Oil spills into Lake Michigan

File Photo
File Photo

On Monday, March 24, 2014, an estimated 630 to 1,638 gallons of oil spilled into Lake Michigan from BP’s Whiting, Ind., refinery, according to ThinkProgress. CBS News reports that the spill has been contained, and BP stated that the majority of the oil has been recovered. The refinery is among the largest in the United States and was recently upgraded at a cost of $4 billion.

Whiting refinery’s spill may be comparatively minor, but its occurrence on the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, has returned attention to March 24, 1989. On that day, according to NPR, 11 million gallons of oil entered the Sound from the ruptured oil tanker, Exxon Valdez. The spill covered 11,000 square miles in the Sound and incurred a total cost for Exxon of $4.3 billion for cleanup, legal costs and fines.

Today, Prince William Sound, Alaska boasts “one of the safest ports in the world,” according to Michelle O’Leary, a local of the Sound, “with one of the best oil spill response plans.”

Nonetheless, remnants of the initial spill continue to linger. NPR reports oil remains six inches below the shoreline of Eleanor Island in the Sound, and the region’s memory remains fresh.

A citizens’ advisory council for Cordova, located on the eastern shore of the Sound, reports that the community changed when its waters did, distrust leaving a stain on previously close community relationships. Fishing, previously the principal industry of Cordova, plummeted, as did the markets that depended upon it. A new term even arose among locals to refer to those hired by Exxon for the cleanup efforts: “spillionaires.”

To this day, cleanup — and increasingly, scientific study — continues to play into the industry of Cordova. According to NPR, a local named Dave Janka charters scientists who are studying the effects of the spill. The citizens’ advisory council still hunts down trace oil in the Sound.

In Lake Michigan, by contrast, Huffington Post reports that no more oil was found in the latest shoreline search on Sunday, March 30.

In 2010, BP was held responsible for the infamous “Deepwater Horizon” well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — the worst offshore oil spill in the U.S. to date. PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) reports residual oil impacts on large pelagic fish in the affected region.

The oil from the blowout rose to the surface of the Gulf where embryos and larvae of large predators, such as tuna and swordfish, were developing. PNAS reports that the effects on developing fish included both acute and delayed mortality rate increases tied to “defects in cardiac function.”

John Incardona, a research toxicologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and co-author of the PNAS study, reported that the areas of the highest oil concentration would have caused heart failure in larvae. The fringe regions are where larvae would have heart defects making developing fish unable to “swim as fast, so they are either going to get eaten or they won’t be able to eat enough. That leads to reduced survival.”

Currently, the impact of these heart defects is speculative, as is the question of whether Lake Michigan’s fish populations were similarly influenced by the March 24 spill.

About the Author

Natasha Strydhorst

Natasha Strydhorst is the Chimes Science and Technology editor for the 2014-15 school year. She is a junior Writing and Environmental Studies major from Calgary, Alberta (Canada). She enjoys reading, writing, the great outdoors, and virtually any combination thereof.

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