A holiday message from the ghost of oil spills past



In many of our training materials we talk about looking for the silver lining in the aftermath of a spill. Silver linings can be many things. For one spill it might be new methods to care for oiled wildlife, while for another it might be new legislation to increase prevention and preparedness. The Deepwater Horizon was a huge spill with many negative impacts – some of which we are still learning about. At least one of the silver linings from that disaster has been the array of scientific studies that have been done to measure impacts to wildlife, the environment and to the people who responded.

The wildlife response spanned coastal and offshore areas from Louisiana to Florida and included many of us from OWCN Member Organizations as well as from OSPR and CDFW. Eight years after the event, studies continue to be published and two came out recently that I read with interest and I feel are important to share. I share them not to scare anyone, but simply to remind us that the chemical products we work around during spills are hazardous materials, and that oil spills are traumatic events that can impact our mental health as well.  The OWCN and OSPR both work very hard to ensure the safety of our responders, providing required training and annual refreshers, safety officers, safety protocols and provided PPE during response but ultimately it is up to each of us to keep ourselves informed and safe.

Both of these papers are part of the GULF Study (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study) and a detailed discussion of both are well beyond the scope of an OWCN blog. I hope you will take a look at both of them and read them completely if you are so inclined.

One looks at mental health indicators associated with oil spill response workers including some working with wildlife and can be found here.

The second looks at lung function and association with oil spill response and clean-up work roles and found an impact in those handling oily plants/wildlife or dead animals. A summary can be found here.

As with anything else you read on the internet please do so critically. Neither of these focused on what we consider “professional” oiled wildlife responders like many of you are with the training and experience to identify the hazards and recognize how to mitigate them. I present them simply in an effort to help you stay on the cutting edge of health and safety in oiled wildlife response.

While this may not be a typical “Happy holidays” type of message, the health and safety of all of our responders (and their families) comes into true focus at this time of year. Please enjoy a safe holiday season!


DWH in the News

BP issued a press release this week stating that its active cleanup efforts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were now complete.  In Louisiana, there are still over 100 miles of shoreline that are still being cleaned or monitored.  Despite the end of the active cleanup in some states, BP remains responsible for removing any oil from the Macondo well that may wash up in the future.  You can read the press release here.

While this may be a significant milestone as we pass the third anniversary of the spill, not all the news is good.  The National Wildlife Federation has released a report that details some of the ongoing issues in the Gulf, some of which may be related to the DWH spill.  The whole report can be found here, but some of the main concerns are continuing high mortality of dolphins and sea turtles, damaged coral, and negative impacts to killifish, an important baitfish.  We don’t know for sure if these problems are a direct result of the oil, but many researchers are actively working to better understand the role that oil plays in the function of these organisms.

Fortunately, shrimp and brown pelicans are two species that, according to the National Wildlife Federation report, are doing well in the Gulf.  If we want that to continue, however, we’ll need to commit resources to large scale habitat restoration, especially the coastal wetlands.  Let’s hope that the public remembers and the political will remains to develop and implement long-term, sustainable restoration projects on our Gulf coast.


Jam-Packed Week in the World of Wildlife!

Hello all-

Wow!  What a busy week for wildlife issues and events – some good and some not so much. To keep this blog post at Kaiti-approved length (for those of you who are old like me and remember our former Volunteer Coordinator-turned-ecolawyer), here are the highlights:


Deepwater Horizon Spill (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Apr 20th = 3rd year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Spill. It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since that event rocked the oil spill world. Efforts are still underway to understand the impacts to the Gulf of Mexico from this blowout, with some info just now being released on marine mammal issues (see below). On the readiness side, the OWCN is finalizing a first draft of new and expanded national Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines for NOAA-NMFS that will hopefully help address some of the key issues this spill raised.

Apr 21 = Oiled wildlife training for the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) conference, hosted by The Marine Mammal Center. Christine, Nancy and I gave a day-long course to over 40 international marine animal professionals (mostly marine mammal vets, but several others of various ilk). The course was long on Powerpoints (cramming oil spill info on mammal and birds species over a short time period), but did include a great hands-on portion where TMMC allowed us to do “processing and intake” on four juvenile elephant seals. Overall, it was a great enthusiastic group – special thx to Frances Gulland and Tenaya Norris for organizing, as well as the entire TMMC vet/husbandry staff for pitching in during a very busy day!

