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Table of content:





Impact of spill


Economic Impact


Health Impact


Ecological Impact


Actions taken to manage spill


Lessons learned and what could have been done better


Policy changes






Key words: Dermatitis, Hydrocarbons, Oil spill, Health, Environment, Dispersants, economic.


Definition of technical terms:

  • Hydrocarbons: Simplest organic compounds containing hydrogen and carbons
  • Dispersant: Chemicals used to emulsify and break down crude oil
  • Exploration: The act of digging for crude oil
  • Benzene: Petroleum product originally manufactured from coal tar
  • Methodology: A particular procedure or a set of procedures
  • Metals: Chemical elements which readily loses electrons
  • Subjects: Research participants
  • Prognosis: Predicted likely outcomes

1.0 Introduction


In 2007, after many years of search, Ghana discovered a huge deposit of oil in the Jubilee fields off the coasts of the Western Region of the country. Production in commercial quantities did not start until 2010 with plans to expand in the near future. This paper reviews the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, projects to current exploration activities in Ghana and makes judgment of whether Ghana will be able to deal with a spill of this magnitude.


On 20th of April, 2010, a leak in the sea-bed of BP Macondo prospect, located in the Gulf of Mexico, changed the course of history. Over 200 million gallons of crude oil flowed from the well, after a series of explosions, which killed 11 workers and injured 17 others (Beaumont, 2012). The spill stemmed from a leak in the deeply bedded pipeline in the sea-floor lasting for 5 months before a new technological intervention helped to cap the gap. The spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlines in what President Barrack Obama called America’s worst environmental disaster (Beaumont, 2012).


According to Mark Kinver of the BBC news (2011), Deepwater Horizon blowout was not a result of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry and government official but rather a product of several individual missteps and oversights by Bp, Halliburton, and Transocean which the US federal regulators lacked the authority, the necessary resources, and the technical knowhow to prevent. The US government asserted that, “the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reforms in both industry practice and government policies, might well recur(National Oil Spill Commission, 2011a).


According to BP (2003), the major causes of oil spills around the world are:

  • Routine operations such as loading, unloading and refueling
  • Ruptured pipelines
  • Accidents and collisions involving ship vessels or petrol tankers
  • Oil exploration activities
  • Mechanical failure of oil exploration equipments
  • Ship vessels running aground

However, from the reports on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it is fair to say that negligence and cutting corners to cut cost was also a major contributing factor to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Source: The Guardian News (AP) 2010


The statement made by the US government raises questions about the effects of current regulations on petroleum exploration and the protection of the environment and public health. Some of the impact of the oil spill spread far and wide, but the States most affected were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida Panhandle (The Telegraph, 2010).




In addition to the serious effects of the BP oil spill on marine and wildlife habitats, there were devastating effects on the economy, social life, health, and psychological structure of the local population which attracted extensive media coverage around the globe. This also became a concern for public and environmental health specialists. Effects of the spill on factors such as economy, ecology, and health are interrelated in their effect on the public health of the local population.


2.1 Economic Impact


The economies of most of these Gulf States are heavily dependent on fishing and tourism. Hundreds of miles of beaches, estuaries and wetlands were affected. Experts claim the long term impact of the spill may supersede the immediate one (National Wildlife Federation, 2012).  The economic impact was enormous, and nearly two years on, the local populations of these US States are still suffering from the impact. To sustain their local economies, the Gulf Coast states rely heavily on commercial fishing and outdoor recreation. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2010), commercial fisheries brought in $ 659 million in shellfish and finfish in 2008, and about 3 million people took recreational trips in the Gulf that year. Following the spill, recreational fishing in most of these states closed down from May to August. These closures dealt a serious blow to the summer revenues of recreational fishing companies in these states. Many of these companies are privately owned therefore the psychological effect of this loss in the area was unimaginable.  The Financial and personal stress created by the spill has had a visible impact on the public health of these Gulf States (U.S Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). There is still an ongoing legal battle with BP for compensation and this in itself has created a lot of stress among the local population, many of whom have lost their livelihood through the oil spill.


2.2 Health Impact


The recent BP oil spill, Tsunamis and the Japanese earthquake radiation disasters have increased public concerns on the public health impact of industrial disasters (Keim, 2010). The issues of public health, both mental and clinical, were a matter of great concern to the US Federal government. In 2010, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported an increase in respiratory symptoms, headaches, pain, dizziness, nausea, throat and eye irritations, rashes and other forms of Dermatitis in the local fishermen and clean-up workers of the Gulf States. Studies performed by Solomon and Janssen (2012) revealed that oil spill of the Gulf of Mexico posed direct threat to human health through inhalation or dermal contact with the oil and dispersant chemicals, and indirect threat to sea food safety and mental health. They stated that the main components of crude oil are aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons. Other chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene are volatile organic compounds which evaporate within hours after the oil reaches the surface. These volatile compounds can cause respiratory irritation and central nervous system depression.


