The Environmental Impact of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
On September 30, 2016, the nation’s movie theaters will begin screening a major motion picture that dramatizes one of the biggest natural disasters of the 21st century. The film is Deepwater Horizon, starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and Kate Hudson. 1 It deals with the massive 2010 drilling rig explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana—an incident that caused enormous damage to the local environment and attracted international attention.
One of the incidental benefits of a movie like Deepwater Horizon is its effectiveness in bringing vital issues into public consciousness. We live in a fast-paced 24/7 news environment these days, and it’s all too easy for certain events to fade from our attention. However, it is important for the public to remain aware of the various safety issues involved with the Deepwater Horizon spill; with that in mind, here’s an overview of the incident, which also references the role that HAZWOPER-trained personnel played in the cleanup effort.
The oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded just before 10 p.m. on April 20, 2010. The explosion was triggered when natural gas suddenly burst through a concrete core on the oil well. There were 126 workers on the rig at the time; 11 of them were killed by the blast, while 17 others were injured. As Deepwater Horizon sank, oil began flowing unrestrainedly into the Gulf of Mexico.2
The rig was outfitted with a blowout preventer intended to seal shut the channel that transported the oil, but it failed to work as intended, possibly because of damage caused by the surging oil. As toxic oil poured into the Gulf, BP—the company that leased the rig—launched several futile attempts to stop the flow. BP struggled to place a containment dome over the damaged oil well, but the presence of gas hydrates made this impossible.
Next was the attempt to seal the well through the “top kill” method, which involves simply pumping heavy drilling mud into the opening—this effort failed as well. In early June, however, BP was able to mitigate the flow of oil, though not stop it completely, by using a device known as the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) Cap Containment System.2
Four million barrels would spill before the leak was fully capped on July 15.3
Pollution from Deepwater Horizon
Shortly after the explosion, the oil well began spilling massive amounts of crude oil, such as methane and other pollutants, into the Gulf. Deepwater Horizon had approximately 700,000 gallons of diesel on board. Experts later estimated that around 8,000 barrels of crude oil per day were spewing from the source, leading to surface water sheening two miles away. As oil is hydrophobic, it does not mix with water; consequently, oil spills of this nature result in large oil slicks on the surface of the ocean. By the end of the month, the oil slick had grown to 100 miles across. 4
Experts from organizations such as the Stennis Space Center and Texas A&M University found evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) as far as 8 miles away from the spill. These chemicals are carcinogenic in high concentrations, and can also interfere with biological processes. 5
Experts theorize that the use of dispersants after the spill caused the oil to sink more deeply into beaches. They also suspect that it may have affected the groundwater supply in that area. Many of the methods used for cleanup were previously untested and may have had their own negative effects on the local environment. 6
Effect on Marine Life
Before the spill, only about 0.1% of fish in the Gulf had lesions or sores. In the aftermath of the spill, that number spiked to 20%, according to a report from the University of South Florida. 7
Researchers found that the PAH left behind was causing cardiac arrest in fish. Additionally, pockets of methane led to oxygen-starved zones, which caused marine life to smother. Large numbers of fish kills in the area were reported.
According to the Audubon Society, over 1 million birds died as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 8 Many others, wounded, found their way to shore. Oil inhibits birds' ability to maintain body warmth, so they flock to land for shelter. Here, trained volunteers and rescue workers, including many who had obtained 40-hour HAZWOPER certification, worked to stabilize the birds and remove the oil covering them.
Pregnant dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico were found to have a higher incidence of in-utero infections, fetal issues, and late-term pregnancy failures. Between April 2010 and 2016, over 170 stillborn and stranded juvenile dolphins have been found in Gulf waters, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 9
The effects of this massive spill are still apparent years later. In 2015, federal officials claimed that it was too soon to make judgments about the long-term effects of the spill and the success of the recovery process. Studies on the effects at this time show mixed results. The fishing industry in the area has seen their catches return to normal levels. Oysters in many areas of the gulf are returning. Tests on edible seafood caught in that area do not show excess hydrocarbons in the food supply in the region. 10
However, other species and areas are not showing the same sort of recovery. Dolphin numbers are down. As late as 2013, Cat Island, an important bird rookery, was still devoid of the mangroves that had provided shelter. Pelicans and other birds are unable to use the area. 11
According to research undertaken by Mandy Joye, an oceanographer with the University of Georgia, the oil from the spill has settled to the seafloor, concentrating in thin sheets in some areas and deep pools in others. Joye claims that the submerged oil continues to shift around, and that it is impossible to determine at this point what the long term impact will be. 12
The Role of HAZWOPER
BP hired around 48,000 people to help with the clean-up effort. 13 According to OSHA, BP required that participants undergo HAZWOPER classes after being hired in order to ensure that the emergency personnel responding to the Deepwater Horizon spill had the proper training to handle safely and appropriately any pollutants they came into contact with during cleanup. 14
HAZWOPER refers to the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard, the guidelines created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) relating to the handling of dangerous substances. Any hazardous waste clean-up operation that involves a governmental agency—the Deepwater Horizon effort included the participation of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—must be undertaken by personnel trained to HAZWOPER specifications.
In this particular case, clean-up personnel were subject to training of varying levels of complexity, depending on the their specific role in the clean-up operations. Emergency personnel who were not charged with the task of handling contaminated materials needed only forty-five minutes of site training.
On the other end of the spectrum, personnel who would be working on marine vessels operating close to the source of the leak were required to undergo 40 hours of HAZWOPER training prior to participating in the clean-up effort. All supervisors had to complete a 40-hour HAZWOPER training course and—in many instances—eight hours of supervisor training as well. As specified by OSHA, this HAZWOPER training included both site-specific hands-on and classroom training modules.
Thorough and proper education is essential for first responders, as these areas can be dangerous to untrained workers who are not up to date on the protective gear and practices needed for a safe cleanup. There is no doubt, however, that correctly trained clean-up personnel are invaluable resources in the aftermath of tragic events like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. By getting the HAZWOPER training necessary to do this important work, you can be a part of the solution to incidents like these.
National Environmental Trainers had the priviledge to conduct training for many companies and individuals but one stands out - The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Please read about the training effort.