Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Campaigners warn that wildlife at Shetland site would be at 'significant risk' from any spill
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Thursday, 13 October 2011
BP's plan for a controversial deep-water oil well off Shetland should be halted by the Government, four of Britain's biggest green groups said last night.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth urged the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, to refuse consent for the oil giant's proposed North Uist well as any spill from it would pose a "significant risk to wildlife" in one of the UK's most environmentally sensitive areas.
In a joint letter to Mr Huhne, the groups' leaders expressed anger that none of them had been made aware of BP's "public consultation exercise" about the well – which ended last week without a single response from the public – and raised concerns about the difficulty of coping with a deep-water oil leak in the hostile conditions of the North Atlantic.
The Independent disclosed yesterday that BP's own worst-case scenario for a spill from North Uist, to be drilled at 1,290 metres, or 4,230ft, below the surface, would involve oil leaking at 75,000 barrels a day for 140 days. This would constitute the worst oil spill in history and one more than twice the size of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico last year that brought the oil giant to the brink of collapse.
BP admits that in the event of a spill, the Shetland Islands – home to the UK's richest seabird breeding grounds, with more than a million birds present in summer – "may be affected."
Last night's letter to Mr Huhne was from Mike Clarke, chief executive of the RSPB; Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland; Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland; and John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.
The case for drilling the well is now being examined by Mr Huhne's Department of Energy and Climate Change, which can give or refuse approval.
The four leaders wrote to the minister: "We strongly urge you to refuse consent for this proposed well. It is less than two years since BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the lessons from this terrible incident are yet to be learned and applied.
"Allowing deep water drilling off Shetland is dangerous and could be very polluting. We believe there is a significant risk to wildlife and protected areas, both around the UK and beyond, from an oil spill that could result from BP drilling this well."
The green leaders also said they were "very disappointed" with BP's consultation process, "which we believe was wholly inadequate, particularly in its failure to proactively engage with key stakeholders such as ourselves".
The comment reflects anger at the perception that BP deliberately tried to bypass potential objectors to the well by giving the consultation exercise very little publicity. None of the groups, who all could be considered prime stakeholders, knew it existed until they saw yesterday's Independent.
Sunday, 9 October 2011
Blue penguin gets a cleanup from veterinarians after the oil spill from the Rena off the Tauranga coast
Rena container ship and oil spilt
IAN STEWARD, NICOLA RUSSELL, LOIS CAIRNS AND ANDREA PEARCE
Last updated 16:43 09/10/2011
The Prime Minister is demanding answers as to how the Rena container ship hit Astrolabe Reef and started spewing oil into the sea.
John Key was visibly riled by the situation when he spoke to reporters in Tauranga today.
He said the Rena had "ploughed into" the well-known Astrolabe Reef at 17 knots in calm conditions on Wednesday "for no particular reason".
Key said there were "serious questions to be answered" and two inquiries had been launched.
He said it was a "major ship" owned by a "significant international shipping company".
"We want to know why."
Key rejected criticism that the salvage and oil-recovery effort had been too slow saying he had flown over the ship and he could see it was a "very, very complex situation".
"I can give (locals) assurances that everyone is doing everything as fast as they can.''
Asked if the presence of international visitors and media for the Rugby World Cup meant it was a bad time for the accident to happen he said it would always have attracted media attention as it was such an unusual event internationally.
Key is due to fly to Christchurch this afternoon to watch the All Blacks quarter-final with crowds in Hagley Park.
Opposition parties, the Greens and Labour, have both claimed oil booms should be put down now to prevent toxic oil from reaching sensitive Bay of Plenty estuaries and wetlands.
And Labour are blasting the government for being '' woefully under-prepared.''
Green MP and marine spokesman Gareth Hughes says the government could ''lessen the risk'' of the deadly substance reaching vulnerable wildlife.
''It is going to be much easier to keep oil out of wetland mudflats than to have to clean it out afterwards,'' he said of a potential ''catastrophic spill'' from the container ship.
