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Disturbing BP Oil Spill Details Just Keep on Coming

, May 03, 2010

Even though we thought it was impossible to top the barrage of troubling news that emerged last week about the oil spill (still going on!) that followed the explosion, fire and sinking of the oil platform Deepwater Horizon, even more disturbing information has come out since our last blog on the topic.

BP has continued to a.) be less than forthcoming about the oil spill details, and b.) downplay the effects to many news outlets. As we conveyed last week, despite claims from scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to the contrary, BP argued on Wednesday that the oil spill was stable and had actually moved farther away from the coastlineBP also took nine days to admit that the amount of oil leaking was 5000 barrels a day, rather than the 1000 barrel figure they initially claimed. In addition, a plan filed by BP with the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) outlined a worst-case oil spill scenario of 162,000 gallons a day for the Deepwater Horizon platform, much less than the 210,000 gallons a day currently estimated.

The company has also refused to disclose how much oil was under the surface in the area in which they were drilling; however, an anonymous company official confirmed that it was tens of millions of barrels.

BP chief executive Tony Hayward claimed today that chemicals used to keep oil from the surface have had a significant impact on the spill. He failed to mention that BP had already bought up a third of the world's supply of the chemicals, called dispersants, and that the supply could easily run out if the flow of oil continues for any serious length of time.

Hayward also neglected to point out that the chemicals themselves pose a threat to the fragile gulf ecosystem – and according to an expert, may be more toxic than oil. While not all of the compounds in the chemicals are known due to trade secrecy, at least one is associated with "headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses." From ProPublica:

“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” said Richard Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and oil spills who is a senior policy advisor for Marine Programs for Defenders of Wildlife and is chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. “It’s a trade off – you’re damned if you do damned if you don’t – of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore, but in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”

The chemicals can also have a worrisome effect on food safety. Studies have shown toxic compounds from the chemicals can accumulate in shellfish, and affect the development of fish. The chemicals will likely negatively affect the Gulf Coast fish industry.

BP also continued to stress that they were not responsible for the explosion and ensuing fire that caused the oil spill. "It wasn't our accident," Hayward said on Good Morning America. He argued that Transocean, which leased the platform to BP, "was run by their people, their processes." Hayward also argued that the efforts to deal with the oil spill are distinctly challenged because the failure of the "blow-out" device, which is intended to shut off oil flow from a well in the event of a catastrophe, was unprecedented. From MSNBC:

"What has failed here is the ultimate safety device on a drilling rig," he said, "There are many barriers of protection that you have to go to before you get to this. It isn't designed to not fail."

However, as we reported last week, the blow out device is actually not the ultimate safety device on a drilling rig. The Wall Street Journal reported that the well lacked a remote-control shut-off switch that is effectively required by Brazil and Norway, two other major oil-producing nations. The switch, a back-up measure to shut off oil flow, would allow a crew to remotely shut off the well even if a rig was damaged or sunken. BP also argued against stricter safety regulations for the oil industry in letters to the MMS last year. The company claimed current voluntary safety rules are sufficient.

Reports have also emerged that BP was circulating agreements in coastal communities that required fishermen hired by the company to help with the oil spill to remain silent to the press about the spill and "give up the right to sue in exchange for payment of up to $5,000." BP quickly stopped pushing the settlements after the Alabama Attorney General publicly encouraged citizens not to accept them.

BP probably thought the agreements would be an effective measure against further lawsuits, which have already begun following the spill. Two fishermen filed a lawsuit that they hope will gain class-action status. The lawyer who filed the claim stated that the fishermen "have a whistleblower on an adjoining rig saying 85 per cent of the drilling pipe was not properly inspected" by the MMS, which is responsible for overseeing offshore drilling.

Speaking of the MMS, ProPublica reminded us that it recently faced a scandal when an investigation discovered "a culture of ethical failure” at the agency. The report found that some MMS officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” Another recent investigation found that MMS has withheld data from its own staff involved in environmental analyses and that "some of its own scientists have alleged that their findings have been suppressed" – an allegation which the Department of Interior "generally agrees" with.

Further, the Huffington Post has obtained a copy of the exploration plan BP filed with MMS. Troublingly, MMS did not require BP file a "scenario for potential blowout," or potential sudden release of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. An MMS official instead claimed that BP "has the capacity to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge." However, considering BP has continuously been asking for help from the government and its competitors, BP was obviously unprepared to deal with the impact of the spill. The plan also stated at various times that a catastrophe that could lead a giant oil spill was virtually impossible.

Finally, MMS today decided to call off its annual awards lunch that "recognize[s] outstanding safety and pollution prevention performance by the offshore oil and gas industry.”

BP was a finalist for the award.