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Toxicology of an Oil Spill

Here’s a must-read piece by Ricky Ott on how Exxon Valdez affected people:

During the Exxon Valdez spill, health problems among cleanup workers became so widespread, so fast, that medical doctors, among others, sounded warnings. Dr. Robert Rigg, former Alaska medical director for Standard Alaska (BP), warned, “It is a known fact that neurologic changes (brain damage), skin disorders (including cancer), liver and kidney damage, cancer of other organ systems, and medical complications–secondary to exposure to working unprotected in (or inadequately protected)–can and will occur to workers exposed to crude oil and other petrochemical by-products. While short-term complaints, i.e., skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, pulmonary symptoms, etc., may be the initial signs of exposure and toxicity, the more serious long-term effects must be prevented.”[1]

Unfortunately, Exxon called the short-term symptoms, “the Valdez Crud,” and dismissed 6,722 cases of respiratory claims from cleanup workers as “colds or flu” using an exemption under OSHA’s hazardous waste cleanup reporting requirements.[2]

Sadly, sick Exxon cleanup workers were left to suffer and pay their own medical expenses. I know of many who have been disabled by their illnesses – or have died.

Here is that OSHA Footnote: U.S. Dept. of Labor, OSHA 29 CFR Part 1904.5(b)(2)(viii): “Colds and flu will not be considered work-related.”

Here’s her thoughts  about the use of dispersants by BP:

So, Riki, explain why some people are a little concerned that this chemical dispersant will actually do more harm than good?
OTT: Chemical dispersants involve a trade-off. And the trade-off is keeping as much – away from hitting the beaches.  So we’re trying to keep the oil from hitting the beaches because once it hits the beaches, there is really the oil industry has no way to clean up oil once it hits the beaches.
WHITFIELD: So the idea is that this chemical will slow down the oil so it won’t hit the beaches. But here is the other fear that some have described, and environmentalists I spoke with last hour said, OK, so this chemical attaches itself to the oil, the oil then sinks, but it gets down to the bottom of the gulf, so, say you have a hurricane, well, that’s going to stir up the bottom, these big globs of oil will find its way into wildlife or on to the sea grasses, on to the shores. Do you believe that?
OTT: What is going on is with dispersants, in an oil spill, to dissolve oil, light dissolve light, so you have to use a toxic solvent. Oil is toxic. You have to use a chemical, an oil-based solvent to dissolve the oil. So it gets stirred up by wind and waves, it acts like Joy soap on the surface of the water where it makes the oil sheen divide out and split.
And it mixes with the water so you get tiny little oil droplets down in the water column. And these – the trade-off is that you’re trying to save animals on shore by trading off animals and fish in the water column.
WHITFIELD: I see.
OTT: You’re killing shrimp eggs.

WHITFIELD: So then, why would – why would BP want to use this? Why would they reportedly get the endorsement from the EPA to actually use this and put these chemicals in the water today?
OTT: Because they’re desperately trying to keep the oil from hitting land fall where it will make an even bigger mess. And the unfortunate truth is that the oil companies have developed chemical dispersants, they buy them from themselves, write off the expense of buying the dispersants as a tax write-off, and they have really effectively stopped their contingency plans if the contingency plans did not include use of dispersants, there would be no oil spill contingency plan.
Oil development would not be allowed to happen. The oil companies have just — have not come up with really any effective tool. You’re seeing what is going on with the booms. And the booms just stop slicks on the surface. Everywhere you see oil on the surface, there is a huge underwater cloud of oil.
WHITFIELD: So it is still getting through. So also in your view then, this chemical dispersants, something is going to be sacrificed in this oil spill, whether it is the livelihood on the shores, the marsh lands, or it is going to be the shrimp eggs, other wildlife, marine life living in the depths of the gulf. You cannot save both.
One will have to be – one body will have to be sacrificed in these measures of containing the oil?
OTT: Yes. And actually what we’re talking about here, no dispersant is 100 percent effective. So all we’re talking about is killing sea life in the ocean, and making less of a mess on the beaches. So you’re actually losing both.
WHITFIELD: Wow.
OTT: And as far as – and what happened with Exxon Valdez is since the dispersants failed, there was a huge storm that came up and they were pretty much ineffective right off the bat.
WHITFIELD: You know, what is remarkable, I saw the some numbers in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, only four, four percent of the oil was ever recovered, and if this is much larger, some say maybe five times larger than the oil spill of "Valdez," you have to wonder exactly what kind of percentage, how much oil could actually be contained at all in this case.
OTT: Yes. And that’s – nothing has improved, believe me, since Exxon Valdez. We’re still looking at those –

I expect that this time around there will be better health and safety for workers and better OSHA oversight. To put it simply: we now know what the potential harms are.

At the same time, this disaster is potentially bigger than Valdez. Estimates about the oil flow rate have gone from 1000 barrels a day to 5000 barrels a day (as of last Wednesday) to 20,000 barrels of oil each day (as of this weekend—note: not an official estimate).

Over the next few years I’m sure we will find people and companies to blame. (Already Jason Leopold reports that BP failed to keep updated schematics of their piping and instruments, which may have been a contributing factor to the accident).

I predict this will  have a devastating and transformative  effect on Houston:  layoffs, lawsuits and bankruptcies. And we’re not anywhere near the path of where the oil spill is headed. 

I think it will also have a psychological effect. The price of oil will continue rising for various reasons, but also  as a result of business uncertainty created by this crisis. There will be lots of blowback against the oil industry (funny how fickle the public can be about these things), taxes, fines, more regulations,  removal of subsidies and (I hope) a reconsideration of our national energy policy with respect to climate change.

Other than hitting the pocketbooks of BP/Halliburton/Anadarko, it’s hard to predict whether other oil companies will feel  a fallout. (But the prices will surely be going up).

Two news sources to follow over the next few weeks (in addition to Climate Change and Grist) will be News Watch energy blog from the Houston Chronicle (generally pro-oil, but not insanely so) and  the peak oil blog Oil Drum (generally alarmist, but frequented by knowledgeable industry people).

Unrelated: During this ecological crisis, the subject for this week’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria is an interview with the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Does anyone seriously worry that Goldman Sachs won’t be able to get their side of the story out?

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