 Another study by Subra (2010), analysed blood samples of 12 people between the ages of 10 and 66. They included two boys aged of 10 and 11 years, 4 men and 6 women who were crabbers, clean-up workers and local citizens of the area. Three adults and the 10-year-old boy showed unusually high levels of benzene. Subra compared the level in the blood samples to the National health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 95th percentile value of 0.26 parts per billion; that is the score of the score below which 95% of NHANES subjects tested. She found that the benzene levels in the Gulf residents ranged between 11.9 and 35.8 which are many times higher than the NHANES 95% percentile. The tested indicated that the Gulf residents with the highest level of benzene in their blood included a family of crabbers all from the Biloxi coastal area. All 12 subjects showed level of benzene higher than the NHANES 95% percentile.


However, it is arguable that the sample size used by Subra (2010) was too small and not a reflection of the total population. Also it was unclear how she used recruited the subjects for the study; whether by random sampling and their informed consent sought or by some other recruitment methodologies. This casts doubt to the credibility of the report considering the sample (Subjects) size she used for the study was too small. Meanwhile, it is important to note that other similar research performed by other scientist have indicated high levels of benzene in fish, crabs and humans in the region.


Osofsky et al. (2011) of the Louisiana State University conducted a survey to assess the mental health of the residents of Southern Louisiana who were affected by the oil spill. The methodology used included face-to-face and telephone interviews of residents (N=452) to assess concern and direct impact. The results indicated the greatest impact on mental health in connection of disruption to subject’s work, lives, family and social engagement with increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. The results from the same survey revealed that losses from Hurricane Katrina, which happened in the area, were highly connected to negative mental health outcomes.


2.3 Ecological Impact


According to the US National Wildlife Federation (2012), studies are being conducted by the pursuant of the Oil Spill Pollution Act and the Federal Government on Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) to determine the impact of the Gulf oil spill. However, a recent statistics on Dolphins showed that 523 of the sea mammals have been found stranded in the oil spill area since the spill commenced in April 2010. Only 5% of the stranded dolphins were recovered alive and even that, their prognosis was usually poor. This outnumbers the historical average of stranded dolphins, four times, over the same period of time. In the same year, dolphins stranded in Louisiana were 7 times larger than the long term average. In 2011, dolphins found stranded in Louisiana reached a much higher level of 179 dolphins, nearly eight times the average. Also records from the coastal areas of Alabama and Mississippi stated that dolphins found stranded in 2011 were 4 and 5 times higher than the long term average respectively (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012). Also, the same report stated that more than 800 pelican were found injured or dead following the BP oil spill. Biologists remain concerned about the long-term effect of the submerged and dispersed crude oil on the pelican’s food chain and nesting grounds.


Photo: National Wildlife Federation, 2012


Oil spills, no matter how big or small, has very serious effects on the environment, public health and economy. Many relatively smaller oil spills like the Exxon Valdez, Trans-Alaskan pipeline spill, Montara oil spill, and Odyssey etc have caused significant damage to wildlife and the whole environment in the past. Incidences of oil spill present a significant adverse impact on wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole. Currently, there have been many studies into the effect of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and one of such studies indicated that insect population of the nearby Gulf shorelines and the health of deep water coral population in the area, is worst than initially thought (National Wildlife Federation, 2012). The National Wildlife Federation (2012) reported that more than 8000 birds, sea turtles, fish and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the 6 months after the spill.


3.0 Actions taken to manage the spill


Despite regulations and care being taken by petroleum companies, oils spills may occur as a result of different circumstances. The majority of smaller oil spills are easily contained, but a larger one like the BP Deepwater Horizon spill requires greater efforts in containment and clean-up operations. The National Oil Spill Commission chief counsel’s report (2011b) identified specific risks which lead to the oil leak (Mardell, 2011). These were:

  • Flawed design in the cement work used to seal the bottom of the well
  • A test of the seal identified problem but was incorrectly judged as a success
  • Workers failure to recognize the first signs of the impending blow
  • Failure to conduct a proper negative pressure
  • The failure by BP to use fifteen additional centralizers to stabilize the well instead of six, as recommended, which are critical to a good cementing job
  • Test on the foam cement used to seal the well was not fully reported by Halliburton until after the blowout. It was also suggested that the mixture might have been unstable
  • It was unnecessary for BP to replace 1,006m of mud below the line with sea water, which placed more than necessary stress on the cement job at the bottom of the well
  • Drilling workers and other experts on the rig missed vital signs that a kick was occurring. Had they not missed this critical sign, the impact could have been avoided.

