The Unseen Consequences of the BP Whiting Leak

Yesterday, Lauren posted a scathing report on our latest oil spill fiasco. Like she said, this one strikes us closer to home. It’s not just Louisiana this time though that is affected; I have no doubt that the citizens of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, even the rest of the bordering Great Lakes states are deeply perturbed. While differing in scale to say, the Deepwater Horizon spill, the circumstances of the Whiting leak are unique.

For frame of reference, the Macondo well spill into the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010 spewed somewhere between 3.26 to 4.9 million barrels of oil. The discrepancy of these numbers is so large because apparently, the government and BP offer two different estimations of how much oil spilled into the gulf (Both agreed however, that some 800,000 barrels collected during the cleanup would not be counted in that final tally).

The Whiting facility leaked about ten to twelve barrels. A very small, teeny tiny fraction of what it could and might have been. But this also happened in a lake, not a wide reaching ocean.

I mention this not to lessen the gravity of the situation, however. As Lauren also pointed out yesterday, The Great Lakes are sources of fresh water, and provide to millions of people surrounding the lakes. Even small amounts of oil leaking into these treasured resources can have dire, unforeseen consequences.

As it so happens, NPR wrote a report on the science of the Exxon Valdez disaster twenty-five years after the accident, coincidentally just days before the Whiting leak occurred (Lets also keep in mind that the Galveston event is still taking place and will have even worse consequences).

According to the article, Scientists have learned that there are smaller particles in oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH’s) are what cause long term damages to marine life. PAH’s are barely detectable, but their effects are more pronounced than the actual oil spill.

In tests done on pink salmon, they found that young fish, even embryos, were not able to swim nearly as fast for as long as the unaffected population. The PAH’s actually affect the development of the heart, which is one of the first things a fish embryo develops, and the researchers working on this believe that they interfere with the electrical signals that are needed for the heart to operate normally. It is a great article about some of the things we have learned about the long term, and even short term effects of oil spills, and I highly recommend giving it a read at the end of this article.

The effects on the pink salmon, among other things mentioned in the NPR article, should highlight the level of importance of this particular event.  This is our drinking water. If a pregnant woman ingests water tainted with PAH’s, then we don’t know what kind of effect that will have on a fetus. And if it does have an effect on one person, it will have an effect on the population, and that isn’t including any health issues a fully grown adult might develop. But this is why the Exxon Valdez research is so important, so that we can know what potentially we are looking at.

There is both bright side, and a concerning side. The bright side is that this spill was very minor in scale, and was contained quickly. But if even small dosages of PAH’s can affect the development of an embryo, then we do have something to concerned about. This is our largest supply of fresh water, and pollution of the Great Lakes is already a concern.

Between Fukushima having irradiated the ocean, Mocondo spilling into the gulf, Galveston in the works and the Whiting leak at our doorstep, have we begun to think about the consequences of how our society functions?






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