An oil tanker named Southern Star VII, carrying 350,000 litres of oil was sunk in the river after it had been hit by a cargo vessel. Neither the state owned oil company (Padma Oil Company) nor the government itself has shown any real interest in cleaning the oil spill, so now, the damage is taken care of by locals working with their bare hands.

All the locals, men, women and children alike are cleaning the spill with their bare hands.

The spill occurred on the Sela river – part of the Sundarbans, the largest unbroken stand of mangrove forests in the world. This is a unique ecosystem, with trees and shrubs specially adapted to saline coastal sediment habitats in the tropics and subtropics. The mangrove forests also hosts some of the most endangered creatures: the masked finfoot, the Irrawaddy, Gangetic, and four other kinds of dolphins, as well as the Bengal tiger and the beautiful, endangered Sundari tree (Heritiera fomes). There have also been reports of crocodiles, monitor lizards and many other animals smeared with oil in the Sundarbans.

Oil shouldn’t have been transported in the Sundarbans in the first place. Yet in Bangladesh, tankers carrying “modified cargo”—oil, pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides, fly ash, cement, sand, and salt—travel through these channels every day. There’s actually heavy traffic in the area, and sooner or later this was almost bound to happen – two vessels collided an there was an oil spill.

Naturally, you’d expect some sort of cleaning intervention… but the intervention wasn’t the one you’d expect.

“We try to take off as much as we can with mud. Then we go home and clean ourselves with kerosene.”(Arati Kumar-Rao)

14 days after the oilspill, QZ.com vizited the spill area.

“Men, women, and children were knee deep in the mudflats and elbow deep in heavy fuel oil. They were scraping black, viscous goo from sedges, reeds, leaves, trunks and roots. Each painstaking handful of black pulp collected was smeared off along the rim of a cooking pot. Then, they turned back to the plants for more. Children, mostly aged between 10 years and 16 years, were covered in black from toe to waist”, they report.

(Arati Kumar-Rao)

The public reaction was strong; in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, public outrage was sparked in newspapers, and social media channels were flooded with images of tigers and dolphins drenched in oil. Authorities responded that the oil spill is being taken care of and everything is under control… and apparently, by that, they mean that the population is cleaning it by hand – children included.

A spill of this magnitude required prompt and solid efforts, but the intervention has been slow and ineffective – not to mention unscientific and hazardous. It’s the 21st century, and people are cleaning oil spills by hand. Fishermen, who are most affected by the oil spill all scrape the goo by hand and collect floating smeared plant matter that they dump into their boats.

Local fishermen and their families from the villages near the spill site work in the muck without any protective gear.(Arati Kumar-Rao)

“The boats are towed back to the village “depot” by the forest department, which is coordinating the effort (with local NGOs). Here, the plant matter is boiled and heated to loosen the oil. This is collected in barrels, and trucked back to Padma Oil. The fishermen are doing all the collection and boiling without any protective gear. They are smeared in oil by day on the river, and engulfed in its fumes when they get home. These oils contain chemicals that are toxic. It can have dire digestive, pulmonary, and dermatological effects and, if the exposure extends over time, also neurotoxic effects.

A dozen days after the spill, the children of Joymoni have begun to fall sick. But right now, it is all about recovering and selling back the oil”, QZ concludes.

Article and pictures source: QZ.

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry.

Massive oil spill floods nature reserve in Israel – possibly the country’s worst environment disaster

More than 80 people were hospitalized after inhaling noxious fumes after a pipeline failure caused some 600,000 gallons of oil to spill into a nature reserve in the desert near Eilat, a southern Israel city. The city with a population of about 50,000 people was not directly affected, however local fauna and flora was severely damaged, according to Guy Samet, the director of the southern region for the Environmental Protection Ministry. It might take years for the spill to be cleaned, and much longer for the local vegetation and wildlife to recover.

One of Israel’s direst ecological situation

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry.

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry.

“This is one of the State of Israel’s most serious pollution events,” Samet told Israel Radio. “We are still having trouble gauging the full extent of the contamination.”