BP’s response to the clean-up and containment exercise was remarkable. In total, nearly 6 Billion Pounds sterling was spent by BP on the clean-up exercise. However, it is arguable that nearly 10 years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, clean-up methods and technologies are still primitive. Clean-up exercises still require mostly tedious manual labour with very basic cleaning equipments to do the job (Cuadra and Berkowitz, 2010).


A statement released BP in 2012, stated that they worked under the direction of the Unified Command to fight the spill and mitigate its impact on the environment by containing, removing or dispersing the oil offshore, and by implementing strategies to protect the shoreline and clean up oil that came ashore. BP mobilized approximately 48,000 people, 6,500 vessels, and deployed about 2,500 miles of Boom to contain and absorb the oil.

2,500 mile of Boom. Photo: BP 2012


The cleaning process was carried out on both Offshore and Onshore of the Gulf of Mexico. For the Offshore cleaning process, local commercial fishermen and vessel owners were employed to help with clean-up and shoreline protection activities due to their local knowledge. They provided surveillance and transport support.


To restore and protect the beaches, the US Army and US Coast Guard also helped by deploying miles of military-style barriers (HESCO Container units) along the coastline as a defence against the oil spill. Also hundreds of men and women walked close to the beaches removing tar balls, raking and shoveling any oil residue on the area. This method, like the use of pads and pillows, put workers in direct contact with oil casing the many health problems.


The shoreline clean-up process involved workers manually using of pillows and pads which absorb oil but do not absorb water, to wipe oiled grass at the outer edge of marshes. This put many workers in direct contact with the volatile and poisonous chemical components of the crude oil causing, dermatitis, nausea, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and mental health problems. Longer term problems can include liver and Kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia, and chronic respiratory problems. Benzene can also cause cancer.


Another offshore cleaning process involved the Unified Command conduction controlled burning of the oil. According to BP, between 220,000 and 310,000 barrels of oil were eliminated through burning. This, however, could contribute to air pollution in the region causing respiratory diseases in the area. The smoke cloud could also affect photosynthesis process of plants and other organisms in the area. This in turn could affect crop production and other farming activities in the region.


Furthermore, the Unified Command used dispersants to breakdown the oil into smaller droplets that could be dispersed in the sea water and eaten by micro organisms (Bacteria) through the process of biodegradation. Nearly 2 million gallons of dispersal chemical were applied (BP, 2012). However, research conducted by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2011, found that the active elements in the dispersal chemical is poisonous and can cause many health problems (Hemmer et al., 2011).


Wilma Sudra, who spearheads the advocacy for public health of the people in the Louisiana area, argued that clean-up training requirements and safety standards including the use of biohazard gear, were inadequate and inconsistently enforced and besides the Gulf residents were already exposed (Barrow, 2011). Test performed by Sudra on soil from the 4 Gulf States, showed that 60% had dangerously elevated levels of hydrocarbons in them compared with normal marine sediment screening. This suggests that human and wildlife exposure will continue long after government and and industry declare the spill cleaned up.


Another study conducted by Schaum et al. (2010), found high levels of dioxins in the smoke from the oil burns. The study used upper estimates for oil burns emission factor, modeled air and fish concentrations, and conservative exposure assumptions, the potential cancer risk was estimated for 3 scenarios: inhalation exposure to workers, inhalation exposure to residents and fish ingestion exposure to residents. The results showed that, cancer risks were estimated at 6 times 10 (-8) for inhalation by workers, 6 times 10(-12) for inhalation by onshore residents and 6 times 10(-8) for fish consumption by residents.


In sharp contrast to many studies which showed high impacts of the spill and clean-up exercises on the health of humans and wildlife, Ylitalo et al. (2012), conducted a research into the safety of seafood in the Gulf region. The research was a joint effort of the Federal and Gulf Coast State agencies who worked together on a sampling plan and analytical protocols to determine whether seafood was safe to eat and acceptable for sale in the marketplace. Sensory and chemical methods were used to measure polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dispersant in more than 8,000 seafood specimens collected in federal waters of the Gulf. Overall, individual PAHs and the dispersant component dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate were found in low concentrations or in negligible quantities. When detected, the concentrations were at least two orders of magnitude lower than the level of concern for human health risk. Once an area closed to fishing was free of visibly floating oil and all sensory and chemical results for the seafood species within an area met the criteria for reopening, that area was eligible to be reopened. On April 19, 2011 the area around the wellhead was the last area in federal waters to be reopened nearly 1 y after the spill began. However, as of November 9, 2011, some state waters off the Louisiana coast (Barataria Bay and the Delta region) remain closed to fishing.


