Gulf of Mexico

A research consortium led by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute received a $9.2 million award to further investigate the effects of dispersants and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and their impact on public health.

The seven-institute consortium, led by Edward Buskey, UT-Austin marine science professor, received the award from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Buskey said the award will help the consortium continue its research. 

“It’s based on the $500 million BP pledge for independent research over 10 years,” Buskey said. “[The program launched] after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill [and is] headed by Rita Colwell.”

According to Buskey, this is the second grant the consortium, Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies, has received. Its first set of research was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative in 2012.

“[In 2012,] they put out a number of proposals and decided to have a consortium of universities,” Buskey said. “You’d have people from different disciplines working on the project. We got our first grant of about $6 million and then another request for proposals of consortiums came out. We applied and got funded again. Now, there are 12 consortiums studying some aspect of oil spills.”

Buskey said dispersants are essentially detergents that break up oil, and the Deepwater Horizon spill was the first time dispersants were used.

“They directly applied detergent to the oil as it was coming out of the well. That breaks it up into really small droplets so the small droplets rise really slowly,” Buskey said. “The droplets are so small that they interact with marines in the sea base of the food web, like plankton in the sea actually eat them. We’re ending up with a mathematical model that will predict what [will] happen when you use dispersants and where it’ll go and how it will affect the food web. We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis.”

Zhanfei Liu, marine science assistant professor, worked closely with Buskey to analyze how hydrocarbons can be degraded in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s all new research. There’s a lot of things we don’t know,” Liu said. “When you have oil spill in the gulf, we still have no idea how long oil persists or can degrade. We can’t make predictions. Or another way to look at it is whether you want to apply dispersant or not. There’s a lot of debate.”

More than 1,500 miles and the Gulf of Mexico separate senior hurdler Keiron Stewart’s hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, from Mike A. Myers Stadium, where he now plies his trade. But seeing how comfortably he glides over the track and leaps effortlessly over hurdles, you wouldn’t know it. 

The native Jamaican might be far away from home, but has settled in and become an integral part of the men’s track and field team over the last four years.

Far from his hometown, Stewart still keeps connections with his original home. He wears a necklace given to him by his mother and on it is a ring that was given to him by a close friend. Both are reminders of home that he keeps with him as he speeds around the track.

Among his heroes is Maurice Wignall, the outstanding hurdler who set the standard for all other Jamaican jumpers in Athens in 2004. Andre Wellington and Leford Green, members of the Jamaican Olympic team in 2008 and 2012, respectively, are like big brothers to him, pushing him to succeed on the track. 

“I really admire them,” Stewart said. “They push me. Just seeing them run at my high school and go through the rungs and show poise and experience every time they touch the track. They’re
my inspiration.”

Stewart barely missed out on a trip to the Olympics in 2012 himself, coming in .03 seconds short of a third-place finish at the Jamaican Trials, a finish that would have guaranteed him a seat on the plane to London, but he hasn’t let it bother him much.

“It’s life. There are always going to be setbacks,” Stewart explained. “We just have to learn from them. We have to move on and learn not to make the same mistake twice.”

Now in his senior season, Stewart has had time to learn from his mistakes and now guides and supports the younger Texas athletes. He and the rest of the seniors have been instrumental in leading the way for the Longhorns in 2013 and have helped the youth understand the expectations that come with a burnt orange uniform.

Stewart and the rest of the Longhorns track and field team will head to Ames, Iowa, to compete in the 2013 Big 12 Indoor Championships on Saturday and Sunday. The field will be tough, as the Big 12 is one of the fiercest leagues in track competition, but Stewart feels confident his best performances are yet to come.

“You have to go out with a bang. You can’t leave no t’s uncrossed and no i’s undotted,” Stewart said. “This is our main goal right now — fine tuning everything and getting sharper for the competition.”

Stewart will compete in the 60-meter hurdles Friday at 4 p.m., and is hoping to lead Texas to a win after a three-year drought at the Big 12 meet. He previously won the 60-meter hurdles in 2011, setting the Texas record with a time of 7.66 seconds, and is in a good position to do it again after matching the time at the Tyson Invitational in Arkansas.

“Keiron has been there. He’s done it before,” head coach Bubba Thornton said. “He’s been four years All-American and has the potential to do more.”

He already has his name firmly etched in the UT record books, holding the top marks in the 60- and 100-meter hurdles, but it doesn’t look like he wants to let go of them for a long time. 

“I’m in a better position and better fitness level,” Stewart said. “I’m looking forward to breaking the record again.”

Published on February 22, 2013 as "Stewart hurdling the competition". 

