Oil Companies Were Not Held Accountable for 10.8 Million Gallons of Oil Spilled in Gulf of Mexico
The devastation to lives and homes caused by Hurricane Katrina masked a massive crude oil spill that the hurricane caused by damaging rigs and storage tanks in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage was made worse a few weeks later when Hurricane Rita struck the area. The federal regulators that oversee oil and gas operation in the Gulf estimated that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged, leading to 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf — the same amount as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Now, 14 years later, not one assessment of the damage to natural resources has been carried out. There is no plan to help restore impacted ecosystems. And not one of the 140 responsible parties has faced a fine or even a citation, according to an exclusive investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Instead of having to pay fines, the companies whose oil spilled into the water have actually been reimbursed $19 million from a federal trust for the oil they lost, claiming that the spills and damage were caused by an "unforeseeable act of God," according to the review by ProPublica and its partners.
The Act of God defense holds a lot of weight in Louisiana. Adam Babich, former director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told the journalists at ProPublica and its partners that while the act of God defense does not usually release oil companies from liability, it does weaken arguments to hold them accountable.
"We don't normally penalize [companies] for act of God events," said Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate."We just get right to remediation."
The full scale of the damage may never be fully understood without a comprehensive review and assessment. Even a tiny amount of spilled crude oil has a devastating impact and damages coastline that protects inland areas from storms.
The oil that seeps into the marshes affects worms and snails, which are eaten by birds and fish. Marsh plants begin to die, which allows saltwater to eat away at the coastline. That allows the next storm to push further inland, according to Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, who spoke to the ProPublica investigation.
"I think it's an outrage that they haven't made any progress," Malek-Wiley said to ProPublica. "Here we are 14 years later and they haven't done anything. A year after Katrina, things had settled down significantly. I think the oil response team should have been moving forward with environmental damage claims."
The inaction seems to violate the Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in response to the Valdez oil spill. That law mandates federal and state agencies to work with the companies to assess damage to natural resources. After a comprehensive report is completed on the value of the affected plants, soil, water and wildlife, the responsible parties must foot the bill for restoration efforts, according to the ProPublica review.
"It's pretty clear what the value of money is in a place like Louisiana, where we have these restoration needs," Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, to the investigative journalists at ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "Every dollar that's not collected [in fines] is a dollar that we can't spend on this work."
By not completing an environmental assessment, Louisiana is missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental remediation money. Cochran said that if the oil companies responsible for the rigs and storage tanks paid for restoration at the same rate that BP paid for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then Louisiana would have $700 million more in its restoration budget, according to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
"It's a lot of work that's desperately needed but that is only possible because that [BP settlement] money became available," Cochran said to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Since Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf waters with category 5 strength, nothing has been done to protect against storm-related oil spills or the damage to the environment, according to the investigation.
Scientists predict that future storms, which will increase in intensity due to the climate crisis, will exacerbate environmental damage.
"In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come," said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill, to to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn't rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense."
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The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.
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Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.
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By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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