Maritime New Zealand is investigating using booms at Matakana Island and Maketu Estuary but there is no certainty, he said. It's also not clear if this will include Little Waihi Harbour.
''Both the Maketu and Little Waihi harbours are important recovering wetlands and should therefore be provided with oil boom protection immediately,'' he said.
''The urgency is real: Metservice now have a strong wind advisory in place for the Bay of Plenty with winds turning Northeasterly and gusting up to 40 knots on Monday.''
The Awanuia, a a double hulled bunker barge capable of holding 3000 tonnes of oil, reached Rena this morning and officials say it will be a "matter of hours" before it can start receiving Rena's load.
Officials are desperate to get the oil off the ship which ran aground on Astrolabe Reef on Wednesday, leaking about 10 tonnes of oil into the sea.
Though naval architects say the ship is currently stable, forecast bad weather moving in tomorrow could change that and hamper efforts to avert a massive environmental contamination.
The oil that has already leaked into the sea is being sprayed with dispersant and today two vessels are undertaking on-water oil recovery.
Health authorities have issued a warning that Bay of Plenty people should not eat seafood from water with visible oil contamination.
Medical Officer of Health Jim Miller said any seafood that had "off or petrol like odours" should be avoided.
He particularly cautioned against eating shellfish from Motiti Island which is the nearest land to the Rena.
Despite an apparent slowing of the oil spill, preparations are still being made for a larger event if the ship breaks up and sinks.
Shore assessments are being carried out in areas where oil could come ashore and the New Zealand Defence Force has personnel on standby should a clean-up be required.
The Greens have called for a moratorium on all off-shore oil exploration as the grounding of the cargo ship Rena raises serious questions about the country's ability to deal with major oil spills.
It comes as Key last night sounded an ominous warning of a potential environmental disaster.
"It's going to be a huge [salvage] exercise and the prime minister believes we need to brace ourselves for a very significant event," a spokeswoman for Key told the Sunday Star-Times.
Environment Minister Nick Smith said the Rena "had the potential to be New Zealand's most significant maritime pollution disaster in decades".
Salvage crews are in a race against time to remove oil from the stricken ship and prevent further spills, as big swells and gale force winds are predicted for tomorrow.
Gareth Hughes, the Green Party's marine issues spokesman, said the accident should serve as a wake-up call for the government. "They need to put a moratorium on all drilling, including test wells, because what we're seeing is that Maritime New Zealand is stretched dealing with what would be considered a minor spill compared with what you saw in the Gulf of Mexico," he said, referring the BP disaster last year.
Key said the government was introducing legislation to ensure adequate environmental protections were in place if deep-sea drilling was undertaken.
"The prime minister would point out that there is no connection between deep sea drilling and a maritime accident of this nature. They are completely unrelated except that they both occur at sea," the spokeswoman said.
Resources were yesterday being sent from Australia, and four navy ships and 500 Defence Force personnel were put on standby, as salvage crews tried desperately to seal the ship's fuel tanks. Officials estimated that Rena has spilled about 20 tonnes of oil.
Hughes said New Zealand was not geared to cope with the potential disaster.
"We've had to wait days for international experts to arrive in New Zealand, we've had to wait days for equipment to come from Australia.
It highlights that a small country with little oil infrastructure faces considerable risks when we have oil leaking into our environment. This has to be a wake-up call for the government in regards to its deep-sea oil plans and energy strategy."
Labour leader Phil Goff said it was not possible to stop all oil exploration, "but we are going to make it conditional on every environmental safeguard being put in place to stop any disaster occurring. We cannot afford a disaster like the Gulf of Mexico".
The spokeswoman for Key said: "This is a very complex and very difficult operation and the reality is the salvage operation will take weeks, not days. New Zealand has one of the best salvage teams in the world on the job - they are the experts and it's important that they are allowed to do their work."
Key is to meet today with local officials and the accident will be discussed at tomorrow's cabinet meeting.
The Star-Times spoke to a Tauranga resident, Tommy Kapai, who sailed his yacht within metres of the Rena yesterday. He said he could "taste" the oil from the grounded vessel. He said it looked like a ghost ship. "There is no life on it, it looks like an old, tired granny of the sea.
