Oil spill: More questions about dispersant use

A fishing boat skims oil from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Untold quantities of oil have mixed with the water and will never be recovered from the Gulf. PHOTO COURTESY THE U.S. COAST GUARD.

More than 100 scientists release consensus statement on long-term impacts of Corexit, claiming the government is withholding key data from public but giving it to BP

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — More than a 100 scientists have joined together to try and draw attention to the potential environmental impacts from the 2 million gallons of oil dispersant that have been used in the Gulf of Mexico.

The researchers said the combination of the dispersant and the oil is likely to kill marine life across large swaths of ocean, and that it’s potential impacts to human health can’t be assessed accurately because not all the ingredients are known. They also accused the EPA and NOAA of being slow to test for the impacts of the dispersant, and even slower to release the results to the public.

The scientists have submitted a well-documented consensus statement calling on BP and the U.S. government to immediately end the use of dispersants, which are likely contributing to the formation of giant underwater plumes of oil-infused water that will spread

Here’s what they want:

  • An immediate halt to the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly the application of dispersants at depth.
  • Full disclosure of all the chemical ingredients in the Corexit formulations and full toxicity data on these chemicals in combination with oil –– this information should be posted on a website and should include studies submitted by the manufacturers to EPA, not meaningless summaries.
  • 3. A federal site that provides adverse effects information from the previous uses of Corexit dispersants. This should cover environmental media, wildlife, and human populations. This information was collected after Corexit 9527 was used in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
  • 4. Access to the extensive monitoring data that EPA and NOAA have collected documenting what chemicals are in the air and water and their observed adverse impacts. Only limited summary data have been provided to the public.
  • 5. Funding for independent research on short-term and long-term impacts; money that is available to qualified researchers NOW, not months later (as in the Exxon Valdez spill) when exposure has lessened and impacts will be difficult, if not impossible, to document.

Here is a paraphrased summary of some of their key findings:

Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, BP has applied almost two million gallons of dispersants, both on the surface and beneath Gulf waters. The quantity of dispersant is unprecedented for any previous oil spill as is the application at a depth of 5,000 feet.

Citing numerous studies, the scientists said they think the combination of dispersants and oil creates a toxic brew with “grave health risks to marine life and human health.” Continued use could deplete critical niches in the Gulf food web that may never recover.

The dispersant, called Corexit, breaks the oil into tiny particles and helps reduce the amount of oil that reaches the shore in the form of thick slicks. However, those smaller particles of oil can’t be recovered from the water.

BP and the federal government have been criticized for using the dispersant simply to prevent the disturbing sight of oiled birds and fish — without first fully understanding and disclosing the impacts of its use on such a large scale.

In several statements on the use of the chemical — basically a surfactant like dish soap that breaks up the stickiness of the oil — the EPA has said that breaking the oil down will help natural bacteria in the ocean finish the job of decomposing the oil.

But not all scientists agree with that conclusion. The EPA assumes that the mix of oil and dispersants doesn’t affect the microbial community in the ocean.

“We have no idea if that’s true or not,” said Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia biochemist. “There’s just as good a chance that this dispersant is killing off a critical portion of the microbial community as it is that it’s stimulating the breakdown of oil,” she said.

But the critics say there’s no solid science showing that benefits of the dispersants outweigh the potential environmental impacts. In the consensus statement, the scientists said the use of dispersants is “a large-scale experiment on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem that runs contrary to a precautionary approach, an experiment where the costs may ultimately outweigh the benefits.”

Those environmental costs include widespread underwater plumes of oil that are migrating outward from the discharge point and are likely to travel with prevailing currents to the Florida Keys, Cuba, Mexico, and the eastern seaboard of the US.

Here’s the relevant sentence from the statement:

  • The vast quantities of dispersed oil in these plumes can enter the marine food chain and bioaccumulate in animal tissue, potentially impacting marine ecosystems over many years and over a broad geographical area.

The same properties that enable Corexit to move through the oil also make it easier for the chemical to pass through cell walls, skin and membranes that protect vital organs and the surfaces of eyes and mouths, the scientists said. The presence of the dispersant makes it easier for any oil that’s present to penetrate the body and cells, which can result in damage to every organ.

Additionally, the scientists said not all of Corexit’s chemical additives have been disclosed. Under so-called proprietary information, the manufacturer has been able avoid disclosure, revealing the presence of some chemical only as part of a group of additives. Without that specific information, it’s not possible to fully assess the impacts.

The scientists go on to cite many studies showing that the application of dispersant is more toxic to marine life over a widespread area. The plumes of dispersed oil envelop and kill floating plankton, fish eggs and larvae — along with everything else at sensitive life stages.

Coral larvae are particularly sensitive to the combined effects of dispersant and oil, with zero percent fertilization rates when the mix is present, as compared to 98 percent fertilization rate with the presence of oil alone.

Consensus Statement Dispersants Gulf of Mexico 20100716


3 thoughts on “Oil spill: More questions about dispersant use

  1. Our planet is being destroyed, along with the inhabitants, one spill at a time.

    BP’s deception comes as no surprise to any of us. Please American people think about it: If there had been no explosion in the beginning, would we have known about the gushing oil from the well? How many of the abandon oceans oil wells are gushing oil? Shouldn’t here be an agency that monitors all oil companies’ drilling action in our ocean beds? Oh, that’s right, there is? However, just like BP, Exxon and the rest of the oil companies, government official agencies are busy covering their lies, and dancing the Dance of Deliberate Deception. Over the last 80 years our US Government has become good at the side step dance also.
    It is just a ploy to take the focus from the health issues that face the oil cleanup workers in the Gulf.

    In 1989 Exxon told the cleanup workers the same story, that the crude oil is not toxic. Some of us are living proof of the toxic exposure, and many others have died. Please view the YouTube video, and help get the message to Gulf residents, BP crude oil cleanup workers, and President Obama. Respirators need to be supplied to oil cleanup crews.

    Toxic Crude Oil In Gulf

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