Transcript of Facebook Q&A Session #3 with Dave Rainey of BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization (GCRO)
Transcript from Dave Rainey Facebook Q&A Session, originally published March 17, 2011.
Hello again, everyone. This is Dave Rainey, Vice President of Science and Technology at BP. Thanks for joining us on St. Patrick's Day for my third Facebook chat. We've had a number of great questions submitted this week, and I look forward to covering as many as I possibly can during our hour together today.
Question: Our first question today is from Down Hiller, who asks "Why are the dolphins dead?"
Dave: Thanks for your question. Everyone in BP is concerned about these media reports, and we are working with the various agency experts who are trying to determine whether these reports of dolphin stranding are related to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Stranding incidents of this kind have occurred before (e.g., 1999-2000, 2004, and 2007). The most recent strandings began in February 2010, several months before the Deepwater Horizon incident began. Scientists are investigating a number of possible causes. For example, there appears to be a strong correlation between increased strandings and cold water conditions in the Gulf. Other possible causes that the experts are looking at are the presence of a virus, infection, or naturally occurring neurotoxin in the water.
Scientists from NOAA are performing necropsies, which are post-mortem exams, on the dolphins to determine the likely cause of death. I am told that the results of the necropsies may take a number of months to complete, and scientists have not yet been able to determine the cause. We, like you, will be watching to see what they conclude.
By the way, later today, my team will post links to websites where readers can get additional information on this and other topics of interest.
Question: Our next question comes from Tamara Lee, who posted an article about potential illnesses related to the oil spill.
Dave: Thanks for your comment, Tamara. We recognize that some people may be concerned about the potential impacts of the oil spill on their health. From the beginning of the response, multiple federal, state, and local authorities, as well as BP, were focused on this very issue. Tens of thousands of samples were taken to monitor air and water for any possible health risks to the public or the response workers. We also provided training and protective equipment to workers who were involved in the response
The extensive monitoring conducted along the shoreline by EPA and BP showed consistently that the concentrations of oil and dispersant components were below levels of concern established by the agencies. In fact, the monitoring results showed that the levels generally were similar to background conditions – in other words, concentrations that would have been expected before or in the absence of the spill.
Monitoring data collected off shore in the areas of active response activities have shown that workers generally were not exposed to concentrations that exceed protective workplace exposure limits.
These and many other findings reported and posted by government agencies and by BP suggest that no one should be concerned about their health being harmed by the oil that was released or the dispersants that were approved for use in the response
All of that said, what’s important to me is that you should seek appropriate medical care if you are experiencing any troubling symptoms — and, as I said before, later today, my team will post links to government websites that contain helpful information.
Question: A common question we have heard is, "Did dispersant use in the Gulf cause acid rain?"
Dave: No; the use of dispersants did not cause any acid rain in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dispersants used during the response are mixtures of solvents, surfactants, and other additives that break up oil into small droplets, which disperse into the water and are further broken down. The use of these dispersants did not release the sort of compounds, such as sulfur dioxide, that are known to combine with water to cause acid rain.
Question: Our next question comes from Dan McCullough, who commented on our statement: "There is currently no evidence to suggest that oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is present across widespread areas on the ocean floor." Dan asks, “How big is ‘widespread?’” A second question from Stephen Porter asks, "I hear the ocean floor is covered in oil, what about that?"
Dave: Thanks, Dan and Stephen. I appreciate your questions and will address them together.
The Operational Science Advisory Team (or OSAT) was commissioned by the Unified Command to study this very question (among others). Many samples were taken from the ocean floor and analyzed for oil and dispersants. About one percent of those samples exceeded EPA benchmarks and only those within 3 kilometers of the Macondo well were consistent with MC 252 oil.
We chose on our posting (http://on.fb.me/hdyGMi) to say that there is no evidence that oil on the ocean floor is “widespread” because we recognize that additional data will continue to become available and this conclusion may change.
Maps of sampling locations are available in the OSAT Report: which can be found on the Restore the Gulf.gov website (.PDF).
Dave: I just want to take a moment to address a comment from Emma, who raised many topics, including concerns about conflicting information.
Emma, with regard to conflicting information, there does seem to be a lot of misinformation out there. This is regrettable and a challenge for us all. All we at BP can do is to provide accurate and timely information, which is what we have been doing, and you have my assurance that we will continue to do this.
Question: Our next question comes from Jody Morris Smith, who asks: "How do you know what has reached the bottom of the ocean? Since we have yet to actually reach the bottom of the ocean, this article has NO merit. All of the scientist in the world will never be able to actually tell the true damage done to the ocean due to the spill. The pollutants had to go somewhere. If not into the animals living within the ocean, then where. Those of us who have had vehicle with an oil leak know, that stuff DOES NOT evaporate. It is still glopping together in our ocean. Whether floating through the water, or lying on the floor it does not disappear!"
Dave: Thank you for your question, Jody. While I have not personally been to the floor of the Gulf, some of my friends and colleagues have. Indeed, the Gulf of Mexico floor has been extensively explored and studied by the government, industry, and independent scientists for many years.
