Oil Platform Fire Sends Shockwaves Through Gulf On Heels of Record BP Fines

November 20, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Toxic Spills

An oil platform explosion and fire today near the site of the nation’s greatest offshore oil spill in history—BP’s Deepwater Horizon—sent shivers up the spines of many Gulf residents as the U.S. Coast Guard reported that 11 crewmembers were flown to area hospitals and two crewmembers were still missing as of Friday evening. News reports said four workers were critically injured with burns.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the oil and gas platform was 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, LA, and was owned by Black Elk Energy, a fast-growing oil and gas drilling operation based in Houston. News reports stated the oil platform was not actively producing oil and that a welder involved in a maintenance operation may have caused the accident. Although there were reports of an oil sheen near the platform, there were no reports of a major oil leak.

NRDC President Frances Beinecke, a member of the presidential national oil commission that investigated the BP oil disaster, issued this statement:

“Though the BP criminal case is settled, today’s accident makes clear that the hazards of oil and gas drilling are not in America’s rear view.  It is a sad reminder that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous business. Workers and communities are put in harm’s way every day and will continue to be as long as we prioritize this risky energy development. Our leaders must keep that squarely in mind when considering where and how to allow further drilling along our coasts and in our communities.”

The Black Elk Energy accident came the day after the U.S. Justice Department announced a criminal settlement with BP involving a record-setting $4.5 billion in fines, indicting three company officials on criminal charges. Civil penalties against BP are still pending.

Many people in the Gulf are still recovering from the BP oil disaster that residents say continues to impact their fisheries and beaches more than two years later. Grand Isle mayor David Camardelle, whose community has been one of the hardest hit by the oil disaster, said he was saddened to learn of the latest offshore oil rig fire and injuries to workers. “It’s a tragic accident and my sympathies go out to the families of the workers who were impacted. But thankfully it appears this is not another BP disaster.”

Tar balls found on Grand Isle, LA, this month            Photo: Mac MacKenzie

Camardelle said his community still has oil and tar balls on its beaches after storms, especially after Hurricane Isaac hit their area last August. And he said many fishermen are suffering from reduced catches and have not been adequately compensated by BP for their losses. “We feel like we’re forgotten sometimes,” he said. “We can put robots on Mars, but we can’t tell how much BP oil is still out in the Gulf. Something’s wrong with that.”

Kindra Arnesen, wife of a fisherman in Buras, LA, said she too was saddened by the accident, which she says hits close to home since so many of her friends and neighbors work in the oil industry. “My heart goes out to those families,” she said. “This may have been a fluke accident, but it makes me wonder, what really has changed in the oil industry since the BP explosion? We’re still using the same blowout preventers, so it seems like we should be doing something better.”

That point was made in a blog this summer by NRDC’s David Pettit, part of a coalition of conservation groups that filed a lawsuit to push for greater drilling safety in the Gulf. He reminded people that many questions raised by the presidential commission still remain unanswered:

Their investigation uncovered serious flaws in oil industry and regulatory practices.  These accidents-waiting-to-happen remain unaddressed, with the Gulf’s battered ecosystems and vital billion-dollar tourism and fisheries hanging in the balance. If drilling is to continue, more must be done to improve drilling safety and safeguard our natural resources.  The largest oil spill in America’s history should have been a wakeup call.  If we refuse to learn from that mistake, it will become a recurring nightmare instead.

That’s a nightmare no one wants to live through again.

Article source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/rkistner/an_explosion_and_fire_on.html

Spill devastates creek and raises troubling questions

December 31, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Toxic Spills

The chemicals that spilled after a fire at the JJ Chemical Co. plant off Olympic Drive wiped out aquatic life in a stretch of Trail Creek and cost two dozen people their jobs.

PHOTOTABLE

But the July 28 fire and resulting chemical spill exposed a much more troubling problem, some believe.

See photos from the spill.

See photos from the fire.

“One of the things that sticks with me still is that this is what it looks like on the ground when some of the very basics of the state government’s role in our communities are eroded by budget cuts and staff reductions,” said Ben Emanuel, Oconee River projects coordinator for the Altamaha Riverkeeper, one of the groups that banded together to gather information and post warning signs after the spill.

Emanuel believes budget cuts over the past few years at the state Environmental Protection Division, the lead state agency in environmental disasters like the Trail Creek spill, may be so deep that the agency may not be able to do its job of environmental protection any more.