The spill was caused by a breach in the 153-mile long Trans-Israel pipeline, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and Red seas that runs from Eilat to Ashkelon. It’s not clear year what caused the spill. The only information we have yet comes from officials at the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company who claim the breach was likely due to a “maintenance failure” at a new section of the pipeline.

[ALSO READ] BP fined $17.6 billion following 2010’s “reckless” oil spill


The spill was caused by a breach in the Trans-Israel pipeline on December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Fire Department).

Israel’s Environment Ministry will task its “Green Police” with forming a special team to investigate the matter and determine the cause of the spill. It’s still far too early to count the damage, but considering a huge 4.3 mile river of oil was released out into the open things must not look pretty. The hydrocarbon river is currently making its way toward the Jordanian river, like a menacing lava flow following a volcanic eruption. In Jordan, already some 80 people have been hospitalized after reporting breathing difficulties due to hydrogen sulfide in the air. Three Israelis were also hospitalized after inhaling the toxic fumes, according to Think Progress.

Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination. Image: Getty

Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination. Credit: Getty Images

“We’re talking about thousands of gallons of crude oil, which will endanger local wildlife and the surrounding nature reserve,” he said, adding that rehabilitation could take “years.”

The Evrona Nature Reserve was hit the hardest by the spill. It’s one of the most important reserves in the Arava desert home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer, said Doron Nissim, director of the Nature and Parks Authority’s Eilat chapter.

“From what we currently know, there is extensive pollution. Tomorrow we will perform an analysis of the damage and then we’ll have a clearer picture,” he said.

Even if the spill was gone tomorrow, Israel is far from short of environmental problems. The biggest challenge the country faces is its growing water shortage. Since the mid-1970s, demand for water has at times outstripped supply, a situation that seems to mirror that of California today. Israel is a semi-arid country where no rain falls for at least six months a year. According to a report submitted to the Israeli Water Commission in December 2000, Israel’s main water sources are expected to continue to decline, endangering drinking water quality, and raising the specter that it will soon not be possible to supply sufficient drinking water.

BP fined $17.6 billion following 2010’s “reckless” oil spill

A federal judge has called major oil company BP (British Petroleum) “reckless”, and Transocean and Halliburton “negligent” following the major oil spill of 2010.

Image: kris krüg/Wikimedia Commons

The US District Judge Carl Barbier has ruled that BP’s “gross negligence” was the main culprit for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which is considered to be the biggest marine disaster in history. The spill claimed 11 lives, resulting in a total discharge estimated at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 cubic meters). BP declared the leak closed, but some reports indicate that it is still seeping. The spill area hosts 8,332 species, and several peer reviewed studies and governmental reports have shown that the environmental damage (both in short and the long run) is inestimable.

In 2012, BP accepted criminal responsibility for the spill, and were ordered to pay $4.5 billion, aside for the fine they’ve been ordered to pay now. Judge Barbier said:

 “BP’s conduct was reckless. Transocean’s conduct was negligent. Halliburton’s conduct was negligent.”

All the companies involved have to pay fines – the culpability was divided as follows: 67 percent for BP, 30 percent for Transocean, which is one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors, and 3 percent for Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil field services companies.

“This means that BP will finally be forced to pay what it owes to fix what it broke,” Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold told Cronin. “Is is a long-awaited step toward healing and recovery for the Gulf Coast, its birds and its people. BP said it was above the law; Judge Barbier said the law applies to everyone, even multinational giants.”

BP plans to appeal the decision, claiming that the decision “not supported by the evidence at trial”. The fine puts the company’s future in jeopardy – which is something that over $20 billion in fines should do. But then again – let’s put things into perspective – BP made (in profits) US$ 23.758 billion in 2013 alone – so all this huge fine does is strip the company of a yearly profit.

Duke Energy Spilled At Least 5,000 Gallons Of Diesel Into The Ohio River On Monday

Between 5,000 and 8,000 gallons of diesel were spilled into the Ohio River on Monday, but officials say drinking water in the area is safe.

Image via Shutterstock.

Duke Energy is responsible for the spill, which happened during a “routine transfer”. While the company is still investigating, Duke spokeswoman Sally Thelen told the Inquirer that the spill may have been caused by human error.

“We have mechanisms for overflow valves,” Thelen said. “We are still investigating the exact cause, but what we do feel may have happened was one of the valves was opened, which caused them to overflow.”