One of the phenomena that has been explored over the years is the presence of natural oil seeps on the ocean floor, including in the vicinity of the Macondo well. These seeps have existed in the Gulf for hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of years. Scientists have learned that there are ecological communities that have evolved to take advantage of these seeps — living organisms that have lived off of the seeping oil beneath the Gulf. Those organisms “ate” the oil from the Deepwater spill just as they feed off the naturally seeping oil.
As you may know, NOAA released an “oil budget” that evaluated what happened to the released oil. Although BP does not agree with a number of the details or calculations in NOAA’s oil budget, we concur with NOAA’s basic conclusion: a very significant portion of the oil that was not captured during the response is no longer present — as oil — in the Gulf. The uncaptured oil either evaporated into the air, or dispersed or dissolved into the water, where it was biodegraded by microorganisms naturally present in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil that evaporated is then broken down through photooxidation into carbon dioxide and water.
We still have some oil in sediments in close proximity to the wellhead. Along the shoreline, there are tar balls or tar mats still remaining in isolated areas where we continue active clean-up. We will work to ensure that all of those areas are appropriately and responsibly addressed. Still, what is clear from all the vast sampling and study is most of the oil was removed from the environment by a combination of aggressive response efforts and effective natural processes, and is no longer present in the Gulf.
Jody, let me add that I agree with you that some forms of oil like automobile lubricating oil do not evaporate rapidly. But you’ve probably noticed that when gasoline drips out of the gas pump on a hot day, it evaporates almost immediately. Crude oil is a mixture of many components and every crude is different. Macondo oil is relatively light and, as recognized in NOAA’s oil budget, is susceptible to significant evaporation. I would add that the summertime conditions in the Gulf of Mexico undoubtedly helped the process.
Question: One question we hear frequently is, "Can you remind us again what NRDA is and what new research projects have been initiated in the past few months along the Gulf Coast?"
Dave: I’d be happy to explain it in more detail. NRDA, or Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is the process under the Oil Pollution Act by which “natural resource trustees” from federal agencies, states, and Indian tribes evaluate the impacts of an oil spill on the environment. The trustees assess any impacts to natural resources, determine the appropriate type and amount of restoration needed to restore the resources to their baseline condition, which is the condition they would be in without the spill, and ensure that responsible parties implement or fund those restoration activities.
The NRDA process proceeds in three steps: 1) preliminary assessment; 2) injury assessment/restoration planning; and 3) restoration implementation. We are currently in step 2.
The Deepwater Horizon NRDA process is being guided by a Trustee Council, which includes representatives from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. There are thirteen technical working groups established by the trustees to study natural resources, human use of affected natural resources, and cultural sites.
BP is cooperating with the Trustee Council in the investigation of potential injuries to natural resources. There are over 100 cooperative research studies underway. In addition, public outreach is an important part of the process and has already begun. NRDA work plans, schedules, and preliminary data are available on the websites that we’ll be posting later today.
Question: Another question we've heard is, "Has the FDA ‘lowered the bar’ for Gulf seafood testing?"
Dave: No, I am not aware of that; in fact, additional tests were added during the incident and continue to be used. There is a well-established protocol for safety testing in place to test Gulf seafood. The protocol was developed by NOAA, in consultation with the FDA, EPA, and state health and fisheries agencies.
Additional test protocols (for PAH and dispersants) have been added following the Deepwater Horizon incident. First, experts who have been trained in a sensory analysis process test for the presence of contaminants. Chemical analyses are then performed on samples that pass sensory assessment to confirm that oil and dispersant component concentrations are below the acceptable FDA levels of concern for human health. There are established levels of concern for oil and the dispersant component, which is often referred to as “DOSS.” To date, none of the thousands of samples analyzed under NOAA and FDA’s established sampling protocol have tested above FDA levels of concerns.
Furthermore, government agency experts set safety thresholds for food using conservative assumptions and conservative margins of safety. All of the extensively sampled seafood has passed those tests According to FDA, “the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time,” and “[f]ish and shellfish harvested from areas reopened or unaffected by the closures are considered safe to eat.”
I think I have seen a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries web posting that indicates that consumers could eat up to 60 pounds of shrimp per day for up to five years without encountering any health risks due to oil contamination. I will find the link, and we will post it later today.
Question: One last question we frequently see: "Are tar balls a natural occurrence or are they all a result of the oil spill?"
Dave: Tar balls do occur naturally and have for a long time. Archeological evidence, for example, has revealed that Native Americans many years ago used tar balls to caulk boats and for decorative and other purposes. Tar balls have been impacting the Gulf for many thousands of years.
We are concerned about how the spill may have contributed to these annoyances. Tar balls and larger tar mats related to the Deepwater Horizon spill have been found along some beaches, and BP has been active in cleaning them up and addressing these conditions.
However, as you suggest, tar balls may form from nearly any release of oil into the ocean, including natural oil seeps on the sea floor and discharges from marine vessels. As a result, not all tar balls found on the Gulf Coast can be attributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Many of the samples collected and tested during our cleanup activities were determined to originate from sources other than the Deepwater Horizon spill.
It looks like we're out of time. I want to thank you for your questions and hope the answers have been helpful. I did notice that the subject of natural seeps in the Gulf was a recurring theme today. We may have some video clips in our archives about these. If I can find one, we will post it later today.
Again, thank you for your time — and enjoy the rest of your St. Patrick's Day. I look forward to seeing you at the next chat.