Friday, February 1, 2013
By Jim Bloch
For casual followers of the national news, the new documentary “Dirty Energy” shines a light on an under-reported aspect of British Petroleum’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: The role and consequences of chemical dispersants used by BP to break-up the oil and make the beaches and water appear to be cleaner than they were.
“It’s so toxic, it’s banned from onshore uses in Europe,” said director Bryan Hopkins in an interview.
BP used more than 2.5 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit on the water and under the water, at the ruptured wellhead, to break up the thick slicks and plumes of crude oil, the most ever used on a U.S. oil spill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and first-ever subsea use.
In the movie, marine toxicologist Riki Ott summarized what the oil industry learned from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989: “We have to control the images. We’ve got to minimize the appearance of damages. That will limit our liability.”
That’s what BP did in the Gulf.
“If you disperse it, you don’t see it,” said shrimper George Barisich, who attended the screening of “Dirty Energy” in Port Huron on Jan. 19. “As they dispersed it more and more, the less people saw, the more they forgot about it.”
Instead of trapping the oil in booms and removing it from the water, Corexit breaks the oil apart, theoretically making it more available to naturally occurring, oil-eating microbes.
But it turned out that “the oil and the dispersant was toxic to the very bacteria that was suppose to eat the oil – and it left a bad bacteria that eats oil but also eats human skin,” said Ott.
“The oil hasn’t disappeared,” said Aaron Viles, the deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
Instead, much of the dispersed oil has sunk in the Gulf – only to reappear in the form of slicks and tar balls. A hundred mile slick, 12 miles wide, appeared near the Deepwater Horizon site a year after the explosion. Hurricane Isaac kicked up BP oil and fouled miles of beaches, marshes and barrier islands in August of last year.
“A whole new batch of tar balls rolled up in the last two weeks,” said Hopkins, who brought samples to show the audience of 140 who watched the movie in the auditorium at Port Huron Northern.
Crude oil alone is dangerous to people and animals.
“Crude oil contains highly toxic chemicals that can evaporate and blow in from the ocean, across neighborhoods and towns,” according to Crude Oil and Your Health, a public health warning from Dr. Michael Harbut of the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit and one of his associates. “Exposure to crude oil in the air can cause difficulty breathing, headaches, dizziness, nausea and confusion… Delayed effects of crude oil exposure can include kidney, liver, respiratory, blood, immune system and nervous system damage, cancer and birth defects.”
One study found that Corexit, the contents of which are a corporate secret, magnified the danger of the oil itself by 52 times.
“There’s been very little advance in oil spill cleanup technology in the last three decades,” said Dr. John Lopez in the movie.
“The life span of a person who did cleanup on the Exxon Valdez spill was 51,” said one of the subjects in the film. “Nearly everyone who did work on the cleanup is now dead.”
Worried about negative publicity, BP refused to let cleanup workers wear respirators when applying or working around Corexit, something recommended on material safety data sheets that accompany the product and are recommended by the EPA. Many workers have suffered from respiratory problems, the film suggests.
“Last year, I was diagnosed with chemically induced COPD,” said shrimper Barisich at the Port Huron screening, using the acronym for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I never smoked one thing in my life.”
Together, the film concludes oil and the dispersants have wreaked havoc on the marine life and environment: They have allowed the dispersants to penetrate more deeply into beaches than oil alone; killed baby coral; stressed and damaged established coral colonies; genetically and biologically altered small marsh fish such as killifish; and affected crabs, shrimp, migratory birds, sea turtles and a host of other gulf fish. Between January and June 2011, sperm whales and dolphins in the area died at twice their annual average. Shrimp catches are down as much as 50 percent in oiled areas three years after the spill. By breaking the oil down into droplets, biologists and commercial fishermen worry that small sea life at the base of the food chain can more easily absorb the oil and dispersant, allowing them to bio-accumulate throughout the food web.
Some observers fear the long-term consequences of the spill. After the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, for example, it took the herring population four years to crash – and it still has not recovered.
“The PR that BP is putting out does not match the reality,” said Viles.
Jim Bloch is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Toxicity of Deepwater Horizon Source Oil and the Chemical Dispersant, Corexit 9500, to Coral Larvae (plosone.org)
- BP’s Dispersant Allowed Oil To Penetrate Beaches More Deeply (motherjones.com)
- Judge tosses oil spill claims against dispersant maker (newsherald.com)
- BP Tries To Cover Up Their Oil Spill And Accidentally Poisons The Gulf Of Mexico AGAIN (upworthy.com)
- The Synthetic & Toxic Coastal Clean-Up (misbehavedwoman.wordpress.com)
- Disperant Made BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill 52 Times More Toxic (treehugger.com)
- Mystery ‘oil sheen’ grows near site of BP Gulf disaster, says researcher (science.nbcnews.com)