NEW ORLEANS — A day of reckoning arrived for BP on Thursday as the oil giant agreed to plead guilty to a raft of criminal charges and pay a record $4.5 billion in a settlement with the government over the deadly 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Three BP employees were also charged, two of them with manslaughter.

The settlement and the indictments came two and a half years after the fiery drilling-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The settlement includes nearly $1.3 billion in fines, the largest criminal penalty in the nation’s history. As part of the deal, BP will plead guilty to charges involving the 11 deaths and lying to Congress about how much oil was spewing from the blown-out well.

“We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders,” BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said. “It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims.”

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the deaths and the oil spill “resulted from BP’s culture of privileging profit over prudence.”

Separately, BP rig workers Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were indicted on federal charges of manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, accused of repeatedly disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble just before the blowout.

In addition, David Rainey, BP’s former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was charged with obstruction of Congress and making false statements. Prosecutors said he withheld information that more oil was gushing from the well than he let on.

Rainey’s lawyers said he did “absolutely nothing wrong.” And attorneys for the two rig workers accused the Justice Department of making scapegoats out of them. Both men are still with BP.

“Bob was not an executive or high-level BP official. He was a dedicated rig worker who mourns his fallen co-workers every day,” Kaluza attorneys Shaun Clarke and David Gerger said in a statement. “No one should take any satisfaction in this indictment of an innocent man. This is not justice.”

This 2011 photo provided by Donald Waters shows a fish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico with unusual lesions and infections. Two years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, touching off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, the latest research into its effects is starting to back up those early reports from the do

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BARATARIA BAY, La. — Open sores. Parasitic infections. Chewed-up-looking fins. Gashes. Mysterious black streaks. Two years after the drilling-rig explosion that touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, scientists are beginning to suspect that fish in the Gulf of Mexico are suffering the effects of the petroleum.

The evidence is nowhere near conclusive. But if those suspicions prove correct, it could mean that the environmental damage to the Gulf from the BP disaster is still unfolding and the picture isn’t as rosy as it might have seemed just a year ago.

And the damage may extend well beyond fish. In the past year, research has emerged showing deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals are suffering.

“There is lots of circumstantial evidence that something is still awry,” said Christopher D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast and Environment. “On the whole, it is not as much environmental damage as originally projected. Doesn’t mean there is none.”

Reports of strange things with fish began emerging when fishermen returned to the Gulf weeks after BP’s gushing oil well was capped during the summer of 2010. They started catching grouper and red snapper with large open sores and strange black streaks, lesions they said they had never seen. They promptly blamed the spill.

The illnesses are not believed to pose any health threat to humans. But the problems could be devastating to some prized types of fish.

There’s no saying for sure what’s causing the diseases in what is still a relatively small percentage of the fish. The Gulf is assaulted with all kinds of contaminants every day. Moreover, scientists have no baseline data on sick fish in the Gulf from before the spill. The first comprehensive research may be years from publication.

Still, it’s clear to fishermen and researchers alike that something’s amiss.

A recent batch of test results revealed the presence of oil in the bile extracted from fish caught in August 2011, nearly 15 months after the well blew out on April 20, 2010, in a disaster that killed 11 men.

“Bile tells you what a fish’s last meal was,” said Steve Murawski, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida and former chief science adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “There was as late as August of last year an oil source out there that some of those animals were consuming.”

Bile in red snapper, yellow-edge grouper and a few other species contained on average 125 parts per million of naphthalene, a compound in crude oil, Murawski said. Scientists expect to find almost none of the substance in fish captured in the open ocean.

Last summer, a federally funded team of scientists conducted what experts say is the most extensive study yet of sick fish in shallow and deep Gulf waters. Over seven cruises in July and August, the scientists caught about 4,000 fish, from Florida’s Dry Tortugas to Louisiana.

About 3 percent of the fish had gashes, ulcers and parasites symptomatic of environmental contamination, according to Murawski, the lead researcher. The number of sick fish rose as scientists moved west away from the relatively clean waters of Florida, and also as they pushed into deeper waters off Alabama, Mississippi and especially Louisiana, near where the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

About 10 percent of mud-dwelling tile fish caught in the DeSoto Canyon, to the northeast of the well, showed signs of sickness.

“The closer to the oil rig, the higher the frequency was” of sick fish, Murawski said.Past studies off the Atlantic Seaboard found about 1 percent of fish suffering from diseases, Murawski said. But he said that figure cannot really be used for comparisons with the Gulf, whose warmer waters serve as an incubator for bacteria and parasites that can cause lesions and other illnesses.

Laboratory work over the past winter on the USF samples indicates the immune systems of the fish were impaired by an unknown environmental stress or contamination. Other researchers say they have come to similar conclusions.

“Some of the things I’ve seen over the past year or so I’ve never seen before,” said Will Patterson, a marine biologist at the University of South Alabama and at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “Things like fin rot, large open sores on fish, those were some of the more disturbing types of things we saw. Different changes in pigment, red snapper with large black streaks on them.”

Teasing out what might have been caused by the spill and what is normal will be tricky, and that’s the challenge scientists now face. Deformities, diseases and sudden shifts in fish numbers are regular occurrences in nature. For example, scientists are not sure what to make of reports from fishermen of eyeless or otherwise deformed shrimp and crabs.

“I’ve heard everything but shrimp with two heads,” said Jerald Horst, a marine biologist retired from LSU AgCenter who writes books about the Gulf. “I listen respectfully. Reports can be useful but are not proof in themselves of cause and effect.”

Even if oil were pinpointed as the cause, it could be difficult to definitively tie the problem to the BP spill. The Gulf is strewn with wells, pipelines, natural oil leaks from the seafloor, and pollution from passing ships. And muddy, contaminant-laden water flows constantly into the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

Still, the more scientists look — thanks to millions of dollars in research money, much of it coming from a fund set up by BP for independent research — the more they’re finding that may be off-kilter.

For example, last year scientists with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette took cruises in search of crabs, lobsters and seaweed they had been studying in the waters not far from the BP well. They found a surprising lack of diversity.

There saw less seaweed and fewer crabs, lobsters and other forms of life. Also, crustaceans they pulled up had lesions, lost appendages and black gunk on their gills, said Darryl Felder, a biologist at ULL. He said the black coating may be associated with the large amounts of drilling mud used to try to plug the leaking well.

In Barataria Bay, which was hit hard by the spill, scientists say they found dolphins that were anemic and showing signs of liver and lung disease. Those problems have not been linked to the spill. But in the same bay, scientists say they have linked oil contamination to genetic changes in bait fish known as killifish.

Near the BP well, scientists have found a dying community of deep-sea coral. The scientists recently published findings linking its demise to oil that was chemically fingerprinted as having come from the BP well.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advised fishermen to throw suspicious-looking fish back, and fishermen say they have been doing that. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration and state agencies say they have tested Gulf seafood extensively and found no problems, and researchers agree there is little cause for concern.

“It’s not a people issue, and people should not be concerned about fish entering the market,” Murawski said.

For the second year, fishermen like Wayne Werner, who catches red snapper commercially, are calling in with reports of lesions. He and others said they want to get to the bottom of the problem, which is forcing them to take longer trips to fishing spots outside the spill zone and making them fear for their livelihoods.

“Every time we talked about bad fish, everybody kind of went nuts on us. Just like, ‘You’re hearsaying,’ you know? And we’re saying, ‘Well, they’re there,’” the Louisiana boat captain said this week. “They’re still there. Now that the water is getting warm again, we’re starting to see more and more again.”

Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Mutated fish in Gulf two years after spill

HOUSTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday pledged $50 million to a program designed to restore seven river basins from Florida to Texas in an attempt to show a blueprint for rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem is more than just another federal report.

The USDA’s announcement accompanied the presentation of the final report of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a team established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 oil spill that highlighted decades of environmental decline in the Gulf of Mexico.

The task force’s plan for reviving the Gulf and the ecosystems and watersheds linked to it calls for rebuilding and conserving wetlands; cleaning polluted rivers and streams; strengthening communities along the storm-prone area and better preparing them for the storms that brew over the warm ocean waters; and allowing more sediment to naturally flow downstream to slowly rebuild barrier islands meant to provide natural protection from storms.

“We are all dedicated to making sure that the treasures we grew up with are still around for future generations,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native who chaired the task force.

Jackson and officials from other federal and state agencies made the announcements in Houston at a summit sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The summit focuses on the Gulf, its importance to the U.S. economy and the need to reverse decades of damage and neglect.

Jackson said the USDA project — an offshoot of an existing national program aimed at conserving, improving and preserving the nation’s watersheds — is only the first of many initiatives she expects will be announced in the coming months.

“I expect a flurry of activity to get some meat on those bones,” she said.

The Gulf of Mexico, long neglected and under-funded, is a vital part of the nation’s economy. More than 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf and 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region. If the five coastal states were a country, it would rank seventh in global gross domestic product. In 2009, the Gulf Coast produced 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While this committee has been assigned the task of identifying problems and pinpointing possible solutions, Congress has been considering a bill called the Restore Act that would allow most of the penalties BP would pay for fouling the waters to go back toward restoring the environment in the five Gulf states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The House is to hold hearings on the proposed bill later this week.

The first project administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and ranchers the finances they need to change their land or water use practices to help clean, conserve and preserve the watersheds, said Harris Sherman, the USDA’s undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.

