Where indeed?  When the ships and aircraft returned to the Gulf after last week’s tropical storm Bonnie had blown through, they found very little oil left floating on the ocean’s surface.  Some media outlets have since concluded that the oil is mostly gone—Yahoo News, for instance, which posted a story headlined “Gulf focus shifts, but where is all the oil?” and USA Today, which asked a similar question.  Even Jane Lubchenco, the head of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was quoted in both articles as saying: “We know that a significant amount of the oil has dispersed and been biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria.”

But what exactly does that mean—that the oil has been “biodegraded?”

In that giant mixing bowl called the Gulf of Mexico, the storm stirred up millions of gallons of chemical dispersants with the hundred million gallons of crude. This blending created much smaller droplets of new, oil-based compounds, dispersed throughout the entire 5,000 feet of ocean depth, which are essentially invisible to anyone simply looking for intact slicks of oil floating atop the ocean.

Remember, immediately after the spill, BP doused the Gulf with an unprecedented amount of dispersant (presumably to match the unprecedented volume of crude in the Gulf). These dispersants, whose use has been banned in the UK for more than a decade because of their proven toxicity, mix with oil to break it up, creating a much larger volume of compounds, which are even more toxic than the oil and dispersant separately. And unlike crude oil, this new mixture is water-soluble, so it no longer floats on the surface of the ocean, instead mixing invisibly with a much greater amount of ocean below.

The dispersant’s submerging, “dissolving” effect prevents the brown goo from coating the marsh grasses, beaches and birds, which clearly improves the appearance of the aerial photography shots of the Gulf. Even Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s oil spill response chief, has said it’s become harder to find oil on the surface of the Gulf.

However, while things appear better above the surface, it may be a different story below.  Susan Shaw, an internationally recognized marine toxicologist, explained how BP (and the U.S. government, which went along with this plan) chose the appearance and immediate wellbeing of the wetlands over the long-term health of ocean life. Because BP wanted things to look better faster, Shaw says, the entire sea-life food chain will be poisoned by the oil-dispersant soup now mixed throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  Dr. Joe Griffitt, a toxicologist at the University of Southern Mississippi, tells NBC News, “I think we all agree that the dispersed oil is more likely to be toxic than the crude oil by itself.”

The use of dispersants also undermined our already-ineffective efforts to use booms and skimmers to try to scoop up the oil before it became enmeshed in our ecosystem. And reports released today illustrate new inconsistencies in BP’s disclosure of the amounts of dispersants applied in the Gulf.  These records show that BP may have poured even more of these toxic dispersants than the millions of gallons they’ve reported.

The truth is that we still don’t know the many ways that this unprecedented amount of crude oil and toxic dispersants in our waters will affect our environment.  Scientists will be analyzing land and water samples in the coming weeks and months–a federal judge has just ordered BP to preserve all the samples it took after the spill, and there will inevitably be a lot of posturing, PR and spin.

To further complicate our ability to understand what’s happening in the Gulf, BP still refuses to release the complete list of ingredients in the dispersants used, Corexit 9500A and 9527A, citing “Trade Secrets.”  Shaw explains in the  video below how scientists will face tremendous challenges analyzing the samples, as they won’t know what to look for.

The decision to use dispersant after the huge oil spill reminds me of our decision to invade Iraq after 9/11. We want to do something, anything, to “fix” it. But sometimes, even when something horrible happens, like 9/11, or the Gulf oil spill, it’s often better to wait and think, and then to take only actions that we know will help, rather than to overreact, creating new problems with often unimaginably far-reaching consequences.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Dee Jae August 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Dear Kathleen,

    I sincerely appreciate your candor in educating us about the dangers relating to the Gulf oil spill, and the dirty “clean-up” job that has been executed by BP and our government.

    This is yet another example of our need for increased attention and regulation regarding our environment’s rapidly increasing rate of toxicity. As the mother of 4 children, I have done extensive research on the affects of pollutants that contaminate the very things we need for survival: our food, our water, and the air we breathe. To make matters worse, there is undisputed evidence that the profoundly negative effects of the contamination is intensely magnified in the most vulnerable among us: our children.

    Empowered with a passion to work with others, such as yourself, to affect positive changes, and to be a voice for change in these regards, I will be starting law school in just 2 weeks, pursuing a career in environmental law.

    If there is one good thing that has resulted from the catastrophe in the gulf, it is that the awareness of the threats, to our environment and our health, has been heightened in many people. Thank you for lending your voice and expertise to us.

    Warm regards,