Though the flow of oil into the Gulf from the ruptured British Petroleum well has stopped, endless questions remain regarding what the oil—and a dispersant known as Corexit 9500 and a variant known as 9527; made by Nalco—did to the sea life and waters in the region.
There are good reasons for these questions: the Obama administration has done nothing to impede BP’s privatization of law enforcement at every level in a successful bid to quash information gathering by the world’s media at the disaster zone. Taxpayer funds have been used to keep taxpayers in the dark and thwart meaningful consideration about our need and excessive use of oil. To a high degree, the government and BP have succeeded in their propaganda efforts.
As good as the news is to know that perhaps the gusher in the Gulf has finally been controlled, the oil will continue to poison all around it for an indefinite time to come and that far from being able to control events or the negligent agent who caused this disaster to happen, government acts as the willing bum boy to do the bidding of industry, especially when it comes to thwarting the press and other oversight of the containment effort. Below are some selected remarks from the EPA, congressional hearings and fishing industry spokesmen that may offer a “non-standard” view of what has happened to the region. Consider this data in the days and weeks ahead, when the news cycle reinforces the idea that the disaster is ended and that all will soon be “normal”.
Nearly a month of the oil disaster, the EPA admitted that the impact of oil dispersants are still unknown.
“We remain concerned about the volume of dispersants used to date,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said at a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing. This statement came at a time when “only” 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a chemical dispersant that breaks down oil—and anything else it comes in contact with— had been dumped into the sea.
Some 700,000 gallons of Corexit was dispersed underwater in a single day in a unique attempt to slow the flow of oil. The dispersant was sprayed directly at the well head onto the uncontrolled gushing spume in an unprecedented—and completely unmonitored—effort. To the end of May, BP acknowledged it had used nearly 1.8 million gallons of Corexit at a rate of 35,000 to 65,000 barrels per day. The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 used 250,000 barrels to combat a spill of 11 million gallons.
The EPA’s Jackson said she did not know of any research focused on the heavy use of chemical dispersants or underwater application of the chemicals.
“You’re suggesting to me that we haven’t done that research anywhere?” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., asked, during hearings.
“That’s correct senator,” Jackson said. When asked about how much study had been done of chemical dispersants since the Exxon Valdez disaster, Jackson said, “There has been significant research, but let me say at the outset, I don’t think there has been enough.”
“Should we ban them?” subcommittee chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., asked. “I don’t want dispersants to be the Agent Orange of this oil spill.”
“Every single thing done at sea has some cost,” Jackson said. “There is good news. We have not seen signs of environmental impact from the use of dispersants so far,” she said, though she acknowledged that the long-term affects on aquatic life are “largely unknown.”
So far, EPA testing of water and sediment close to the shore has yielded no evidence of dispersants on or near the shoreline.
“So why did you tell them to limit it?” Mikulski asked Jackson, referring to a May 26 order issued by the EPA for BP to scale back the use of dispersants.
“Because there were scientific unknowns,” Jackson said. She said she had a choice between banning dispersants altogether or letting BP use them “in moderation”, and she let the company use them in moderation in hopes that the dispersants would help.
“[The dispersants] are much less toxic and the chemicals added to them are much less toxic than the oil itself,” Jackson said.
“U.K. has banned dispersants,” Mikulski said. “If the U.K. banned it, a nation surrounded by water, why weren’t we banning it?”
Jackson said the U.K. banned Corexit not due to its toxicity or lethality, but because it caused damage to rocky shores; degrading life among them and proving hard to eradicate. This was a problem the United States sought to avoid by allowing dispersants to be applied at least 30 miles offshore. How or why it was assumed that dispersants wouldn’t drift inshore was left unexplained.
Jackson, however, did explain that by the time the dispersants break down the oil, the only thing left are the oil byproducts.
“They don’t stick around,” Jackson said of chemicals in the dispersants.
“The thing that sticks around is the oil.”
The fishermen of the region are like canaries in a coal mine—early indicators of bad changes to their environment. They’ve had plenty to say about what has happened to the sea they made a living from. Those who fish at the bottom, for oysters, lobsters, crabs and clams discovered first how grave the Gulf has become; oystermen were the first to recognize that BP made poison “A permanent part of the seabed and food chain in the biostructure in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The oystermen realized that Corexit 9500 and 9527 was excellent—for sinking degraded oil to the bottom, out of sight of the planes and boats that foraged the surface to observe damage. The oil poisons the bottom feeders. Once they’re dead, the sea has no means of disposing of the carrion that occurs when other fish, plankton and myriad life forms die. Without this natural cleanup mechanism, less oxygen remains in the polluted water and vast regions of the sea will be unable to sustain sea life for an unknowable time in the future. It may be generations before the region’s water can support the life levels it had the day before the oil well exploded and sank. All the fishermen say that it would have less of a disaster if no Corexit had been used—at least if it hadn’t, the oil may have been attacked on the surface and a greater amount either reclaimed or burned, and the bottom of the sea would have been left intact and unharmed.
