The nation’s sacrifice zone, part II

The New York Times article I referred to in my previous post did more than contrast the crisis of wetlands loss to the oil disaster. It also discussed the longtime degradation of the Gulf Coast, and touched on several “radioactive” issues:

According to data from the Minerals Management Service compiled and analyzed by Toxics Targeting, a firm that documents pollution and contamination, at least 324 spills involving offshore drilling have occurred in the gulf since 1964, releasing more than 550,000 barrels of oil and drilling-related substances. Four of these spills even involved earlier equipment failures and accidents on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

That’s 23 million gallons– about one tenth of the estimated leakage of the BP/Macondo well – dispersed over 46 years. This is  neither an insignificant nor an apocalyptic amount. But to hear the pro-drilling contingent tell it in 2008, rigs were nearly leak free after Katrina so why should we worry about the possibility of a spill?

The article goes on:

Thousands of tons of produced water — a drilling byproduct that includes oil, grease and heavy metals — are dumped into the gulf every year. The discharges are legal and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Well, toxic dispersants are “legal” too, but that doesn’t comfort me. And the FDA has approved a dubious “sniff test” to ascertain the toxicity of Gulf seafood, which doesn’t put me at ease, either. I’d like to know more about this “produced water”:

But in the early 1990s, Robert Wiygul, an environmental lawyer who works on the Gulf Coast, brought at least a half-dozen lawsuits against companies that were found to be dumping produced water in shallow areas along the coast without any permit at all, citing little to no enforcement by the E.P.A. and little concern from regional politicians. The E.P.A. later tightened regulations, including an outright ban on dumping produced waters near shore. But Mr. Wiygul described the situation as typical. If you’d had high-level politicians saying, ‘Y’all need to do this, this needs to happen,’ you would have seen a different situation there,” he said.

After barely introducing the topic, the article then shifts to the Gulf’s hypoxic “dead zone” caused by fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River. It seems like an explanatory paragraph was cut from the piece. Precisely what are the risks of the drilling fluids contained in “produced water”? If the EPA banned “near shore” dumping, why is it ok for rigs to dump it directly in the Gulf further out? The NYT article doesn’t say. I called Robert Wigyul to ask him about this, and mentioned that oil drilling proponents have longextolled the apparent “benefits” rigs have on fishing, since some of the most active fishing areas are around rigs. Mr. Wigyul agreed that rigs are “productive structures” which certainly concentrate “biomass” (whether or not they actually increase it). However, since these biomass concentrations occur in areas where produced water is dumped, there is certainly cause for concern. Wigyul pointed to Ben Raines’ 2002award winning report on the high mercury levels around rigs which dump drilling fluids directly into the Gulf:

The [Mobile] Register’s Hazard Ranking System calculations showed that:

The well-documented contamination in the sediments beneath some rigs reached the Hazard Ranking System’s maximum value for observed releases of hazardous pollutants.

Mercury concentrations in many fish and shellfish sampled around at least one of the rigs were high enough to qualify the area as a contaminated fishery.

Frequent use of the rigs by commercial and recreational fishermen means that the contamination around the rigs represents “a human food chain threat.”

Yesterday, Secretary of the Navy and Gulf Coast Restoration CzarRay Mabusappeared at a town hall event in Houma. A member of the audience went up to the microphone and he implored Mabus to not let the government “reinvent the wheel” on restoration. Otherwise, the government should just get out of the way and empower Cajuns like himself to fix the coast. As an aside the man said he had worked on oil rigs for 30 years and had shuddered at all the pollution dumped into the Gulf. Mabus thanked the man for his statement and said he understood that only “bottom up” solutions would work, and promised that the government would not reinvent the wheel. He didn’t address the claim about rig pollution, among many others.

Simply put: do drilling rigs lure our seafood into some of the most polluted areas in the Gulf?

At the risk of overkill, I want to point to another under-investigated issue, but first a strong caveat about oil industry analystMatt Simmons. Simmons has been one of the most visible and most alarmist analysts to frequently discuss the oil gusher. He has raised numerous potential problems related to the BP oil disaster that few others rarely broach (perhaps with good reason). While Simmons’ vast experience in the oil drilling field can’t be discounted, in the past three months he has made all kinds of unsupported claims about the current disaster. He’s said that BP “killed” the Gulf of Mexico, and predicts they will go bankrupt because it will cost them more than a trillion dollars to clean the polluted Gulf. He also believes there is a hole “5-10 miles” from the Macondo gusher that is still emitting fuel, and the only way to close this rupture will be to nuke the well shut. (See this linkfor rebuttals to these and other claims.)

Simmons is retired from the oil industry, but he is no passive observer. Currently, he isrecruiting private investors for his alternative energy company, before he plans to take it public with a (lucrative) IPO. Thus, Simmons might have a financial interest in portraying the Macondo disaster in apocalyptic terms, to garner more support for his wind and tidal business ventures.

