Captain’s Blog: Gulf of Mexico Oil Damage/Worse Than You Thought update

In blogging, as in much else, marrying well can make life a lot easier.

Case in point:

Through marriage to my wife I gained cousinhood with Captain Peter Wilcox, who at this point in an adventurous, well-lived life, is master of the Greenpeace ship M.V. Arctic Sunrise.

Which means that because of the family connection, I get Peter’s episodic updates, his Captain’s Blog.

What follows is his latest, from a Gulf of Mexico cruise designed to assess both the damage and decision making about the Deep Horizon disaster that will define the Gulf ecosystem for decades.

First, a work about Peter:  He grew up on boats (next door to my wife-to-be, as it happens in a lefty, multi-racial sort of cooperative housing development in Connecticut, right on Long Island Sound. It was the kind of place where children learned how to sail at about the time they started walking and were allowed to skipper on their own from the moment they proved competent enough.

From there, Peter got involved in water-borne environmentalism on the queen of the Hudson River, the sloop Clearwater (one of Pete and Toshi Seeger’s many give-backs to the community), and then he joined up with Greenpeace.  There he rose to become  captain of the Rainbow Warrior — and was in command when French terrorists spies government-employed-murderous-thugs sunk the ship with two limpet mines, killing one crew member, Fernando Pereira.

In other words, Peter has been there and back again, and has some very hard-won knowledge of what the real world is like — a view barred to those who cannot tear Galt’s glasses from their eyes.

So — what’s in the latest of Peter’s dispatches?

Nothing to make one happy.

Here’s a sample:

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

The whole thing is below the jump.  Don’t read it if you have a short fuse.  You will detonate.

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One last note: Peter isn’t a journalist and doesn’t claim to be one.

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He’s an environmentalist, one with decades of experience with ocean issues.  You can judge for yourself how well he gets the story below. FWIW, here’s my take, as a sometime journo:

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Peter lays out not just what he knows, but also from whence he gets his data. He distinguishes between that data and interpretation. He makes no secret of his presumptions, his starting point, and he clearly sees players who fill the roles of villain and fool.  I’m passing on this report both because it looks to me to be solid (and troubling as hell) and because Peter has given us all the apparatus we need to dig into his claims if we are so minded.

This is, if you were wondering, very different from what much more “credentialled” MSM pundits do. As soon as I have time, I’m going to write up a couple of recent offenders to illustrate the point, but truth is, no one reading this blog needs the crayon sketch.

Read on.  Peter’s got some serious sh*t to say.

What follows is Peter Wilcox’s most dispatch.  It’s a shipboard update, and you are getting it as is, with minor proofing from me.

Captain’s Blog
Gulf of Mexico 2010
5

That’s a wrap!  One more tour in the bag.  The panic filled weekend at Galveston, trying to get ready for that leg is slowly becoming a memory.  The near sleepless nights of doing multiple CTDs are fading away.  And, we saved the best for last!

After we unloaded the EARS gear in Gulfport, we waited a couple days for the truck to show up from California with a submarine.  We expected them sooner, but it took a day for someone in their logistics department to realize that Gulfport is in Mississippi and not Arizona.  A supporter loaned us his sub for the work.  A very nice supporter!

The Deep Worker 2 is the big brother to the Deep Worker we used in the Bering Sea three years ago.  Its really just two Deep Workers bolted together.  The advantage is you can take down a less trained person in the other chamber. I say less trained, because the “passenger” is still responsible for maintaining her or his own life support.

The idea is to take mostly scientists and a journo or two down to the bottom to see what — if any — damage was caused by the BP oil spill.

The sub crew cleaned up the sub from its cross-country ride in a container.  We then gave it a couple test dives in Gulfport harbor to make sure it was working.

Our first dive was a bit of an eye opener.  Many years ago, when I was on the Sirius, we bought a large jet rhib called the Hoolie.  It weighed close to 2.5 tons I am guessing.  Now the Sirius was a great roller. That boat could roll you head off your shoulders, and needed extra lines at the dock to keep her steady.  It was there I realized that for moving weights of more than one ton around on deck, four tag lines are required, not two.

The first launch / recovery we did with only two.  But give us credit of learning, or remembering fast.  The rest of the time, we used four tag lines, and we were all able to breath a lot easier (as in breath at all).  The first dive was plagued by bad visibility and poor communications.

