In Memoriam: Conversations with my Grandpa

Science SushiBy Christie WilcoxJan 26, 2018 1:00 AM


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Ralph Bianchi, 1928-2018.

For several months, my grandfather—Ralph Bianchi—has been battling stage four kidney cancer. On Monday, that battle ended when he passed peacefully in his sleep. While you can read his obituary in today's Boston Globe, a few hundred words cannot wholly capture his legacy. Ralph Bianchi was an engineer and pioneer who dedicated his career to cleaning up the messes of others. 

I wrote the following post in June of 2010, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform led to the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry—topping even the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. I'm reposting it today in honor of my grandfather and the decades he dedicated to battling oil spills. 

I'll miss you, grandpa.

Oil supplies the United States with approximately 40% of its energy needs. Billions upon billions of gallons are pumped out of our wells, brought in from other countries, and shipped around to refineries all over the states. 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Yes, it would be great if we never spilled a drop of oil. No matter how hard we may try, though, the fact is that nobody is perfect, and oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our widespread use of oil. The question is, once the oil is out there, how do we clean it up? Nowehere is this issue more glaring than in the Gulf of Mexico right now, where 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the remains of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig every day. The spill has enraged an entire nation. But perhaps my grandfather put it best, when I asked him what he thought about how BP and the US is responding to the spill. "They're friggin' idiots."

My grandfather, Ralph Bianchi, back in the day My grandfather, Ralph Bianchi, knows a thing or two about oil spills. He spent thirty years in the oil spill cleanup business. His company, JBF Scientific (now a part of Slickbar), developed new technologies for cleaning up spills, including a skimming method called the Dynamic Inclined Plane (DIP). In 1970, they sold their first skimmer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The next year, the U.S. Navy purchased forty $250,000 DIP skimmers and stationed them at major naval installations throughout the world. When word of how well his designs worked for the government, private oil companies started buying DIP skimmers, too. In 1987, my grandfather's company, JBF Scientific, received a call from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The company, based in Alaska, was formed in 1970 and charged with the duty of designing, constructing, operating and maintaining the pipeline which transports oil from the fields in Alaska. It is owned by the major oil companies that operate the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, including a couple you may have heard of: BP and Exxon Mobil.

Part of Alyeska's job is to clean up any spills which occur in the process of the movement of oil to, from and through the pipeline. What they wanted from my grandfather was a DIP skimmer larger than he'd ever constructed—a boat over 120 feet long. JBF drew up plans for a massive DIP skimmer capable of removing 2,500 barrels of oil per hour. But when my grandfather told them how much it would cost - an estimated $4 to $5 million at the time - Alyeska instead decided to try another company's cheaper model, which turned out to be close to useless in the kelp-filled waters of the Northwest. Of course, everyone knows what happened next. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 250,000 barrels of crude oil, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The spill itself was bad enough, but Alyeska, Exxon and the country were entirely unprepared to deal with a cleanup of that nature. Despite months of cleanup efforts, less than 10% of the spilled oil was recovered, and 20 years later, the ecosystems in the area had still yet to recover.

The Valdez Star, photo c/o Ralph Bianchi After the spill, Alyeska bought my grandfather's skimmer. The boat, called the Valdez Star, still operates in that area today. If another spill the size of the Exxon Valdez occurred now, picking up that volume of oil would only be a few days' work for the Valdez Star and two aluminum oil recovery boats the company also bought. Only a few days work. If only the cooperative in Alaska had been willing to spend a little more on their cleanup equipment! Other areas, however, were and are much better about their cleanup planning. One of the first privately owned groups to embrace the DIP skimmers was the oil cooperative in Puget Sound. Puget Sound and the Northwest Straits are among the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with billions of gallons of oil moving across the waters of Puget Sound every year. The Sound may have many environmental issues, including stormwater runoff and pollution, but it kicks butt at cleaning up oil spills. Despite the fact that oil spills occur there fairly frequently, you don't hear about them much. That's because in Puget Sound, they have what my grandfather calls a "firehouse mentality." The cooperative bought the first privately owned DIP skimmer, The North Sounder, from JBF in the late 1980s. After the Exxon spill, they purchased three more similar skimmers, and a 600 ton skimmer like the Valdez Star called The Shearwater. These skimmers are among a fleet of equipment and trained personnel ready at a moment's notice to deal with any spill. They run drills to practice different methods of cleanup. They know the currents and wind data and predict where and when the oil will hit. They've identified sensitive shore areas like shell fish beds, bird feeding and nesting ground and yachting harbors, and have stationed containment and deflecting booms, storage barges, and skimmers at those areas. And all of it is funded by the state and the oil companies and other shippers whose oil could be spilled. In Washington, the state Ecology Department has a budget of $16 million, while companies spend roughly $41 million a year there preparing for spills.

Oil spill cleanup using my grandpa’s technology in 1972; my uncle Robert Bianchi on the left, a family friend Mark Mendano in the center, and my uncle Raimond Bianchi on the right.