A couple weeks ago, Simmons appeared on Jeff Crouere’s localradio showon 990am. The discussion got bogged down after Simmons said the methane risk from the Macondo well would necessitate wholesale evacuation of the Gulf Coast. Crouere’s listeners began calling in with skepticism, and the discussion devolved into an argument about the limitations of gas masks… etc.

But before that, Crouere asked Simmons about his proposal to nuke the Macondo hole shut, and about the danger of radioactive “fallout” from such a nuclear solution. Simmons replied, “We are already experiencing fallout from the crude.” That woke me up. “We are?” I wondered. Unfortunately, without further explanation, the topic was dropped for another one. So, like the NYT’s processed water issue, Simmons’ claim about radioactive “fallout” went unexplored.

Trolling around the internet, I found this Rense article which – with Simmons-like alarmism – claims that “deep Earth oil is flooding to the surface [of the Gulf] and it is contaminated with uranium and thorium.” I wrote to a scientist named Kelley who publishes the Singularity blog, and asked him to comment on this claim. While not a geochemist, Kelley cast doubt on the dangers of radioactive fallout at the surface of the Gulf.

Uranium and thorium are both non-volatile, and even as charged salts they tend to oxidize to states that aren’t freely soluble. They not only would tend to stay at the bottom of the ocean, they’d tend to sediment further even if dispersed….Methane itself is not a health hazard to anything except global warming. The petroleum damned sure is a hazard to every living thing it encounters – especially with chemical dispersants added.

In a July 21 interview with Bloomberg news, Simmons seemed to refer to the topic, saying that “the floor of the Gulf is already polluted with toxins,” and calling it, in his fact-of-the-matter way, “the biggest environmental cover-up in history”.

Again, Simmons might be wildly wrong about the impact and risks, but that doesn’t mean the issue itself is not worth a look. Like processed water, the impact of radioactive elements in crude oil needn’t have apocalyptic consequences in order for it to justify study. But if mainstream journalists and officials ignore the topic, or just barely introduce it, then the “fringes” get to feast on the unknown. And fringe sites like Rense.com traffic in alarmism, and discredit the mainstream by implying that their lack of coverage on a topic is evidence of a vast cover-up.

I believe we should get these issues on the table, because there won’t be a better time to perform a comprehensive risk-analysis of oil drilling (as well as a cost/benefit analysis of prompt coastal restoration). Granted, topics like processed water and radioactive oil are complex, and may require further research and study. But if mainstream news articles like the NYT’s barely raise the issues without factual follow-up, then alarmists at the edges of the debate will dominate the discussion. This disaster provides us an opportunity to take a hard look at the total risks oil drilling poses to our environment and our health. We might not like what we find, but it’s better to address these issues now rather than later, in a sensible way, without misinformation or undue alarmism.

We’ll end on a hopeful note: I’ve learned thatfilmmaker and award-winning bloggerJason Berry is currently in pre-production on a documentary seeking answers to many of these under-reported issues, like processed water and radioactive crude. I can’t wait to see what he uncovers.

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  • Good one, Mark, keep’em coming.

  • Gotta follow the money. Great joh Mark. Excellent reporting.


  • Matthew Simmons was also the keynote speaker for the Louisiana delegation at the last DC Mardi Gras.


    “But when a technical snafu prevented Simmons from presenting his original Power Point presentation detailing the history and future of Louisiana’s energy industry, many in the audience, including executives of the nation’s leading oil and gas corporations, were taken aback when Simmons decided to call up his favorite “go-to” topic, wind energy in the state of Maine, and why he feels that windmills may one day replace oil derricks and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico as the supplier of our nation’s energy needs.”

    In all honesty, though, the dude has torpedoed any credibility he’s ever had. I’ve linked to some of his stuff in the past ( http://noladishu.blogspot.com/2009/10/pelican-state-oil.html ), but he’s just gone off the deep end. Totally irresponsible. Twilight in the Desert is now toilet paper.


    For the radioactive side, it’s refered to as NORM: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturally_occurring_radioactive_material

    There was a big case a little while ago: http://www.aboutlawsuits.com/exxon-lawsuit-over-radiation-exposure-verdict-8786/ Some workers sandblasted and painted some NORM-contaminated casing. Usually, alpha-emitters aren’t considered a major health hazard (as radioactive sources go), except in cases of ingestion. If the workers had been wearing proper protective equipment (from Exxon warning them), the danger would have been negligible. If they ingested particles, they’d turn out like this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Litvinenko_poisoning .

  • Medium Jim


    This news is probably stale by now, but yesterday Mr. Simmons went to the great relief well in the sky while relaxing in his Maine hot tub. MJ