Arctic Sunrise is a noisy boat.  I am not referring to what those of us living on board have to listen to.  I am referring to the underwater noise generated by the ship’s equipment.  When we were on the Espy in the Bering Sea three years ago, we were able to mount the comms antenna on a long pole that went in the water to a depth below the keel.  But it turned out the Sunrise was too noisy for this.  We used our pole (made in Galveston) to hold the sonar for location of the sub, but had to shift the comms to the jet boat.

The vis got better, the comms got better, and most of the dives were very successful.  I am happy to report that the Alabama Alps, the underwater ridge about twenty miles north of the BP accident did not show any signs of being damaged by oil.  There is more testing need to be done before the scientists are confident about their conclusions, but this is what our first looked showed.

I wish I could be as optimistic about everything else in the Gulf.  My biggest worry now is for the people who live near and work on the Gulf.

Maybe the biggest impression I got from the spill is that BP was very quick out of the gate in protecting its interests, without any concerns what so ever for the health of the people living on the Gulf.  As fast as BP was at controlling the damage, our governments, State and Federal, are completely clueless, and still do not know what they are doing. Still,… today.

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

When you try to get precise numbers on the spill, it is tough.  Lots of numbers exist.  But what I have found indicates 275 million gallons of crude oil leaked out of the busted well (Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million).  BP used 2 million gallons of Corexit.  On May 20th, the EPA told BP to stop using Corexit.  BP at that time said that they had a quarter million gallons in inventory, and they were going to keep using it.   This is going to be a fatal decision.

So not only should have the people who made Corexit know better, but so should have our government.  Why did not anybody think to call up someone in Alaska, and ask, “what happened when you tried to clean up form the Exxon Valdez spill?

Bob Naman is a chemist at the Analytical Chemical Testing Lab in Mobile.  According to Naman, the poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from this toxic mix are making people sick.  PAHs contain compounds that have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic (an agent that tends to increase the frequency or extent of mutation), and teratogenic (of, relating to, or causing developmental malformation). (I am afraid we all know what carcinogenic means.)   BP sprayed Corexit out of airplanes and injected it into the geyser where the oil was gushing out of the bottom.  Says Naman,”the dispersants are being added to the water and are causing chemical compounds to become water soluble, which is then given off into the air, so it is coming down as rain, in addition to being in the water and beaches of these areas of the Gulf.”

The second week of August while we were checking sponges at Dry Tortugas, WKRG New 5 took a water sample from the area to test for dispersants.  The sample literally exploded when it was mixed with an organic solvent separating the oil from the water.  Naman, who analyzed the sample said: “We think that it most likely happened due to the presence of either methanol or methane gas, or the presence of Corexit”.

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Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower and analyst, has reported this of the effects of the toxic dispersants:
“We have dolphins that are hemorrhaging. People who work near it are hemorrhaging internally. And that’s what dispersants are supposed to do … And, for example, in the Exxon Valdez case, people who worked with dispersants, most of them are dead now. The average death age is around 50. It’s very dangerous, and it’s (Corexit) an economic protector of BP, not an environmental protector of the public.”

By the middle of last summer, the Alabama Department of Public Health said that 56 people in Mobile and Baldwin counties had sought treatment for what they believed were oil disaster-related illnesses.  Have you heard the expression “tip of the ice berg”?

Yesterday morning, NPR said 1/3 of Gulf residents are showing some sign of trauma.  People lost jobs, their homes, and their lives.  And if BP is as good as Exxon was in fighting judgments, it will be years before some deserving people see any money.  When I was up in Alaska three years ago, some people still have not bee paid (20 years later).  Health care professionals see problems with anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression.

This morning NPR did a piece on the difficulties faced by people in the small fishing communities.  They drew similarities between the Exxon spill and the BP spill as opposed to natural disasters like Katrina. The report claims that natural disasters tend to pull communities together, while man made ones divide communities.

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Katrina did not cause people to lose their way of life.  An Iraq veteran who had been shrimping, lost his family when after he lost his job, the BP compensation payment only came to $1,700 for six month.  He had been paid mostly in cash, and was unable to document his income.  He feels like a failure, and has contemplated suicide.

Steve Pico tracked the problems of the Price William Sound communities after the Exxon spill.  “The communities were blindsided, they did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started, divorces started and domestic violence became acute.”  Now he is seeing the same issues start sooner in the Gulf than they did in Alaska.  After four yeas in Alaska, there were seven suicides.  There are already two in the Gulf.

