In April 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion released 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the worst environmental disaster in US history. Eleven workers died in the explosion and more than 100 people were hospitalized. In the days following the spill, BP sprayed and injected more than 2 million gallons of Corexit dispersants on the spreading oil, intended to minimize the impact of the spill.
With expertise in marine pollution, the Institute was called upon to advise Gulf agencies and the federal government about the use of chemical dispersants during the BP oil spill of 2010.
In the wake of the spill, Institute Founder and Director, Dr. Susan Shaw, was appointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to serve on the Strategic Sciences Working Group (SSWG) to assess consequences of the oil spill and the use of Corexit, and recommend policy actions to federal agencies. Her perspective and her statement to the agencies has informed the national debate on chemical dispersant use in oil spills.
On May 24, 2010, a month after the explosion, Dr. Shaw was the first scientist to dive into the Gulf to determine first-hand the possible consequences of using Corexit to sink the oil. She reported that Corexit was increasing the toxicity of the oil in the water column and compounding, rather than remediating, the problem.
In the aftermath of the spill, BP and others downplayed the dangers, both from the oil itself and the use of Corexit, resulting in widespread confusion and loss of public confidence. But studies show that exposure to chemicals in the mixture of crude oil and dispersants is highly toxic to wildlife and people, and can cause severe health problems and cancer.
In the words of Eastern Louisiana Federal District Court Judge Barbie's words, BP's actions constituted "reckless endangerment".
Later that year, the Marine & Environmental Research Institute launched EcoTox, a collaborative investigation examining the toxic threat of carcinogenic oil compounds and dispersants in the ecosystem--from water and soil to molluscs, and fish. This broad-based, multi-species, multi-habitat approach was the first study to obtain samples at the time of high exposure across all five states of the Gulf.
TEDx Talks and Awards
See Dr. Shaw’s TEDx talks TEDx Oil Spill Imperiled Gulf: A Marine Toxicologist's Perspective,
TEDx MidAtlantic Gulf of Mexico Inside Out: Strategic Science of the Oil Spill, and TEDx MidAtlantic Reckless Endangerment: The Gulf Oil Spill Revisited.
In 2011, as a result of her “pioneering research of major significance that influences health and toxics policy in the U.S. and abroad,” the Society of Women Geographers awarded its Gold Medal to Institute Founder and Director Susan Shaw, who became the 19th woman in 78 years to receive the society’s highest honor, joining the ranks of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall.
History Repeating Itself: California Coast Oil Spill
In May 2015, an onshore pipeline leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil along one of the most pristine coasts in the country, north of Santa Barbara, California, leaving white sand beaches black with oil, coastal wildlife dying, and emergency crews of first responders and volunteers desperately trying to clean up the spill.
Meanwhile, the company responsible for this damage ranks in the top five worst violators in the entire country. Plains All American is reported to have had 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006, with over 16,000 barrels of spilled oil! According to the EPA, this company has spilled nearly a quarter of a million gallons of crude oil into the waters and coastlines of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They can now add California to that list.
Plains All American is singing that old familiar song, downplaying the immediate impact and avoiding a dialogue about the long-term environmental and human consequences.
Downplaying the danger of oil spills is unfair to the public and irresponsible.
The Big Fix, an Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, exposes the reality of the BP oil spill and investigates the incredible “spin” on the largest environmental disaster in our nation’s history.
The Future of Our Oceans: From the Gulf to the Arctic
The Obama Administration has given approval to Shell Oil Company to begin drilling in the Arctic waters of the Chuchki Sea, off the coast of Alaska. This is the first exploratory drilling allowed since the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. Shell plans to use two rigs to drill during the summer months of 2015 and 2016. It is estimated that a spill in these waters could take more than two years to stop because of the icy seas, frequent storms, and lack of infrastructure, given the remote location.
Earlier in 2015, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved a permit enabling Louisiana-based LLOG Exploration Offshore LLC to drill a new well in the Macondo reservoir, very close to the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill, approximately 45 miles offshore.
The potential impacts of future offshore drilling in sensitive marine areas such as the Arctic and pipeline accidents such as the recent spill on the California coast need more public and regulatory attention if we are to sustain health and the environment.