EPD workers put in long hours trying to assess the spill and limit its effects, but an EPD emergency team took hours to respond as the fire launched exploding fireballs and sent towering plumes of black smoke into the Athens night sky. And like citizens and elected officials, both the EPD and local emergency response teams had a hard time at first finding out just what was in the chemical runoff that poured into a branch of Trail Creek as firefighters used 740,000 gallons of water to keep the fire from spreading.

The water flowing off the fire site at the building on Trans Tech Drive, in Northeast Clarke County, carried thousands of gallons of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, paradichlorobenzene and dozens of other chemicals downstream. Also in the mix were oily perfumes and a brilliant blue dye that made it easy to see the contamination as it flowed down Trail Creek and into the North Oconee River at Dudley Park.

But most people at first knew only that the water looked and smelled funny.

“The first few days was a real exercise in frustration,” said District 9 Commissioner Kelly Girtz, one of many who struggled to get answers in the days following the fire about the runoff and whether it was dangerous to people or pets.

“I think I spent about 30 hours … dealing with phone calls and messages,” Girtz said. “I was getting the sense that there was incomplete information at best, and seemingly no one steering the ship.”

In the end, it was not the RPD or the Athens-Clarke government but volunteers from a coalition of environmental groups Emanuel pulled together that posted warning signs along the stream telling people to avoid contact with the water - four days after runoff from the fire gushed downstream.

Commissioners like Girtz and Andy Herod got dozens of e-mails and calls from constituents, alarmed after noticing the water smelled like urinal cakes or seeing it flow toilet-bowl blue and wondering if they were safe.

Herod couldn’t tell them anything at first because he couldn’t find out anything, either, he said.

“I think there was a general failure to communicate,” Herod said. “The elected officials were basically left in the dark as to what was going on.”

Athens-Clarke government administrators vowed to do a better job of communicating to the public and to officials in future emergencies.

“One of the main things it reinforces for me is that we are a community that thrives on information. The better information we can share, the more confidence the community has in what we do,” said Athens-Clarke Manager Alan Reddish.

EPD officials said the agency would communicate better in the future, both within the agency and to outsiders. But EPD emergency responders were hampered during the Trail Creek spill because they couldn’t get information quickly from the chemical company or the cleanup company it hired about what chemicals were in the plant or about the unfolding crisis, according to an EPD report on the spill.

Emanuel wonders if the spill signals the beginning of an era of do-it-yourself environmental protection for the state.

“EPD has been gutted, and that hampered their ability to respond,” he said.

Meanwhile, Emanuel and others are keeping a close eye on the stream, wondering how long it may take to recover.

Eventually, the blue water flowed on downstream, along with the toxic chemicals. Water samples taken in mid-November showed no detectable levels of paradichlorobenzene, the EPD announced early in December. The formaldehyde was gone by September, the agency said.

But life has been slow to return to the creek, said Jessica Sterling, a graduate student in ecology and a member of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, which has for years monitored the health of Trail Creek and other Athens waterways.

UOWN volunteers last tested Trail Creek’s waters Nov. 13, and will test again early next year.

Contamination remains at a small wetland off Olympic Drive, just downstream from JJ Chemical, Sterling said.

“We could still smell that perfume, and see that grayish-blue color,” she said. “It makes you wonder what’s still there.”

But UOWN volunteers did find a few living creatures such as blood worms, which can survive in polluted water; in August, they found none.

Although Athens-Clarke officials have made progress in reducing pollution from everyday sources such as runoff from parking lots, Sterling wonders how much planning local officials have done to protect area waters from catastrophic chemical spills like the one that killed Trail Creek.

The county had another major spill just seven years ago, when gasoline wiped out life in Hunnicutt Creek, which flows into the Middle Oconee River at Ben Burton Park.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re prepared for that at all,” she said. “What is the plan? Is there a plan?”

Life returned to Hunnicutt Creek in about a year, but neither environmental officials nor local water activists can say if Trail Creek will recover that quickly.

Gasoline, the major pollutant in the Hunnicutt Creek spill, is lighter than water, so most of the poison was flushed downstream quickly.

Sterling and other water activists suspect some of the toxic chemicals that poisoned Trail Creek may have sunk into stream sediments and will be slowly released into the creek’s waters for a long time to come.

A company hired to clean up the land around the chemical factory is scheduled to finish its cleanup and issue a final report to EPD officials by Jan. 14; after that, officials in the environmental agency will decide whether the company will also have to undertake a second cleanup in Trail Creek itself.

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Friday, December 31, 2010

Article source: http://onlineathens.com/stories/123110/new_763658698.shtml