The one-year anniversary of the 2010 Gulf oil spill came and went Wednesday, highlighting the region's resilience but also its long road to recovery. As vigils were held in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and in a helicopter flying over the Gulf, BP was busy filing lawsuits in New Orleans, trying to pass some blame for the spill on to its business partners. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast lawmakers were negotiating a deal to direct more BP money to the region, and the AP published a major investigative report, revealing that 3,200 old oil and gas wells are sitting idle around the Gulf, deemed "temporarily abandoned" and thus left without cement plugs to prevent leaks. And, as the New York Times points out, the Gulf is still plagued by pre-spill problems, too, from its annual "dead zone" to the erosion of its coastal wetlands.
BP's lawsuits were widely seen as an effort to shift blame for the spill, with the company claiming it was a victim of shoddy work by sub-contractors. In one suit, BP sued Transocean — which owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig — for damages of $40 billion, blaming it for a variety of safety-system failures. "BP Parties bring this action to hold Transocean accountable for having caused the blowout, explosion, fire, deaths and personal injuries, and subsequent oil spill," the lawsuit said. "But for Transocean's improper conduct, errors, omissions, and violations of maritime law, there would not have been any blowout of the exploratory well." BP also sued Cameron International, accusing it of providing a faulty blowout preventer, as well as Halliburton, which it accused of fraud, negligence and concealing material facts related to its cement work on the rig. Not to be outdone, Transocean also filed court papers demanding judgments against BP, Cameron and other companies, while Cameron filed counter-claims of its own, defending the integrity of its blowout preventers. BP has estimated its liability for the spill at nearly $41 billion, but it may also face tens of billions more in fines and penalties, the BBC reports.
While Wednesday's legal wrangling suggests the companies will be fighting over the Gulf spill for quite a while, the AP's investigative report reveals not only that the Gulf is at risk for many more oil leaks, but that such leaks could potentially go undiscovered for months or years. The AP already reported last July that 27,000 sealed wells are scattered around the Gulf, posing a threat on their own, but the news that 3,200 unsealed wells are also out there raises the risks even higher. Some of the unsealed wells were drilled 60 years ago, the AP reports, and most are at least a decade old. They haven't been plugged with cement, and some experts doubt the longevity of the cement linings in the well shafts. "The one thing we don't know very much about is how the cement will age," says Roger Anderson, an energy geophysicist at Columbia University. "Highways only last so long, and the cement starts to degrade."
Texas is burning from "stem to stern," a spokesman for the Texas Forest Fire Service tells the Los Angeles Times, as wildfires have scorched virtually every region of the drought-stricken state. More than 1 million acres have already burned, CNN reports, and warm, dry winds are only helping to fan the flames in a disaster that shows no signs of abating. "Even if we get 2 inches of rain, the ground's going to eat it up," says David Hennig, a meteorologist in Midland, Texas. "We need a pattern shift."
Months of scarce to nonexistent rainfall set the stage for this month's fires, which have now pushed into eastern, western, northern and southern Texas. In West Texas, for example, residents normally get about 15 inches of rain per year; in the past six months, many have received only 13/100ths of an inch. October through March is normally the dry season anyway, but that's still drastically below what it should be, CNN reports. And while forecasters say rain is possible this weekend and next week, potentially bringing much-needed moisture, thunderstorms are a double-edged sword, since lightning could also trigger more fires. In the meantime, 10 new fires erupted Tuesday and four more started Wednesday, totaling more than 3,000 acres on top of the 1.4 million acres that have already burned since Jan. 1. Firefighters from throughout Texas are toiling long hours to control the blazes, joined by more than 1,800 additional firefighters from 36 other states.