In Puget Sound, when a spill happens, they jump into action. Just like firefighters responding to an alarm, trained teams of workers immediately assess the situation and combat the spreading problem. They contain the oil if they can, and if they can't, they protect the areas that are most vulnerable to oil's damaging effects. Similar oil cleanup crews are now in place in a number of harbors around the country.

So I asked my grandfather how many skimmers he sold to companies in the Gulf. "None."

BP now claims that 400 or so skimmers are now working to clean up the oil spilling in the gulf. One of their spokesmen

, Mark Proegler, says skimmers are only able to collect about 10-15 percent of the oil. "They essentially scoop up the oil and water mix in the water for later separation," he explained, "and that mix is about 10 percent oil and 90 percent water." But that's because they aren't using DIP skimmers, or other, better skimming technologies that have been developed over the past few decades. The resultant oil percentage of the fluids that are picked up by these skimmers is more than five times higher. When deciding how well prepared an area is for an oil spill, the government tends to operate on a 20% rule of thumb (33 CFR 155, Appendix B, Section 6) - that is, they assume that any skimmer will operate at only 20% the efficiency that the manufacturer claims. For JBF DIP models, however, they assume 74% to 94% efficiency

. What my grandfather wants to know is why the Valdez Star and the Shearwater, as well as the other large, high-quality skimmers, aren't in the Gulf right now. Better boats are out there, which could clean up more oil and faster. It's not just that BP and other Gulf companies hadn't embraced the newer, better cleanup technologies before this disaster occurred. It's that they aren't prepared at all for any kind of large spill. That's what the US government discovered when they performed exercises in the early 2000s to see how companies would respond to a major spill. The After Action report of the 2004 Spill of National Significance (SONS) exercise concluded that, in the Gulf of Mexico:

Oil spill response personnel did not appear to have even a basic knowledge of the equipment required to support salvage or spill cleanup operations.... There was a shortage of personnel with experience to fill key positions. Many middle-level spill management staff had never worked a large spill and some had never been involved in an exercise.

What's even more sobering is that of the oil spills within the Coast Guard's jurisdiction (i.e., marine and coastal areas), approximately 50% of the incidents, both in number and the volume of oil spilled, occur in the Gulf of Mexico and its shoreline states. Why doesn't the Gulf have the "firehouse mentality" of areas like Puget Sound? Why haven't they identified the most vulnerable areas and stationed cleanup equipment there, provided up to date training for cleanup personnel, and generally prepared for this kind of disaster? The answer is simple. As my grandpa phrased it, "they're cheap bastards." The lack of foresight and constant corner cutting by BP led to this disaster. But what's worse is that they continue to botch the containment and cleanup of the billions of gallons of oil that their mistakes have spilled. "The real issue," my grandfather explained to me, "is that they don't care about solving the problem." By they, he wasn't just referring to BP. He was referring to all of the oil companies in the Gulf and the government regulators that are supposed to be ensuring that oil drilling and transport occurs safely. "They throw dispersants on the oil. Do you know what dispersants do? They make the oil neutrally buoyant. Dispersed oil winds up in the water column and, therefore, cannot be deflected by floating booms or harvested with oil skimmers. They make the surface look cleaner, but they don't do a damned thing to actually clean up the oil." Essentially, dispersants are soaps. They emulsify oil, breaking up up and allowing it to mix into water. The idea behind dispersants is that by breaking up the oil and putting it in the water column, it will be degraded faster by the microorganisms that naturally degrade oils and keeping the oil from coating the shoreline. Starting in May, the US has been spraying oil dispersants at the spill like mad, despite concerns raised by many related to potential dispersant impact on wildlife and fisheries, environment, aquatic life, and public health. The EPA further approved injection of these dispersants directly at the the leak site to break up the oil before it reaches the surface. By the end of may, over 600,000 gallons of dispersants have been applied on the surface, with another 55,000 gallons applied underwater. The two main dispersants being used, Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A are neither the least toxic, nor the most effective, among the dispersants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the UK has banned their use entirely

. When BP was asked why they aren't using better dispersants, they said that Corexit was 'what they had available.' The bigger question, though, is why are they using dispersants at all. Multiple studies after the Exxon Valdez spill found that dispersants, detergents, and hot water cleaning of shoreline cause substantially more mortality than oil itself

. Even before the Exxon spill, scientists knew that "dispersant-oil mixtures are more toxic than the dispersant alone, and many-fold more toxic than the crude oil." While better and safer detergents are being developed, their long-term toxicity and effectiveness is still completely unknown, making them risky to use in such high quantities as BP is. The way my grandpa sees it, the so-called cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill isn't about being effective or safe, it's about looking like they're doing something. The goal is to make it less visible so the public forgets that it's happening. It's all about PR. I think he's right. What needs to happen, in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the United States, is a change of mindset. We've already started moving away from oil to other, more responsible and sustainable energy technologies, but that is only a small part of the solution. The truth is, we're likely never going to have a zero demand for oil. We certainly won't do it in the next fifty or a hundred years - it's just not feasible. While we need to continue to research alternatives, we need to deal with how we handle and regulate oil now, too. Oil companies have been taking advantage of loose regulations for too long. They need to be forced to prepare for the damage their products can cause. You would think that after the disaster in Alaska that we would have learned our lesson - that anywhere where oil is drilled, pumped or transported would have put in place well trained emergency response teams and extensive equipment ready to react to large spills. But apparently, we haven't learned from our mistakes. This time, I hope that we do.