This conflicting research result has left public opinion divided on the issue and the whole subject remains openly debatable now. Some believe BP did a good job with the cleaning exercise and others believe findings are higher than reported. This leaves questions as to the methodologies and results of these studies. However, today, nearly all then beaches and fishing site are opened but many are they who are skeptical about the safety of seafood and the area in general.


Following the disaster, BP has invested well over 10million pounds Sterling to fund research into oil spills, raising hopes that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill might provide answers to long standing questions on the causes, impacts and management of oils spill disasters.


4.0 Lessons Learned and what could have been done better


A study performed by Diaz (2011), of the School of Public health, Louisiana State University, described the acute health impacts of the BP oil spill in comparison with the acute health impacts of prior spills. The results showed that acute health impacts on cleaning workers mirrored those of clean-up workers in reported prior oil spills. The same mirrored result was found in the local populations. This, in my opinion, calls for more aggressive and stringent approach towards legislature, policies, and monitoring of oil exploration and its activities.


4.1 Policy changes


New policies put in place after studies and recommendations by the National Oil Spill Commission (NOSC), are;

  • Requirement for a timely disclosure of enforcement notices, orders and allegations issued by regulators
  • Requirement for disclosure of scientific reports and concerns which indicate potential catastrophic risks of an organisation’s products and activities, irrespective of scientific uncertainty
  • Requirement for review and disclosures of a company’s safety culture
  • Requirement for disclosure of any facts and circumstances needed to ensure that the management’s self-portraits of its sustainability strategies, objectives and progress are not materially misleading.

Making of policies is one thing and enforcement of policies is another. These new policies outlined above following the history changing Deepwater Horizon oil spill leave a lot of room for rich companies to slip through. Bearing in mind these companies employ the most decorated legal advisers around the globe. It is therefore imperative that effective monitoring strategies are employed to supervise petroleum companies and their activities. BP’s report after the spill was deemed misleading, although it followed the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines (Lewis, 2011). The policies must be reviewed regularly to identify any shortcomings or loopholes and changes made where required. Punishment for breaking these policies must be harsh, effective and unbiased to serve as a deterrent for breaking them. Finally, these policies must be made a legal requirement requiring every oil firm to sign and abide by.


4.2 Recommendation


The Ghana government should;

  • Write oil and gas policies to cover spills and environmental pollution
  • Pass health and safety law to protect all Ghanaian workers including those working on oil rigs
  • Carry out regular inspections and audits of all oil companies to ensure compliane
  • Check companies’ capability to deal with a major spill before any contracts are awarded
  • Involve fishermen and marine workers in any decision making process
  • Charge special royalties to create a spill fighting capability
  • Encourage more research into oil spills
  • Direct resources towards a much needed mental health service
  • Encourage clear unbiased extensive study into the impacts of oil spills and other disasters (Natural and unnatural) in order to create knowledge of how best to tackle a similar situation and the ability to rebound in the future
  • Train doctors to make correct diagnosis and give appropriate treatments to people affected by environmental disasters
  • Create consistent and plausible risk assessment process and comparison of post-spill measures after oil spills
  • Develop and implement  long-term monitoring strategies for metals, hydrocarbons and dispersal components
  • There should be timely, good and transparent level of communication of the methods, results, and uncertainties associated with estimating food safety after oil spill
  • Involve stakeholders and local population in developing a long term monitoring strategy for any oil spills.
  • Make oil spill policies a legal requirement, which must be signed by companies and followed through.
  • Severely punish any company found to be breaching these policies. However, penalties should be fair and unbiased
  • Learned lessons from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

5.0 Reflection


Following the discovery of oil in Ghana, the country has commenced full exploration with plans to expand production in the near future. As exploration contracts are signed, the question which must be asked is, “Has Ghana got the capability to deal with a major oil spill like the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill?


The BP oil spill, also known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, occurred on the 20th April, 2010 and lasted for nearly five months until it was capped, leaking nearly 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill is regarded as the worst of its kind in the history of oil exploration. Its effect on the environment, economics and public health was enormous leading experts believe that the effects will be felt in many years to come.


Today, many fishing and tourism sites have been declared safe and reopened following a costly clean-up operation by BP and other federal and nongovernmental organizations. However, to date, people are still skeptical about the safety of seafood and the entire Gulf environment. There have been very slow signs of recovery in recent months, but as to whether things will be the same as they used to be prior to the spill, is a question that requires a lot to answer.


If Ghana government learns lessons from this and takes the necessary actions, they stand a better position of dealing with any oil spill.




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