This is not the first time this year that Duke Energy is associated with an environmental disaster – in February, one of their storage ponds for coal waste spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash sludge into North Carolina’s Dan River. Meanwhile, both Greater Cincinnati Water Works and the Northern Kentucky Water District have intake valves for drinking water supplies along the route of the spill, but authorities say that there is no need to worry regarding drinking water.

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

One of the most devastating oil spills 25 years later

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a mile off-course in an attempt to avoid icebergs, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, gashing its hull and releasing oil into the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil leaked into pristine Alaskan waters – it was an environmental nightmare, one that still echoes 25 years later. For the residents of the small Cordova community, the accident lingers much deeper.

Some 2,000 sea otters, 302 harbor seals and about 250,000 seabirds died in the days immediately following the spill. In the long run, however, the spill continued to wreck havoc, both to wildlife and the local economy, destroying whole businesses. Before the spill Cordova consistently ranked in the top 10 most profitable U.S. seafood ports. A quarter century later, it’s not even in the top 25. Herring fishing was the life and blood of Cordova, but 25 years layer herring population still has yet to recover in Prince William Sound.

Exxon’s army

At its peak, the effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean's surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches, forcing the oil into traps for collection. Photo: Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Landov

At its peak, the effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean’s surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches, forcing the oil into traps for collection. Photo: Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Landov

It took more than four summers of cleanup efforts before the effort was called off. Not all beaches were cleaned and some beaches remain oiled today. At its peak the cleanup effort included 11,000 workers, about 1,000 boats and roughly 100 airplanes and helicopters, known as Exxon’s army, navy, and air force. It is widely believed, however, that wave action from winter storms did more to clean the beaches than all the human effort involved.

Many years later, damage still linkers both the environment and to people’s hearts. It’s not only about the local economy – serious community conflicts and psychological breakdowns followed as well. This is what Liesel Ritchie, assistant director of CU-Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center, thinks. He and colleagues were part of a collaborative 24-year longitudinal study of Cordova and the impact the spill had on the local community.

“What has fostered so much stress and anxiety in the community as a whole is different science says different things,” she said. “For example, Exxon scientists say everything is fine, that the impacts were minimal to begin with and that they subsided very quickly. Then other scientists who are not being paid by Exxon have other findings. What we’re talking about here at that level then is contested science which tends to cause uncertainty and stress in populations that are receiving this information and not knowing entirely how to interpret that.”

From one direction you hear from people who say everything will be alright, while others tell you all hell is loose. A conflicting tug of war, with the Cordova community in the middle. Another huge stress factor was the exhausting litigation that finally ended in a judgment against Exxon in 2008 – almost 20 years after the spill.

25 years later

One fisherman told the Anchorage Daily News that getting the check was "a damn small bone for an old, angry dog is what it is." Still, despite the emotional scars, many parts of Prince William Sound have returned to their previous, pristine state. Photo: David McNew / Getty

One fisherman told the Anchorage Daily News that getting the check was “a damn small bone for an old, angry dog is what it is.” Still, despite the emotional scars, many parts of Prince William Sound have returned to their previous, pristine state. Photo: David McNew / Getty

During this time, some people may have developed serious internal conflicts. Even though the litigation is now finished in the people’s favor, many are disappointed in the compensation.What was once a $5 billion judgment in 1995 was reduced, through appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, to $507 million.
“The way most people describe it was a slap in the face because although they won the judgment against Exxon, the punitive damages were just that, puny, in most of the people’s minds in Cordova,” Ritchie said. “And there were some people that were really hopeful. And those people were the hardest hit in terms of the frustration and to an extent the anger that they felt with the Supreme Court and the way things went down.”
“You know, I think one of the most important things that I would like to share that I’ve learned over the years in working with people in Cordova, Alaska, in particular, is how strong and truly resilient they are,” she said. “I’m happy to say that at this point we have turned a corner on the stress associated with the spill and the ongoing litigation. The most recent data collection this past year suggests that the level of stress has dropped in the community as a whole, which is the first time since 1989 that we’ve seen that happen.”

Read more about the 24-year longitudinal study here.