"You can see the red of the bottom of the boat and then as you come closer you start smelling the oil and then you can actually taste it in your mouth. It's gross."
He saw a dead penguin coated in oil floating past.
The Rena is carrying about 1700 tonnes of oil - making a spill a potentially bigger environmental disaster than the 2009 Queensland one, when 230 tonnes of fuel spilled into the Coral Sea, north of Moreton Bay. That cleanup took 16 months and cost $5 million.
Salvage expert Jon Walker, flown in from Singapore, said the company hoped the first pumps could be activated this afternoon but he admitted that the weather was a factor for the success of the mission.
Strengthening nor-easters and increased swell are forecast for tomorrow ahead of a storm on Tuesday.
Maritime pollution response co-ordinator Mick Courtnell said capacity was being marshalled to deal with the worst case scenario - the ship sinking and all the oil being released.
If the ship sinks, another danger arises as some of the containers contain the alloy ferrosilicone which, if it contacts water, gives off hydrogen - which is a fire risk.
Walker said salvaging the ship would require removing the containers off the ship. As the Rena does not have cranes, another ship with a crane would have to be parked alongside to attempt the delicate task.
The ship could then be pulled by tugs off the reef.
Friday, 7 October 2011
Gulf Coast residents continue to express their anger towards BP [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
As oil, sickness and contamination persist, Gulf residents and lawyers file thousands of lawsuits against the oil giant.
Dahr Jamail Last Modified: 03 Oct 2011 14:11
"If you got caught humping another woman - [if] you're both naked and caught in the act - you'd want BP to explain to your wife how it didn't happen."
This colorful analogy was proposed by Dean Blanchard, a seafood distributor on Grand Isle, Louisiana, to explain oil giant BP's continuing machinations to evade liability in the aftermath of the April 2010 disaster.
Louisiana seafood distributor Dean Blanchard, with recently found oil taken from a nearby marsh [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
During a recent discussion in his office, Blanchard told Al Jazeera that the fishing waters off Louisiana are only producing one per cent of the shrimp they formerly produced. "Half of the local fishermen have shut down," he stated. "They are dying. And [as] for the fishing, every day they are hauling dead porpoises in front of my place. I have a claim filed with BP, but none of us in the seafood business are being paid."
Speculating that he may soon have to close down his company, Blanchard spoke for hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who remain angry and frustrated when he added: "I worked 30 years to establish my business, and now BP has destroyed my life."
Fallout and responsibility
In a key investigative report released on September 14, the US government heaped most of the blame for the oil disaster on BP, which now faces a raft of criminal and civil litigation and billions of dollars in potential damages.
The report concluded that BP violated federal regulations, ignored safety concerns and crucial warnings, and made careless decisions during the cementing of the well nearly two kilometres underwater.
"That report summarised what we already knew, and it will help establish the punitive damage case against the defendant [BP]," New Orleans-based attorney Stuart Smith, representing more than 1,000 cases against BP, told Al Jazeera.
Smith has been litigating against oil companies for 25 years, and in 2001 was lead counsel in a case that resulted in a $1bn verdict against ExxonMobil.
"The fastest way to lose a toxic tort case is to rely on the government or the defendant to collect the evidence," explained Smith, whose firm has spent more than $2m for its client's cases by collecting samples and data and having them analysed by experts.
As litigation against BP continues to mount, several studies have confirmed Smith and Blanchard's concerns about the deep impact of BP's oil disaster.
One recent study carried out by experts at Auburn University concluded that mats of oil that remain submerged on the seabed could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems. Large quantities of tar balls and oil mats have washed ashore, or have been uncovered by recent storms, at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, as well as at several beaches in Louisiana and in Pensacola, Florida. A recent Al Jazeera over-flight of the area near BP's capped Macondo well, the origin of the April 2010 disaster, revealed a long swathe of oil and sheen.
