I’m no expert on marine ecosystems, much less on the oil industry – but I’ve not felt much confidence in the official clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Now an old veteran of the oil-spill clean-up business confirms a suspicion I’ve had since first hearing about the large-scale use of dispersants to clean up the oil: that it was more for show than real cleanup. Dispersants, I thought, even the most “natural” ones, are like soap, that work by breaking up the oil into smaller droplets that are less visible, right? So, dumping in a boatload of dispersants (and the less benign commercial ones at that) into a big plume of oil may make the plume disappear – but that’s just a visual trick, isn’t it? The oil, after all, is still there, and is now dispersed thinly throughout the column of water, is it not? How can that be any easier to clean up? And how is it any better for the poor marine creatures, which might have had a chance of avoiding an oil plume if it was visible, but must now swim through the dispersed, invisible, oil? Especially if it is also mixed up with toxic chemicals now. Are we really sacrificing real environmental values for aesthetic reasons?
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.