Monday, June 7, 2010

Bahamas Bracing for oil spill impact

Bracing for oil spill impact
By ERICA WELLS ~ NG Managing Editor ~

Ever since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 47 days ago local officials and concerned environmentalists have been bracing for the likelihood that oil from the sunken rig owned by British Petroleum (BP) will eventually make its way to The Bahamas.

Oil entering what is known as the "loop current" in the Gulf of Mexico could make its way through the Florida Straits, potentially oiling the shorelines and marine resources along the western edge of Cay Sal Banks. Over time, there is the potential that oil could reach the Biminis and West End, Grand Bahama.

"It is a near certainty that we will see oil in the Gulf Stream at some point in the near future," said Dr. Will Macking, a seabird specialist who worked on an Oil Pre-Impact Assessment report submitted to the Bahamas Oil Response Team and NEMA.

The BP oil spill has been labeled the U.S.' biggest environmental catastrophe. It has also been described as the worst oil spill in U.S. history - nearly double the output of the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, that killed 11 people, official estimates have put the flow rate of the leak at 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels a day, although some scientists have said it could be substantially more, as much as 1 million-plus a day.

One only has to read the press reports coming out the U.S. to get an idea of just how damaging the impact from an oil spill can be.

On May 27, scientists from the University of South Florida returned from a six-day voyage into the Gulf of Mexico with evidence that huge plumes of oil - broken into bits and beads by the dispersants - were moving thousands of feet beneath the surface in a great toxic cloud, according to U.S. reports. That underwater mix of oil and dispersants could poison fish larvae, with cascading effects up the food chain, and damage the corals found in some parts of the Gulf.

Already oil has stained some the marshes of southern Louisiana, disrupting the habitats of shorebirds, sea turtles and other threatened species. Tourist areas in the Gulf are facing visitor cancellations, and there is growing concern over the impact the spill will have on the area's shrimp and oyster industries.


Here in The Bahamas, government officials emphasize that preparation measures have been mobilized. The Bahamas is also receiving assistance from the International Maritime Organization, taking advantage of its status as the third largest ship registry in the world.

"We are on top of this and we are getting first class advice," Ian Fair, chairman of the Bahamas Maritime Authority told The National Review.

Daily monitoring exercises for presence of oil on beaches in Cay Sal Banks will begin once oil is confirmed in the Florida Keys area or the north coast of Cuba, according to an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for the spill.

Booming will also begin in Bimini once oil is reported in the Keys or Cay Sal Banks, then Grand Bahama once oil is reported in Bimini, and then Andros (west). Beach clean-up will be conducted once tar balls are detected, the IAP notes.

Officials here are hoping for the best-case scenario, which is that oil entering the eddies could be carried in prevailing currents, bypassing the western Bahamas; however this would be difficult to precisely predict.

What is also difficult to predict is the full brunt of the damage that oil could wreak on our environment and marine resources, which include damage to beaches, fish, seabird, lobster and turtle populations and habitats.

One worrying potential impact noted in the pre-impact assessment report is the presence of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which occur in oil, or tar deposits and make up most of the toxicity in oil.

PAHs are the most common organic pollutant in the environment and can be extremely toxic as a carcinogen or mutagen, causing cancer or chromosomal damage in reproducing adults.

PAHs also accumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, potentially making those animals unsuitable for human consumption.

The report also points out that the areas most threatened by oiling events over the next year include near shore seagrass, hard-bar and reef environments that are critical to the fisheries production for the entire Bahamas.

The pre-impact report establishes the environmental conditions of Cay Sal Banks, which is one of the likeliest locations to experience oiling - including seabirds assessments, marine surveys, ocean samples, marine tissue samples and surface sediment samples - before any petroleum contamination. This also provides valuable evidence in any future claims The Bahamas government may make against BP.

Florida and other American states have already started exercising this option.

Against the backdrop of the severe economic environment, the government will no doubt move to seek compensation from BP if necessary, given the potential impact to our beaches and reefs, which power the country's bread and butter industry of tourism, already hard hit by the global recession.

The estimated cost of equipment for the potential clean-up effort has been pegged at over $70,000, according to the IAP.


Concerned environmentalist Sam Duncombe of the group reEarth, wants more information disseminated about what the government is doing to prepare for the likelihood of the impact from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

She has also organized a petition "No Oil No Spoil" petition calling on The Bahamas government to stop all oil exploration and to never issue permits for drilling.

"The lack luster response of The Bahamas government has been shocking and we are wondering what is the plan?

"Minister (of the Environment Earl) Deveaux does little to impart confidence in our government's ability to contain a matter of this magnitude," Duncombe said in a statement released over the weekend.

Duncombe hit out at Deveaux for supporting oil exploration in The Bahamas - under oversight with the highest safeguards - in the face of the potential impact of the oil spill.

She said that neither BP nor the U.S. government was able to respond adequately to contain the Gulf spill at the source after 45 days of trying. However, by Sunday, reports indicated that a cap placed over a ruptured well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico was capturing about 10,000 barrels a day.

"Despite their vast resources and professional consultants, experts, and international support at their fingertips, BP was scrambling for almost two days to get the necessary equipment to the explosion site to try and put the fire out and now 45 days later are no closer to a solution to plug the well. Additionally, the improved track record of the US Government in preventing oil spills and containing them has not been proven in this instance and both parties are wavering in direction, on the brink of a global disaster.

"The response from the Bahamas Oil Response Team to the Gulf leak has been underwhelming. Although there is evidence of them having met, there have been no reports made to the terrified nation on how we will deal with the spill, not if, but when, it soils our beaches. Again, we have to wonder if there is a plan?"

Duncombe notes that the consequences of an oil spill persist for many years after the initial spill is "cleaned up", and that the cost of oil spills can quickly reach billions of dollars as a result of lost revenue for businesses, as well as continued poisoning of beaches, soil and water tables.

"Fumes from oil spills affect people living nearby. I have experienced that first hand at Clifton with the Bunker C fuel. Oil spills are one of the worst environmental disasters affecting fisheries, fishermen, wildlife, and tourism...expect tarred beaches and contaminated drinking water for many years after the spill," she said.

"Prince William Sound Alaska, the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 11 million gallons has yet to recover, 20 years later."

Duncombe, like other observers in the U.S., is now urging officials to take a more serious look at reducing dependency on oil, and by extension reducing disasters like the Deepwater Horizon.

"We have a moral responsibility to protect the environment for present and future generations," said Duncombe.

"Continuing to power ourselves with oil will inevitably lead to more disasters. We have to think about the capacity of the Earth's ecosystems to continue to absorb the 'mistakes' we continue to make. Alternative energies exist and work, as the present generation we have an obligation to begin to make that switch in a meaningful way."

June 7, 2010