Dr Wilma Subra, a chemist and MacArthur Fellow, has - since autumn of 2010 - been conducting tests on seafood and sediment samples along the Gulf for chemicals present in BP's crude oil and toxic dispersants.
"Tests have shown significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline," Subra told Al Jazeera. "We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation."
In response to the question of what local, state and federal governments are doing about the ongoing chemical exposures, Subra declared: "There is a lack of concern by the government agencies and the [oil] industry. There is a leaning towards wanting to say it is all fixed and let's move on, when it is not."
Blanchard, who perceives the federal government's inadequate response to the BP disaster as evidence of its collusion with the oil giant, meanwhile joked: "We're fixing to have a fundraiser to try to buy our politicians back from BP."
On June 1, 2010, BP board chairman Henric Svanberg announced, in accordance with the company's pledge to provide $20bn in compensation to persons harmed by the disaster: "I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people."
According to attorney Stuart Smith, however, neither oil companies nor the US government properly tends to citizens who suffer as a result of their policies.
"I've spent 25 years suing the oil and gas industry, and the government has never been on the side of the people," Smith informed Al Jazeera. "But the extent to which they've behaved that way this time is unbelievable. The government has not even acknowledged any health impact [from the disaster]."
Over the course of his career, Smith has represented a number of chemical plant employees with a condition known as toxic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disorder that can result in permanent brain damage. Caused by exposure to toxic substances, symptoms of the condition include memory loss, concentration difficulties, fatigue, seizures, depression, light-headedness, headaches and nausea. Similar symptoms are now being experienced by residents of the Gulf Coast.
Indeed, since July 2010, Al Jazeera has spoken with scores of Gulf residents, fishermen, and clean-up workers who have blamed negative health effects on the chemicals from BP's oil and dispersants.
"The government knew about … peer-reviewed studies of what happens when people are exposed to these chemicals, and millions have been exposed," Smith stated. "Peer-reviewed scientific literature shows that you'll have these health problems, and yet the government does nothing."
Al Jazeera recently spoke with Steven Aguinaga, a 33-year-old father of three who confirmed that he acquired "critically high levels of chemicals" in his body after swimming with his friend Merrick Vallian at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, in July 2010.
"At the time I had no knowledge of what dispersants were, but within a few hours, we were drained of energy and not feeling good," said Aguinaga. "I've been extremely sick ever since."
Al Jazeera has covered this subject extensively, and, given that BP has just confirmed filing a plan with US regulators to pursue its first deepwater oil work in the Gulf of Mexico since the April 2010 disaster, concerns of future problems persist. According to BP's application, the company wants to drill four new wells at a depth of 1770 metres (244 metres deeper than the Macondo well) in an area approximately 300km off the Louisiana coast.
A biological study published on September 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that effects of the oil on a small Louisiana marsh fish, the killifish, could be an early warning sign of trouble ahead for fish populations.
"The message that seafood is safe to eat doesn't necessarily mean that the animals are out of the woods," said Andrew Whitehead, an assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University and a lead researcher in the study, which found that the fish were being exposed to oil in the sediment. The study indicates that the same kinds of health and reproduction problems are likely to occur in the Gulf as were witnessed among herring, salmon, and other animal populations in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster, which prompted significant losses among various species.
Residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana, display their signs of protest [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said in a written statement: "This study is alarming because similar health effects seen in fish, sea otters, and harlequin ducks following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska were predictive of population impacts, from decline to outright collapse."
Unfortunately for BP, the Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD) is now suing the company for $19bn. A group that utilises the law to protect the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive, CBD has an unparalleled record of legal successes, winning 93 per cent of its lawsuits.
"We have sued them under the Clean Water Act," Kieran Suckling, the executive director and founder of the CBD, told Al Jazeera. "The way the Act works is it levies a fine based on the number of gallons [of oil] spilled and how malicious or criminal BP was acting when the spill occurred."
According to Suckling, BP "should be made to pay $19bn under the Clean Water Act and in so doing be found to be criminally negligent. That $19bn should [consist of] entirely new funds, not including anything they've already put out, and those funds should be dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration."
