Corporate media late in looking below the surface of the Gulf to the long-term environmental impacts of dispersant use
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A little late, the mainstream media is finally picking up on the fact that something was amiss with the massive use of dispersants in the response to the Gulf of Mexico during the blow-out of BP’s failed Macondo well.
The delayed reporting is yet another sign of how the mainstream media — with a few exceptions — fails to serve the public interest by too often waiting for “official” sources before reporting a story — in this case on the irresponsible authorization and use of Corexit, which BP tried to pass off as no more harmful than dish soap.
I can cut the media a little bit of slack, knowing how reporting budgets have been cut. It’s tough to find a newspaper with a good environmental reporting program these days. But part of it is just plain laziness, waiting for the press release or the press conference, and part of it is the pressure to report good news.
That’s been the trend with Gulf stories the past week or so. The BP spin machine is in overdrive, trying to convince the public that it’s really not as bad as it seemed, that all the surface oil is nearly gone, and most recently, that “life is returning to normal” along the Gulf Coast. It takes on-the-ground reporting from voices like Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard and Mac MCclelland to tell the real story. The reality: Life is far from normal, and there is still oil all over the place.
The federal government response team, for all the hard work of the scientists in the field, also has a vested interest in making it appear that the catastrophe is under control. There’s enough bad news out there without people realizing that the Obama administration’s oversight of the response has been less than stellar, to put it kindly.
Which brings us back to the dispersant. According to a press release from Rep. Ed Markey’s select global warming and energy subcommittee, the Coast Guard gave BP almost carte blanche approval to use dispersants both underwater and on the surface in direct violation of guidelines from the EPA calling for minimal use of the toxic chemical.
In effect, BP was “carpet-bombing” the sea with the chemical, in the hopes that it would prevent oil from reaching the beaches and wetlands, while remaining totally uncertain about how the extensive application might play out for marine ecosystems in the long run.
Environmental groups, community advocates on the Gulf Coast and alt news websites have been squawking about this issue for weeks, but the issue didn’t really gain any traction in the mainstream media until this weekend, when CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle (via the AP), among others, printed stories based on the committee’s release.
Why did it take so long?
Let’s face it. Corporate media is part of the establishment. To the establishment, environmental groups like Greenpeace are radical enemies of the status quo, and there is a reluctance to report on them in a way that gives their voices equal weight. For some reason, the corporate media has been equally reluctant to report the findings of independent scientists investigating the spill and the response.
At issue to Markey’s committee is how much of the dispersant was used, how it was reported to the government and how it was authorized, even after EPA administrator Lisa Jackson told Congress that the unprecedented use of Corexit was a large-scale experiment with an uncertain outcome.
Markey is convinced that BP was lying about the use of Corexit in any case:
“Either BP was lying to Congress or to the Coast Guard about how much dispersants they were shooting onto the ocean,” said Rep. Markey. “These huge discrepancies also raise the question of whether the Coast Guard made sufficient efforts to verify the information BP provided in support of its requests, and whether it exercised appropriate oversight surrounding the use of these toxic chemicals.”
Way back in late May the EPA decided to eliminate surface use except in “rare cases,” for which exemptions had to be requested.
Do you think BP and the Coast Guard followed that directive?
Not in any way. Official records show that blanket exemptions were issued routinely in subsequent weeks, as BP and the Coast Guard scrambled to prevent yet more oil from washing up on the coast.
Markey said the discrepancy between BP statements and other written record calls into question the total amount of dispersant used. Officially that figure stands about 1.8 million gallons, but, who knows, it may have been a lot more.
All this is important because at this point, it’s not clear what the long-term effects of the dispersant-oil mixture will be. There’s a chance that the use of the chemical will actually work. The oil, broken down into microscopic droplets, could be biodegraded in the bacteria-rich warm waters of the Gulf and concentrations of oil could drop to background levels.
In that case, the massive application could, in hindsight, be seen as a good thing that helped prevent even worse environmental damage.
Let’s hope that’s what happens.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that the combination of oil and dispersant is already entering the marine food chain at the fundamental level, with as-yet unforeseen consequences for nearly every form of life in the region. That’s the scenario being painted by groups of independent researchers and scientists, who describe how the same properties that make Corexit break down the oil also makes it easier for the hydrocarbons to penetrate cell walls lining the organs of marine life.
That part of the science is well-documented, as is the fact that larvae and eggs are extremely susceptible to damage from the oil-dispersant mix even at low concentrations. What’s not known is how long the underwater clouds of oil will linger in that environment. Will they really decompose, as the government claims? What about deeper down, where the water is colder and there are less bacteria? Will the oil gradually settle to the bottom, or will it float up to the surface over the next few years and months?
Nobody seems to know, and there doesn’t seem to be a good plan for addressing those millions of gallons of oil, other than just waiting for it to break down in the environment. Why isn’t the mainstream media reporting on that?
I’m not going to provide links to the johnny-come-lately stories from CNN and the AP — you’ll have to search for those yourself. But here is a link to the statement from Markey’s committee. There you will find links to the official government papers that document the story, including the lame responses from the Coast Guard when it was questioned about the authorization process.