And all while this was going on, our governments were saying: “come on down!  The water is fine”.  President Obama went swimming for the cameras.  What was he thinking?  It was this type of attitude that caused scenes like this one:  families swimming and sunbathing on a beach, while ten meters away, people in has mat suits were digging up the beach to try and get to the oil.

Instead of protecting us, and talking about the dangers of the over use of dispersants, our governments were saying: “the BP spill is no big deal!  You can swim in the ocean!”  I ask again, what could they have been thinking?

I think we can all understand that BP’s complete aim was to limit their exposure to liability.  This is a company that has shown repeatedly it gives not a damn for the public health.  But where was our Surgeon General?  Where was the EPA?

But it is not just people who are suffering.  The toxicity levels of the petroleum found in Pensacola Bay at frightening.  In referring to Pensacola Bay, Heather Reed, the environmental expert for the city of Gulf Breeze said, “the numbers are off the chart. It’s extremely toxic to human health.”

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Lab workers had to dilute the sample 20 times just to get a reading. Reed said samples are usually diluted only once.
“The oil is very well preserved,” Reed added. “It smells very strong when pulled out of the water. It made me nauseated.” Reed in late September discovered a significant amount of oil buried in submerged sediment near Fort McRae in Escambia County while conducting independent research.

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“The oil was in about 3 feet of water and was buried pretty deep in the sediment,” Reed recalled. “The mats where between 6 inches and a foot in diameter, but some were more than 2 feet in diameter. I kept digging and finding more and more.  “Finding this submerged oil is very alarming to me because it’s in such large mats,” Reed explained. “I believe it came into (the bay) in June with the initial impacts.”
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Reed on Sept. 30 revisited the site and another near Barrancas Beach with BP and Coast Guard officials to inform responders of her discovery. She also discovered oil present at Johnson Beach, Fort Pickens and Orange Beach through research she conducted in September.  The topography near Fort McRae helped preserve the submerged oil. Because the area is a secluded cove, very little water flows through it – resulting in low oxygen levels.  “(The oil) is in an anaerobic environment, so there is not a lot of bacteria to break it down,” Reed explained.

Reed said that similar samples that might possibly remain submerged in the Gulf of Mexico could be extremely damaging to the marine ecosystem.  “I am concerned about upwelling events,” Reed said. “Strong currents draw up nutrient rich water and sediment from the sea floor that nourishes plankton and other organisms that are the foundation of the marine food chain.
“If an upwelling event brings up any oil material with these toxicity levels, it could be harmful to any animals near the upwelling plume.”

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“I would not recommend going into the water”, she said.

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She explained that the effects near the beach would be different because of more aeration.  Though no oil has been reported on Gulf Breeze shores or in local bayous, those areas could be at risk.

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“We don’t have any barriers, the Coastwatchers aren’t patrolling anymore, and there has been no communication to the city of this oil entering the bay,” Reed said.  If oil entered any of the Gulf Breeze bayous, Reed explained that it would sink and become submerged just as it had near Fort McRae.  “It would definitely sink and be preserved,” Reed said. “And it would be very difficult to find.

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This has been a very difficult letter to write.  I am not a dispassionate journalist.  Writing this drives my blood pressure up 20 points easily.

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I have seen many ugly situations during my life.  Many of them, like the U.S. Government’s purposely experimenting on Marshall Islanders to study the effects of radiation, I have partly shrugged off because they happened so long ago (50 years in that case).  But the BP spill and its effects on the people of the Gulf are happening now.  Today.  And tomorrow, and for the next 20 years.  There are people there who need help right now.

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And we know it.  We know that like the Exxon Valdez spill, the people who did the actual clean up will pay for it with lost years of their lives.  And BP will give out some money now, and then spend 20 years keeping itself and its lawyer’s rich, while the people of the Gulf suffer.  And if their track record is anything to go by, this won’t be the last time.

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My last night at sea, I went up to the bridge tonight at 18.00 to relieve Ivo, our chief mate from Croatia for dinner. I looked back on the deck, and Wendy, our cook is writing in her journal.  She is not cooking dinner, because Neil, the world’s coolest R.O. is making pizza.  Johanne from Denmark is re-sizing the pilot ladder; until (on a Sunday evening) it is so dark she cannot see any more.