Platform A Oil Spill (courtesy MSNBC)

Apr 22nd = Earth Day. In 1970, the concept of Earth Day was developed by Gaylord Nelson, US Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the effects of the 1969 Platform A blowout in Santa Barbara. He felt that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Since that time, Earth Day has held a special place in our hearts within the oil spill community, as it led to the formation of the USEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). For more info on this event and its history, please visit http://www.earthday.org/earth-day-history-movement.

Apr 22nd – 25th = IAAAM Conference at Cavallo Point Lodge, Sausalito. This international meeting brought together more than 440 wildlife professionals from 25 countries to discuss issues and research findings pertinent to our marine species. The setting was gorgeous, the papers and posters fascinating, and the discussions and networking capabilities were thought-provoking and exciting. Especially relevant was presentations by Drs. Stephanie Venn-Watson and Cynthia Smith of the National Marine Mammal Foundation on health affects being seen in bottlenose dolphins from the coastal Louisiana region. Fascinating work that may assist us in better understanding the unusual mortality event that continues to rage there, and the possible effects that the DWH spill had on this species. More info on the conference can be found at http://www.iaaam.org.

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Apr 25th = World Penguin Day. To round out a crazy busy week, we took a day to appreciate and better understand the amazing animals that are penguins. As we are all aware, penguins are key animals for us to describe the horrific effects of oil on animals (as the Treasure and Oliva oil spills) as well as the significantly positive results that can be seen with effective and professional rehabilitation (as SANCCOB/IBRRC/IFAW and Massey University have shown). Further, these birds have led to significant research on the long-term effects of oiling on marine species and given us great data to base arguments on the merits of intervention after oil spills. Lastly (and something I did not know before), they can tell us a lot about our own personality types! If you haven’t yet done so, go take the Pew Charitable Trust Penguin Personality Quiz (as well as learn about the conservation efforts for “your” species). BTW – Adelie penguins rule!

OK, so much for “highlights”! I hope everyone has a great restful and oil-free weekend!

– Mike


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Two Years and Counting…

Last year, on this date, I noted that the DWH spill was still very much in everyones minds and hearts through retrospective media reports, images and personal stories.  Now that we are at two years after the start of the incident, media (and public) interest once again has peaked about the spill, but for more troubling reasons from an environmental perspective.

Reports have begun to surface related to potential impacts on the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico – impacts that scientists are attempting to carefully determine whether they may be associated with the more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and the more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant applied. These (with appropriate links) include:

However, there is some good news on this front. Scientists, with sizable funding support, are attacking these questions with a voracity that is rarely seen with environmental issues, attempting to ascertain the root causes of these (and other) problems. While it is easy to point the finger and blame the spill outright for such impacts, without using sound scientific principles, the ultimate outcomes can become muddled due to little baseline (pre-spill) information, the possibility of several “smoking guns” causing sick animals, and other confounding issues. With the skills of the folks working these problems, I have little doubt that we will get better results than is often seen after other disasters.

You may say “who cares?” a bit to all this science-speak; the environment is still messed up. And shouldn’t we concentrate on other more important issues, such as increasing prevention and better understanding how to care for oiled animals in the future? Well, I would say: why not do all three? In addition to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects going on, we have basic science occuring, with organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to better understand the impacts of oil and dispersant on the GoM ecosystem. We also have significant efforts occurring at the Federal level to minimize the risks of incidents such as the DWH occurring in the future, with new innovations on blowout prevention and control coming forward and a newly-aligned MMS focusing on the risks.

On the oiled wildlife front, most oiled wildlife response organizations I know of have taken the time to evaluate their own processes and methods to see how they can do things better. Just this past week, Emily gave a webinar on changes to the OWCN protocols for animal care, and a fully revised version of both the oiled bird as well as mammal protocols, are on the horizon. On the international front, a newly-energized effort has been taking place trying to better develop a method to provide worldwide oiled wildlife response capabilities through a organized collaboration of key organizations. In all, these are exciting times!