While four new fires did begin Wednesday, a wind shift helped slow the spread of several pre-existing fires, the Dallas Morning News reports, giving firefighters a brief chance to gain some ground in their weeks-long battle. But with colliding air masses from the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic continuing to brew turbulent weather in the U.S. Midwest and southern Plains, it's unclear how long the respite will last. Even with the danger of new fires sparked by lightning, however, many Texans welcome the potential for rain. "We haven't had a drop — and I mean one drop — of precipitation of any kind since September," Fort Davis Assistant Fire Chief Bart Medley tells the Times.
Organic food suddenly sounds a lot smarter: Three new studies in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives report that prenatal exposure to a common class of pesticides is linked to lower intelligence scores later in life. The studies all focused on organophosphate pesticides — which are widely used on food crops in the U.S. — and one found that every tenfold increase in the chemicals detected during a mother's pregnancy corresponds to a 5.5-point drop in overall IQ scores among 7-year-olds.
"These associations are substantial, especially when viewing this at a population-wide level," says Brenda Eskenazi, lead author of one of the studies and a professor of epidemiology at the University of California-Berkeley. "That difference could mean, on average, more kids being shifted into the lower end of the spectrum of learning, and more kids needing special services in school." The UC-Berkeley study is joined by two others in the April 21 edition of EHP linking pesticide exposure to intelligence, involving a total of 400 children ages 6 to 9 in both rural and urban areas. While Eskenazi's study dealt with children living in an agricultural area of Monterey County, Calif., the two others — by researchers at Columbia University and Mt. Sinai Medical Center — examined urban populations in New York City. And their findings weren't much more reassuring: Both also found cognitive impairment in pesticide-exposed kids, but only when the exposure occurred during pregnancy, suggesting the risk is greatest while children's brains are still developing.
"It is very unusual to see this much consistency across populations in studies, so that speaks to the significance of the findings," says co-author Maryse Bouchard. "The children are now at a stage where they are going to school, so it's easier to get good, valid assessments of cognitive function." Previous studies have also linked organophosphate pesticides to ADHD in kids, USA Today points out, but despite the variety of cognitive risks, Eskenazi warns pregnant women against simply avoiding fruits and vegetables altogether. Mothers-to-be and everyone else should just wash produce carefully before eating it, she says, and buy organic whenever possible.
The U.S. endangered species list is an increasingly exclusive club, the New York Times reports, with even animals that are obviously at risk having trouble getting in. The Pacific walrus, for example, recently earned an acknowledgement from the Obama administration that it's threatened by extinction from melting ice in the Arctic. But, like many other would-be endangered species, it will have to wait in line, behind a growing backlog of other animals that are even more dire straits.
"The many requests for species petitions has inundated the listing program's domestic species listing capabilities," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in its 2012 budget request. The FWS already faces a backlog of 254 species, ranging from the yellow-billed loon to the North American wolverine, and the agency says protection is needed but currently impossible due to a lack of resources. While the FWS didn't comment for the Times' story, an official did tell the paper last year that environmental groups' mass petitions have hamstrung the agency's ability to do almost anything about the problem. "These megapetitions are putting us in a difficult spot, and they're basically going to shut down our ability to list any candidates for the foreseeable future," Gary Frazer, FWS assistant director for endangered species, told the Times. "If all our resources are used responding to petitions, we don't have resources to put species on the endangered species list. It's not a happy situation."
Two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, have filed 90 percent of the petitions since 2007, and they tell the Times this so-called "bioblitz" strategy is the best way to get the FWS to focus on the bigger picture — saving entire ecosystems — rather than lurching from species to species, as if it's wearing blinders. "We want to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to look at the full extent of the extinction crisis in the United States," WildEarth Guardians' Nicole Rosmarino says. "We would like a system where the service is actively looking for species that merit protection rather than the current system where groups like ours have to drive this process."
The founder of the Sierra Club is born, the "father of wildlife ecology" dies, and more
Photo (oil-drilling platforms off the coast of Port Fourchon, La.): Patrick Semansky/AP
Photo (Swenson fire on April 9): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (fresh-picked tomatoes at a farmers market): U.S. EPA
Photo (Pacific walrus on Alaska's North Slope): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service