Oil Spill Sinking Not Shrinking Thanks to Toxic Dispersants

Guest Blog | May 5, 2010 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

At first glance, the latest forecast image from NOAA shows that the oil spill is significantly smaller than in previous days.  The truth is that the amount of oil spewing out of the seafloor has not changed.  Experts say that the oil is sinking and breaking up due to the usage of chemical dispersants; which is essentially the job of theses chemicals.

It is important to understand that oil spill dispersants do not in any way reduce the amount of oil spewing from its source nor do they eliminate oil from the environment.  What these chemical agents are designed to do is alter the physical and chemical properties of the oil allowing it to sink further down into the water column.

Just for a second, imagine what a wildlife impact from an oil spill would look like.  What is the first image that came to mind?  Was it a bird, an otter or a dolphin covered in oil?  Whereas surface oil has the potential to devastate birds, land animals and marine mammals, oil that moves down deeper into the ocean has the potential to devastate those animals that do not come up for air as well as entire subsurface ecosystems (coral reefs and other benthic environments).

Once oil is dispersed, broken up or sunk it is actually harder to clean it up.  That pollution will remain in the environment and be taken up by marine organisms for decades.  The usage of these chemicals and figuring out their long-term effects is like one giant mad science experiment on the environment.

Why Oil, Dispersants and Marine Life Don’t Mixcoral-reef-life

Crews dealing with the clean-up of the ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf, have found themselves grasping for last-ditch and dangerous methods of preventing some of the surface oil from reaching shore.  Since last week, BP  deployed over 156,000 gallons (3,000 gallons applied subsurface) of chemical dispersants over parts of the spill; the single largest application in our nation’s history.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the use of chemical dispersants has been extremely controversial for decades because of their toxicity to human and marine life as well as the general scientific uncertainty of its long-term impacts on the environment.  The administration of any chemical dispersant to combat oil spills is said to be a very difficult decision for oil spill responders and natural resources managers.  In fact, “even on the Exxon Valdez spill, dispersants weren’t used all that readily” said Richard Gaudiosi, president of the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative.

Chemical dispersants and the oil particle pollution they leave behind can kill fish eggs and disrupt embryonic development in other sea life.  Research studies have shown that traces of oil compounds and chemical dispersant by-products can be found in the tissues of seafood.  This could have serious and long-lasting implications on the Gulf region’s fishing and shellfish industry.


BP’s Choice Dispersant: Four Times More Toxic than Oil

BP’s chemical dispersant of choice, Corexit 9500, is “a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses”.  This particular chemical is actually more toxic than oil.  According to an investigative article, oil is toxic at 11 ppm while Corexit 9500 is toxic at 2.61 ppm; therefore making this compound for times more deadly than the oil itself.  The article points out that although there is less Corexit being introduced than oil, one is not ‘less evil’ than the other because they are both being introduced into the ocean.

Is BP Trying to “Hide” the Evidence?

Interestingly enough, BP has already purchased more than a third of the world’s supply of these chemical dispersants when there are more effective and less toxic oil dispersants available on the market today.  One such EPA approved product is called Dispersit.  It is water-based rather and therefore less toxic than the petroleum-based Corexit.  This alternative dispersant is said to have “slight to no” impact on human health.  Additionally, Dispersit is 100% more effective on the type of crude gushing out into the Gulf.  Currently very little of Dispersit is being used on the gulf disaster which is raising some eyebrows.  Many are asking why BP has chosen Corexit and some are suggesting that BP is trying to hide millions of gallons of oil from the public eye.

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