CBD estimates that "approximately 6,000 sea turtles, 26,000 dolphins and whales, 82,000 birds, and countless fish and invertebrates may have been harmed by the disaster."
Cyn Sarthough, meanwhile, is the executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), an environmental group active in all of the states along the Gulf of Mexico. GRN, like CBD, sues companies and government organisations that violate environmental laws.
"Much of our litigation is against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), the group that was formerly the Minerals Management Service (MMS)," Sarthough told Al Jazeera. "There is also a challenge to BP's original oil spill response plan. We are engaged in this with several other claimants … [The plan BP] had in place was inappropriate and failed to meet safety requirements because it grossly exaggerated BP's response capabilities."
BP's liability: 'From bad to disastrous'
The Gulf Coast-based law firm Brent Coon and Associates (BCA) is considered one of the world's foremost experts on BP, and has successfully sued the oil giant in the past.
Brent Coon was the lead attorney in a case against BP for a 2005 explosion at its refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers. His firm forced BP to accept full responsibility and to compensate the victims and their families.
BCA now represents more than 5,000 claimants from BP's Gulf disaster and has been appointed by the Plaintiff's Steering Committee to head several key sub-committees relating to discovery.
"We represent a cross section of claimants, who range from people who worked within the oil industry, to shrimpers, captains, deck hands, restaurant and condominium owners," Coon told Al Jazeera in April. "We want full restitution and reparations for harm done by BP."
Coon reiterated that other companies involved in the disaster, such as Halliburton and Transocean, need to be held accountable as well. He remarked:
"From what I've seen, after representing thousands of people who were made sick or died from petrochemical industry hazards over the years, companies like BP, Exxon, Citgo, Shell, and others do not mind killing people as the cost of doing business, even when it's their own employees. I've seen it time and time again."
Coon additionally argued that, "[u]nless you criminally prosecute these people and make them pay for their decisions, they do not have a sufficient deterrent for the way they do business. Unless the government steps in and criminally prosecutes these bastards and hold them accountable, nothing is going to change".
According to Coon's calculations, BP will be forced to pay out another $10-20bn to cover economic claims. Some experts expect the total could be much more than that, even as high as $30bn.
Lawyer Stuart Smith agrees, writing recently that the federal government report on the 2010 disaster has caused the "state of BP's legal liability" to go "from bad to disastrous".
Attorney Stuart Smith feels confident his clients will be compensated by BP [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
He believes the report presents "incriminating new evidence" that "increases the likelihood that criminal charges will be brought" against the oil giant, and predicts the new findings will push BP to offer large settlements to spill victims, particularly commercial fishermen and charter boat captains.
"The company wants to put this nightmare in its rearview mirror as quickly as possible," added Smith, "both from a PR and business perspective." Corroborating this viewpoint is a recent Reuters report citing an anonymous BP insider as declaring: "We would like everything settled as soon as we can, otherwise you have lingering reputation issues and investor uncertainty."
Judge Carl Barbier, who will be hearing the civil damages claims against BP, has set a trial date for February 2012. According to Reuters, another source close to BP has anticipated: "I expect that early next year you will see the mother of all settlements."
If BP is found to have been grossly negligent, which the company denies, it could be fined over $21bn in Clean Water Act fines alone.
Given that the latest government report links the accident to BP's cost-cutting efforts, Professor Zygmunt Plater at Boston College Law School said claimants could receive a multiple of any compensatory award, which would mean that even at a 1:1 punitive-to-economic damage ratio, BP may have to offer at least an additional $5bn to cover punitive awards.
Smith is urging people with ongoing litigation against BP to stay the course: "Clients that hold out will, in the end, be compensated, because BP won't want to go to trial [since] the punitive damages will be so great."
He, along with Coon, feels his clients are going to get what they deserve.
"In light of this latest federal report, I think it may take more than $30bn to cover all the cases," said Smith. "One thing's for sure, BP is feeling the heat. We'll see early next year just how much the company will put on the table to make all this liability disappear, like so many gallons of crude."
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail