Profound environmental disasters like the BP spill in the Gulf garner justified public outrage. Yet all over the world, news comes in almost every day of smaller spills, many of which are never reported outside a local news outlet. When these events fail to make international headlines it’s easy to think that oil spills are rare. But while major, catastrophic spills are, these smaller events are troublingly common.
This past month, I’ve been following two stories of varying severity on either side of the Atlantic. The first, an ongoing spill of a little known chemical called polyisobutene (PIB) has fouled the feathers of multiple seabirds off the English coast. Unlike crude oil, PIB is translucent, and therefore mostly invisible on the carcasses of beached birds. But closer inspection of these birds often reveals a glue-like coating that obliterates the feathers’ water-proofing capacity and causes sand, rocks and other debris to stick to the birds. As with oiling events, the birds mostly die of hypothermia or from toxicity after they preen the chemical off and ingest it.
PIB is an additive to ships’ engine oil that increases engine efficiency. It is currently legal to discharge the substance into the water under certain circumstances. The justification seems to have been that “small” amounts of the chemical will dissipate in the water and be unlikely to impact seabirds or other marine life. This event, which is estimated to have killed well over 1,000 seabirds (and this is undoubtedly an underestimation, based as it is on only the birds that have washed up on shore) is bringing up debate over the chemical in the UK, with conservation groups, animal welfare organizations and even fourth grade students calling for a ban on its discharge. The severity of this event in the UK may indicate more than one single discharge, or may be the result of an illegal dumping of a large amount of PIB. What is clear now, if it was not before, is that this chemical is harmful to wildlife. We will follow the progress of the challenges to PIB discharge in the UK and keep you informed of any developments in this story.
A second event, much smaller scale and commanding far less attention, is currently occurring off Fogo Island in Newfoundland, Canada. Weeks ago, shifting sheens of oil began to appear on the water there. The source seemed to be somewhere underwater, so the Canadian Coast Guard deployed submersible robots. The videos the robots collected indicate that oil is seeping from the cracked hull of the Manolis L., a Liberian-flagged ship that evidently ran aground on January 17, 1985. At that time, 3,200 barrels of fuel oil spilled, and after that initial event, the ship was left where it had foundered in the hope that the additional oil would remain contained within the wreck. After a 28 year reprieve, luck appears to have run out. As of yet, it’s unclear what can or will be done about the situation, but we will also keep an eye on this unfolding situation for you. The only way these events continue to be tolerated is if conscientious people fail to pay attention and fall into complacency. And I know that doesn’t describe our SEANET readers.