The Human and Ecological Cost of Oil Pollution Fr. Seán McDonagh, (June 26th 2010) (4th Article on the Deepwater Horizon)

In terms of human health, human livelihood and environmental devastation, the destructive impact of the oil gushing out at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, is becoming clearer as each day passes.  Doctors and environmentalists have warned that prolonged exposure to crude oil and the chemical dispersants which are being used to break up the oil are a public health hazard.[1] In late May 2010, it was estimated that more than 3,640,000 litres (800,000 gallons) had already been sprayed on the oil slick. Wilma Subra, a chemist who has been a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that there was growing anecdotal evidence that many people who were exposed to tiny air particles of crude oil were becoming ill, particularly when the wind was blowing from the ocean.

Among the illnesses reported were headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, dizziness and burning sensations in both eyes and throat.  Long-term effects of exposure could include neurological damage and cancer. [2] The health hazards was much greater for those who were attempting to contain the spill through deploying  booms as they were in much closer proximity to the oil and the toxic chemical dispersants. Much of the dispersant chemicals are sprayed from the air. As a result, those working to contain the oil are being sprayed over and over again.  Tests by the EPA indicate that “the combined effect of dispersants and crude oil are even more toxic than individually.” [3] In August 2010 it emerged that the U. S. coastguard regularly approved requests from BP to uses dispersants which were banned by the federal government because of their toxicity.  The coastguard granted 74 exemptions over a period of 48 days. [4]

The U.S. government has declared a “fishery disaster” in the sea-food producing states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  This will have a huge impact on these States’ economies. The seafood industry in Louisiana alone is worth $2.4 billion and employs 27,000 people.[5] Dean Blanchard  a very significant player in the shrimp business  claims that before the disaster he bought shrimp from about 6,000 fishermen and that his company had about 11% of the shrimp market in the United States.  Blanchard reckons that a big shrimp boat could make $1 million per day.  He laments that, between April 20th when the gusher began and mid-June he has lost 15 million dollars worth of sales. He also points out that the tuna and oyster fishing businesses have also ground to a halt.[6] The only use for the fishermen’s boats at present, according to Blanchard, is to service the oil industry and those involved in clearing up the oil. The income is a paltry $3,000 per day and less (money) for the smaller boats. “Not a lot, once divided among captain and crew.”[7] Many fear that Florida’s $60 billion tourist industry will be severely affected, if oil reaches the Florida coast. [8]

The ecological damage from the leaking oil well is enormous. By early June 2010, the oil had reached Louisiana’s Queen Bess Island pelican rookery. This disaster could sound the death knell for the brown pelicans of Louisiana.  The number of these creatures once reached 50,000 but they were almost wiped out by the massive use of pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s.  Scientists reintroduced a breeding pair of brown pelicans in 1968.  They thrived so well that in 2009, they were taken off the red list of endangered species.  Now, because of this catastrophe, their survival is once again under serious threat.[9] The Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal confirmed that 100 miles of the state’s 400 mile coast had been impacted by the oil spill.[10]

One of the methods which BP were using to get rid of the oil was to burn it.  On a calm day BP were involved in a dozen or more “controlled burns” within huge areas which were corralled off by fireproof booms.  If young turtles get caught inside those booms, they will probably not survive. In June 2010, conservationists and wildlife experts accused BP of indiscriminately burning turtles and other sea creature in a 500sq mile region of the Gulf of Mexico.  Carole Allen, the Gulf office director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project said that, “there should not be another lightening of a fire of any kind till people have gone in there and looked for turtles.”[11]

Jacqueline Savitz, a marine scientist points out that “oil spills are extremely harmful to marine life when they occur and often for years or even decades later.”[12] According to Savitz , the Gulf of Mexico is host to four species of endangered sea turtles and bluefin tuna, snapper and grouper. Each of these species will be affected in different ways. For example, “turtles have to come to the surface to breathe and can be coated with oil or may swallow it.”[13] The Gulf of Mexico is the breeding ground for the valuable species called bluefin tuna. Ninety percent of these fish return to the Gulf to spawn.

In early July 2010, scientists stated that the oil which is leaking from the ruptured oil well  is depleting oxygen in the water and thus creating “dead zones” where fish and other marine creatures cannot survive.  In some places methane concentrations are at 100,000 times there normal levels, This can upset the oceans food chain and harm marine life.

On August 4th 2010, the U.S. government announced that three-quarters of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak had already evaporated, dispersed or been recovered through containment mechanisms.  It claimed that the remaining oil was so diluted that it did not pose much a risk. However, Jan Lubchenco the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration emphasised that the U.S. government was still concerned about the ecological damage that had already occurred and that her organisation would continue to monitor the situation in the Gulf closely. She was particularly concerned about the damage the oil had done to eggs and larvae of organisms such as fish, crabs and shrimp. She emphasised that it could take a year or even longer to have an assessment of the damage done. [14] There is still about 600 miles of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida shoreline which needs to be cleared up.

Hopefully, the optimistic projections of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are accurate, nevertheless the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest marine spill in history.  By the time it was capped in early August 2010, 4.9 million barrels had been disgorged into the Gulf of Mexico. [15] While the fishing grounds are gradually been opened up it remains to be seen whether Americans will buy fish products from the Gulf of Mexico.


[1] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Oil is public health risk, scientists warn as BP admits ‘catastrophe’” The Guardian, May 29th 2010, page 6 and 7.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid

[4] Tim Webb, “BP to offer one-off payments to stem oil spill lawsuits,” The Guardian, August 2, 2010.

[5] “Factbox: Gulf oil spill impact fisheries, wildlife, tourism, ”www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6423R20100530> downloaded on June 25th 2010.

[6] Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, June 12th 2010, page 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Factbox: Gulf oil spill impact fisheries, wildlife, tourism, ”www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6423R20100530> downloaded on June 25th 2010.

[9] Tony Allen-Mills, “Rare pelicans are Obama’s Katrina-gate.” The Sunday Times, June 6th 2010.

[10] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Dead in the water Oxygen depleted,” The Guardian, July 1st 2010, page 26.

[11] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Experts blame 500sq mile ‘BP accused of burning turtles alive in oil crisis.” The Guardian, June 26, 2010, page 17

[12] Steven Mufson, Washington Post, April 27th 2010. www.washingtonpost.com

[13] ibid

[14] Justin Gillis, “U.S. Finds Most Oil From Spill Poses Little Additional Risk,” The New York Times, August 4th 2010. www.nytimes.com/2010/08/04/science/earth/04oil.html?r=L&hp-&pagewanted=print

[15] ibid

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