This is not to say we should become complacent. The best clean-up effort, after all, is prevention of oiling of our wildlife in the first place. Both Nationally as well as Internationally, we have a long way to go to be able to be comfortable with our plans and systems. On the oiled wildlife side, while we have come a long way in the past decades, we always have things to learn and plans to develop and test to ensure rapid, efficient and effective collection and care, should animals become affected.

In closing, I would like to conclude this blog/discussion/soapbox asking you to join me in remembering the 11 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon rig who perished on this day. I wish everyone a safe and healthy April 20th.

– Mike

April Reflections

It is hard to believe that April is already here! It seems like the Christmas holidays were just a few weeks away, but not so. Signs of spring are apparent everywhere: the buds on the trees, the planting of the tomatoes in my backyard, the warmer (although wet) days, even a few miniature figs on my fig tree! But with the passage of time, and with the coming of April in particular, we come close to the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. This two-year mark brings a mixture of emotions. Sadness, because of the eleven people that lost their lives and the families of these men who were severely affected by this event. Sadness, because of the many people that suffered economic hardship as a result of the spill. And sadness because of the environmental impact the oil spill had, and continues to have, on the ecosystem in the Gulf. However, this two-year mark should also be a time of hope and reflection on the lessons we have learned and the knowledge we have gained since then, so that the next time something on this scale happens, we will be better prepared, not only in the Gulf region, and in California, but in the entire world. At the library the other day, a book caught my eye, and I have been engrossed in it ever since.  It is Carl Safina’s, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout” (New York: Crown Publishers, 2011).  This book is an interesting account of the snowball effect leading up to the blowout on April 20, 2010, and the ticking of the clock in the months that followed and as the spill unfolded.  In the spirit of “reflection”, I wanted to share with you a thought-provoking quote from the preface of this book:  “In the end, this is a chronicle of a summer of pain – and hope. Hope that the full potential of this catastrophe would not materialize, hope that the harm done would heal faster than feared, and hope that even if we didn’t suffer the absolute worst, we’d still learn the big lesson here. We may have gotten two out of three. That’s not good enough. Because: there’ll be a next time.”

The big lesson, I believe, is that we need to constantly be on our toes. We need to learn from each of these incidents because, as Safina says, we know that it isn’t a matter of IF the next “big” one will occur, it is a matter of WHEN it will occur. Happy spring and happy April to all.


Deepwater Horizon Spill: One Year After

Hello everyone-

As is evidenced by the numerous articles, blogs and other reports today, the DWH spill is still very much in everyones minds and hearts.  Similar to many other folks, I had planned on “celebrating” (for lack of a better word) the one year “anniversary” of the spill with a recollection of the fact and figures associated with the largest oil spill in US history, the current status of wildlife rescue and care, and comments on the state of the environment in the Gulf. After further reflection, though, I think it is more appropriate to remember the 11 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon rig today and wish their families our thoughts and prayers on this day.

That is not to say that I don’t want to share with you my reflections on the event – far from it.  I have chosen to do this, however, on the “anniversary” of the inception/activation of the Marine Mammal/Sea Turtle Group – April 29.  I have spent a great deal of time over the past month critically thinking about what occurred – what went well and what we can do as a wildlife community to improve how we approach spill response. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with our OWCN partners.  We will also hopefully have some guest bloggers share their stories with us to give several voices and viewpoints to such a historic event.

So, for tonight, I wish everyone a safe and healthy April 20th, and I am truly grateful that it passed in an oil-free manner.

– Mike

Interesting Post-Deepwater Interview

On last Friday’s “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday piece on NPR, there was an extremely interesting interview on assessing the health of the Gulf of Mexico post-Deepwater Horizon. Topics ranged from Natural Resource Damage Assessment/restoration to human health impacts for the region’s residents to using the spill as a “teachable moment” for the world’s youth.  If you have some time, I would highly recommend either listening to the piece (about 45 min) or reading the transcript.  Both can be found by clicking on this link. Happy reading/listening!

– Mike