The Biggest Oil Leak You've Never Heard Of, Still Leaking After 12 Years
Far away from TV cameras and under the radar of the nightly news, oil has been continuously leaking from a damaged production platform located just 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico—causing an oily sheens on the surface that stretch for miles and are visible from space.
These underwater oil wells have been leaking since 2004 and continue to leak as you read this. Unless it is plugged, the government estimates the leak might continue for 100 years until the oil in the underground reservoir is finally depleted.
The platform’s owner, Taylor Energy, has no plans to stop the leak and is lobbying behind the scenes for permission to walk away from its mess.
The Risks of Offshore Oil Production
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf and unleashed an underwater mudslide which toppled the Mississippi Canyon 20 (MC20) oil platform. The offshore platform was located in 450 feet of water near the outlet of the Mississippi River. After the mudslide, the platform ended up on the seafloor, 900 feet from its original location and plumes of oil began seeping from the broken well casings of more than 20 wells that had been connected to the platform.
Although the company began working to contain the leak, the mudslide made traditional well containment tactics difficult. Taylor Energy was more effective at keeping the oil spill under wraps and information about it was not made public until 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster brought added scrutiny to the region. While reviewing satellite imagery of BP’s oil slick, the watchdog group SkyTruth noticed a smaller slick coming from the MC20 location.
Measuring the size of the oil slick in satellite images, SkyTruth was able to estimate a leakage rate ranging from 37 to 900 gallons per day. Over the years, that rate adds up to between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf.
Dodging Their Responsibilities
Even after it was finally revealed to the public in 2010, the leak has been shrouded in a frustrating level of secrecy.
For years, Taylor Energy had reported estimates of the spilled oil to the National Response Center that were extremely small—and in many cases flatly contradicted by the images analyzed by SkyTruth. In 2015, following rigorous documentation by SkyTruth and an investigation by the Associated Press, the U.S. Coast Guard released a leak estimate that was 20 times larger than what had been claimed by Taylor Energy in court filings.
The Associated Press also reported that the company has been reluctant to share information about the leak and their attempts to plug it, citing trade secrets and proprietary information. The lack of transparency led to a lawsuit by Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups. As part of that settlement, Taylor did host a public meeting on Jan. 20 and provided some additional information to the public.
Although the flow of oil shows no signs of abating, it’s clear that the company would like to wash its hands of the whole situation. Taylor Energy has mostly ceased to exist as a company and company president William Pecue is its last remaining employee. Pecue has called the leak an “act of God” for which Taylor cannot legally be held responsible. The company and their hired experts maintain that any further action to halt the leaks would be worse for the environment and therefore they propose “to not take any affirmative action” at the site.
Phyllis Taylor, the widow of the company’s founder, is a well-known philanthropist and a major donor to Louisiana politicians. As a result of those connections, a number of Louisiana officials have lobbied the government to consider Taylor’s proposal. The company is also suing the federal government to recover $432 million in a trust fund that had been set aside for responding to the leak. However, in public statements the U.S. government maintains that there is “still more that can be done by Taylor to control and contain the oil” and that they are committed “to ensure Taylor Energy will work to permanently stop the ongoing oil spill.”
There Will Be Spills
The MC20 leak is a prime example of how chronic oil pollution is a constant presence in areas where oil and gas are produced. The media pays close attention when mega-spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster occur, but the normal day-to-day operations of offshore oil companies inevitably lead to a constant stream of releases and small spills from pipelines, tankers, ships, decommissioned equipment and other sources.
SkyTruth has mapped the nearly 10,000 spills reported to the National Response Center from July 2010 (after the Deepwater spill) to April 2015. The connection between spills and oil production is clear when comparing different regions of the Gulf. In the western gulf, spills are common, especially in the waters off Texas and Louisiana. By contrast, oil exploration is currently banned in the eastern gulf near Florida and, as a result, oil spills are much rarer.
A 2011 Bloomberg investigation found that the culture of non-compliance and lax enforcement in Louisiana meant that companies responsible for persistent pollution were rarely held accountable. One marine biologist summarized the impacts, stating, “When you spill any amount of oil in a marine system, organisms die” and that chronic spills are “a huge problem and far more damaging than most people suspect.”
From Cradle to Grave, Oil Production is Harmful
The production and use of oil is harmful to the environment at every stage of its lifecycle, from cradle to grave. Seismic blasting is used to discover new deposits of oil and gas below the seafloor, significantly disrupting and even injuring marine life, especially whales and dolphins. When those oil and gas deposits are extracted, transported, refined and burned as fuel they release the greenhouse gases that are causing our climate catastrophe. At each stage of the process, oil spills and toxic contamination are all-too-common impacts on human health and the environment.
Taylor Energy has demonstrated that pollution—and lack of accountability—can continue for years even after the company has ceased operations. All the more reason to keep fossil fuels where they belong—underground.
Send an urgent message to President Obama right now to stop all new offshore oil & gas leases.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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