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The rays of sunset are making spokes across the sky from the higher cumulus clouds. This is such a beautiful place, despite man’s best efforts over the last six months.  I really want to go home and see my family.   This has been one of my toughest tours in many years: the constant organizing for the next day’s activities, a crew who all worked very hard, without enough down time to catch their breath.  And in the backs of our minds, constantly the knowledge that while we were not always seeing oil float around on the surface, we were witnessing a huge disaster.

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But in spite of all that, I do not want Veracruz to poke its head over the horizon after lunch tomorrow.  I could do this job forever.

Images:  Joseph Mallord William Turner, Shipwreck, 1805.

George Seurat, Bathers in Asnières, 1883-1884.

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9 Comments on “Captain’s Blog: Gulf of Mexico Oil Damage/Worse Than You Thought update”

  1. Isis the Scientist Says:

    If I amy say, marriage frequently makes men better.

    That said, I must comment on the statement that Corexit is toxic because it “…will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver…” I am sure we can agree that there are plenty of things labeled “not to be inhaled” that are really totes ok. AmIRite, Tom?

    • Tom Levenson Says:

      You are right — though toxicity tests by the EPA go into a little more detail, and put Corexit in the middle of the pack as toxic (to marine life) among dispersants.

      Broadly speaking, the other issue here, as you know better than I, I’m sure, is the difference between casual exposure (we have poisons to terrify the Borgias under our sinks, but don’t care much because we use them in relatively small amounts, and not all the time) and workplace exposure. The quantity of dispersants used in the gulf was phenomenal, and handled by a small subset of those “exposed.” Those are the folks who need monitoring.

      • Isis the Scientist Says:

        My comment in the context of your last post about radioactive marijuana? Totes not funny.

        Le sigh.

  2. Tom Levenson Says:

    So I’m humor impaired. Or really, just dense. Or perhaps, too much of that irradiated herb in my youth.


  3. […] this. I’m can’t begin to figure out how to excerpt or summarize […]

  4. Dave Birch Says:

    That was such an interesting statistic I couldn’t help but watch the CNN video.

    The claim appears or originate from Merle Savage, one of the clean up workers.

    She says that oil is “1,000 times more toxic than we thought”, without specifying who the “we” is. In this newspaper article about her and her book…

    http://www.lvrj.com/news/exxon-valdez-oil-risks-spur-warning-for-gulf-cleanup-crews-93258964.html

    it mentions “dozens” of lawsuits filed by sick clean-up workers, of which “seven” have been settled out of court.

    She also said that she detoxified herself with lemon juice and that she sleeps on magnets.

    Hhhmmm…

    It’s very confusing for interested lay people to work out what is actually going on and makes an excellent case study for the public understanding of science.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2010/1219/Gulf-oil-spill-Deep-water-cleanup-still-needed


  5. People are dying and very ill from this spill, BP doesn’t want to admit this. The Gulf Coast Barefoot Doctors are desperate for funding for people who have heavy loads of dangerous chemicals that will soon affect more than 10 million people. Hospitals in all regions should be made aware that these folks don’t just have the flu and give them more chemicals. They are in need of systemic detoxification, hydration and Labs. Metametrix in Atlanta Georgia is a great place to become educated in the Panels that these very ill patients need.

    I am having such a hard time understanding why the Government is not acknowledging the suffering of humans. Many have Benzine toxicity from inhalation of toxins in the air. Please note and get the word out far and wide that these patients are poisoned and it is not just the flu. BP and other Criminals who allowed this to happen, should be made to reimburse all patients hospital bills when the situation becomes Pandemic. The choices of Corexit are at minimum Genocidal. The long term consequences of this are CANCER but unfortunately it is happening more quickly in this spill than in the Exxon Valdez spill.
    Many are in need of ABGs and Oxygen therapy, they are losing their lung capacity by the day. I have a 30 year old mother who is down to 20% lung capacity and her heart is enlarged. She never had these problems before this. They are still spraying corexit at night. WHERE IN THE HELL IS THE EPA AND THE CDC. THIS SHOULD BE A MAYDAY AND AND SOS CALL. I CAN’T SEEM TO GET ANYONE ON THE PHONE BECAUSE IT IS THE HOLIDAY SEASON.
    Colon Cleansing is Crucial also as well as liver cleansing. These People are Toxic when in doubt treat it as a Toxicity Situation.
    Thank You,
    Trisha Springstead RN
    Florida


  6. You’re so awesome! I do not think I have read through anything like this
    before. So great to discover another person with some genuine thoughts on this topic.

    Really.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that is required on the internet, someone
    with some originality!


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