The USDA provides them with a “tool kit” of options for joining the program, he added.

The program — called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative — also requires matching funds from state, local and nonprofit entities, and so the funds available could total some $90 million, Sherman said. Similar projects are already under way elsewhere, and have successfully reversed some damage done to waterways.

The $50 million commitment to the Gulf Coast, however, is unique because it significantly increases the department’s funding to the region. Already, Sherman said, officials have met with ranchers and farmers in the area and are confident they will participate. The funding will be made available over the next three years, with the first $20 million available immediately.

The seven river basins identified for immediate assistance are already on the federal Clean Water Act’s list of polluted waterways. In Alabama, the program’s goal in the Weeks Bay watershed is to reduce agricultural-related nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment running downstream and to preserve wildlife habitats.

In a watershed shared by Alabama and Florida, the program aims to reduce the sediments and nutrients that flow into tributaries of the Escambia River. The USDA believes this will ultimately “improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water delivered to Pensacola Bay” and the Gulf.

The project has similar goals for another Florida watershed.

In Louisiana, it will focus on the Baratoria-Terrebonne estuary and the Mermentau basin, once again by reducing the harm fertilizers have as they flow downstream from rivers and streams into the Gulf of Mexico. In Mississippi the Jourdan River basin is the focus, while in Texas the goal is to clean up the Guadalupe River basin.

Officials believe the project will improve water quality for thousands of residents in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and San Antonio.

“We’re focusing on priority areas where we can get the greatest gains,” Sherman said.

NEW ORLEANS — Federal officials say offshore oil and gas workers in the Gulf of Mexico are going back to platforms and rigs that had been evacuated because of Tropical Storm Lee.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement said Monday in a news release that 232 production platforms and 24 rigs had been evacuated. That meant about 38 percent of the total 617 manned platforms and 33 percent of the 70 drilling rigs operating in the Gulf were evacuated.

BOEMRE said the evacuations had shut in 61 percent of the oil production and 46 percent of the natural gas production in the Gulf.

The rigs and platforms will be inspected for damage and then brought back online.

Printed on September 6, 2011 as: Workers return to oil platforms in Gulf of Mexico after storm

MIAMI — Forecasters have issued tropical storm warnings for the U.S. Gulf coast from Mississippi to Texas as a depression has organized in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center said Thursday night that the system will dump 10 to 15 inches of rain over southern areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Some areas could receive up to 20 inches of rain.

Louisiana’s governor has declared a state of emergency.

MIAMI — Forecasters say Tropical Storm Don has formed in the southern Gulf of Mexico and its track over the next several days shows that it’s headed toward southeastern Texas.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wednesday that it doesn’t appear the storm will strengthen into a hurricane.

Forecasters say maximum sustained winds are at 40 mph. The center of the storm is about 755 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi, Texas.

No coastal watches or warnings are in effect.

Printed on Thursday, July 28, 2011 as: Tropical storm forms in Gulf, predicted to make way to Texas

A UT professor will serve on the newly-formed Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee, a federal advisory body created to improve offshore drilling safety, well containment and spill response. After last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Ted Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, was called to appear as an expert in front of the Congressional committee in charge of investigating the incident. He said he partly attributes his testimony about the causes and mitigation of the spill’s effects to his committee appointment. “This committee was formed after the realization that the industry was not prepared to deal with spills,” Patzek said. “We will be advising the Department of the Interior about how to safely drill in an offshore environment, how to contain spills should they ever happen and, even better, how to prevent spills from even happening.” The committee consists of 15 experts representing academia, federal agencies, the offshore oil and gas industry and environmental groups. “My hope is that working with both sides will enable both sides to do a better job and reach a consensus,” Patzek said. “I hope that getting such a powerful group of people together in a room to talk about these procedures will help everybody.” The committee will enable the government to speed up the permitting process and make sure that the wells are being permitted in a safe manner, Patzek said. “This is a complicated situation,” Patzek said. “The Gulf of Mexico provides about a third of oil in the U.S., so there is enormous pressure to speed up the permitting process, both from the drilling companies who are going bankrupt and the overall need for oil.” John Ekerdt, associate dean in the Cockrell School of Engineering, said the findings of the committee could potentially impact policy and regulation of the industry. “We are always honored when one of our faculty are invited to serve on these prestigious boards, and it’s important for them to bring the thought leaders from various academic communities since they are independent and without a position,” Ekerdt said. The appointment is a two-year commitment and will require Patzek to travel to Washington, D.C., monthly for committee meetings and workshops. “This appointment is reflective of what kind of an engineering department we have,” said petroleum engineering senior Sarah Hatley. “It’s exciting to have professors who are the best in their field and are being recognized in the academic world and by government officials.”