Crude oil in marsh grass from Barataria Bay, Louisiana. Photo Credit: Breck P. Kent/Shutterstock It's been almost eight years since I wrote that last line. And in that time, science has shown my grandpa was right. 

The Corexit released underwater likely exacerbated the disaster. The dispersant broke up the oil into smaller emulsified droplets, so that it stayed suspended in the water column instead of rising to the surface where it could be skimmed and removed—just like my grandpa said it would. Research has since found that adding dispersants makes oil fifty-two times more toxic to plankton, and despite the use of dispersants, a 'dirty blizzard' of oil settled in the deep. In fact, the dispersants may not have done the one thing they were supposed to: enhance the microbial degradation of the oil. And seawater and sediments continued to be genotoxic and mutagenic, even far from the spill, for years.

Less than a year after the spill began, scientists began finding oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of blue crab larvae in the Gulf, clear evidence that the use of dispersants was allowing the oil to enter the food chain. A study confirming this was published two years later, and in 2016, traces of oil-and-dispersant were found in seaside sparrows, conclusively demonstrating its movement through species. Further research found that microbial communities respond differently to the oil-and-dispersant mix than crude oil alone, with the primary producers that form the base of the food chain hurt most. And when the foundation of an ecosystem is eroded, all species are affected. 

The dispersant used is known to be mutagenic, meaning it causes alterations in DNA that can lead to birth defects and cancers—which, scientists think, is probably why those sparrows are struggling reproductively. More immediately, studies suggest that the use of dispersants led to "disturbing numbers" of mutated fish seen in the years immediately following the spill. Sores, lesions, and jarring deformities were noted by fishers almost immediately. In 2012, Al Jazeera published reports of hundreds of pounds of "horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws, [and] eyeless crabs and shrimp." In some areas, 50% of animals had sores or malformations—500 times as many as before the spill. 

No species was spared. Corals—even deep sea corals, usually spared when disasters take out their shallower cousins—became sick and died. Hundreds of thousands of birds may have been killed. In 2010, there were about half as many turtle nests on northwest Florida beaches as there should have been. Thousands of carcasses of whales and dolphins were reported, and that likely represented just a fraction of the true toll to their populations. Sick dolphins continued to wash ashore afterwards. And those that survived were still plagued by the toxins; the hundreds of stillborn baby dolphins found in the years since are a haunting reminder of the lingering impacts of the spill.

Dolphins swimming through the spill in 2010. Photo Credit: NOAA

And of course, fisheries were harmed directly and indirectly. Shrimp, oyster, crab, and tuna all saw direct impacts. A 2016 study estimated that the spill cost the Gulf fishing industry as much as $9.5 million in sales in 2010 alone. And the long-term impacts are only just being realized—a 2012 estimate suggested the spill may cost the region as much as $8.7 billion.

In 2012, BP pled guilty to a myriad of charges including 11 counts of manslaughter and a felony count of lying to Congress. A federal judge later deemed BP 'grossly negligent', apportioning 67 percent of the blame squarely on BP's shoulders. The company agreed to pay an $18.7 billion settlement in July of 2015. But to date, they've shelled out over $54 billion for the environmental and economic damages of the spill.

Eight years ago, when I sat down with my grandfather and talked to him about the oil industry's attitudes towards spills, he wasn't terribly optimistic that anything would change. It's hard to argue with his pessimism, given that none of the charges levied against BP staff have resulted in prison time—no upper level executives were even charged. There were additional safety measures implemented after the spill—but Trump and his appointees have already proposed rolling back regulations, which means in less than a decade, we'll end up right back where we started. 

It's hard not to be angry—angry that oil companies care so little about the environments their products threaten, angry that even the most tragic disasters ultimately don't change how our government regulates dangerous industries, angry that my grandfather's life's work appears to be for naught.But giving in to that anger would just let the bad guys win. So I'm going to remain hopeful instead. I'm going to use the power of my vote to elect people who aren't beholden to oil lobbies. I'm going to push for increased investment in renewable energies, and lessen my own reliance on oil. I'm going to take inspiration from my grandpa, and work to clean up the messes made by others. I'm going to remain headstrong, loud, and innovative, just like he taught me to be. 

Here's to you, grandpa.

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