Left unsaid are concerns about the seafood coming out of the Gulf. The disaster has likely changed the game for every aspect of the fishing industry and no one knows how the oil—and the dispersant—may affect the fish stocks. Currently, federal agencies are not testing seafood coming out of the Gulf for traces of chemical dispersants, a fact that aroused concern in senators in the May 26 hearings.
Under the current seafood testing protocol for the Gulf, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tests seafood collected from the contaminated area more than 3 miles offshore, and states monitor seafood collected less than 3 miles offshore with the help of the Food and Drug Administration.
Murkowski complained that seafood sales in her state of Alaska have been affected by the Gulf spill because consumers, especially in the Midwest, may not know where their seafood is coming from, and out of fear that it is polluted, do not buy any.
“Those shrimp might be absolutely perfectly safe,” Murkowski said, “but as long as market perceives that they are not, then no one is going to buy them.
“NOAA and FDA need to come out and unequivocally state, ‘Things are safe,’” Murkowski said. “We need to get that word out.”
Murkowski’s sentiments will no doubt be mirrored by industry and government in the coming weeks to simulate a sense of normality and help the public forget there was a disaster. It’s unlikely that BP will ever have to pay for cancers or other diseases caused by contaminated fish caught in the Gulf, and if burying the known hazards of Corexit and oil will help get a market going again, then as Murkowski says, “we need to get that word out.”
Getting that word out will be a bit less easy with Richard Dennison around. Dennison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who wrote on the group’s website that Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, the two forms BP is using, are “among the least effective of the 18 dispersants that EPA has approved under the National Oil and Hazardous Pollution Contingency Plan.”
Dennison wrote that the dispersants “appear to be among the more toxic based on limited short-term toxicity tests conducted on fish and shrimp.”
BP has been using Corexit during the oil spill catastrophe in far greater quantities than ever before in US history.
Jackson said other chemicals the EPA wanted BP to consider appear to be less toxic and more effective than Corexit.
“My concern is they appear to be going out of their way to find problems with these other chemicals,” Jackson said.
Fishermen throughout the Gulf—as well as many others, including some state officials in Louisiana, believe that by ignoring the need to keep oil away from sensitive marshlands—prime breeding habitat for dozens or hundreds of species of wildlife, including fish, crustaceans and birds, pollution there will eventually open the way for BP or other industry to obtain mineral rights in those areas. Far below Louisiana’s fragile wetlands are reserves of crude oil and other valuable minerals. Some believe that BP is after the mineral rights, which it cannot touch while the wetlands are alive. If the marshlands are compromised, the logic goes, they are no longer worthy of protection so there is no reason not to drill for oil in them. If this happens, vast profits could accrue to BP or any oil company BP partners with to extract oil less expensively than for offshore efforts.
Almost 70 miles of Louisiana coast are soaked with oil. That’s more land than the seashores of Maryland and Delaware combined. As oil threatened to come ashore in the marshland coast and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal all but screamed for help from the feds for boats, booms and manpower, a curious—and perhaps criminal—event unfolded when BP and the Coast Guard abandoned 44 boats loaded with booms on Louisiana’s shores as thick black oil flooded into the marshlands.
BP was nowhere in sight as the oil inundated the fragile marshes, and the oil company has provided little explanation about what made it jump ship rather fight the incoming oil as it hit land.
The Army Corps of Engineers dragged its feet on whether to approve dredging plans to create a barrier around Louisiana’s wetlands. BP officials did not propose any plan to prevent the oil from moving away from the broken well and into Louisiana’s fragile marshes. This sudden failure to act and wilful disregard of the danger facing the Gulf Coast marshlands is impossible to understand unless one believes that incompetence is the standard operating procedure of the US government when faced with adversity, or that the suspicions of those who believe that changing the status of the marshlands from protected to available for commercial lease are correct.
St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro stated in Louisiana hearings, “I would be betting the plan is to let us die.” As Taffaro made his remarks, it was announced that BP had ignored a federal order to stop spraying Corexit; they had, in fact, brought in a new variant of the dispersant which is more toxic to marine life, and this is new variant was being used in waters in and near the marshlands.
Louisiana marshalled available resources in an effort to emplace booms and breakwaters to keep the oil away. Too little and too late, the effort failed and dispersant-contaminated oil came ashore. As this took place, BP spokesman Mark Salt told worried Louisianans “We’re heavily invested in doing the very best job that we can,” and assured everyone that BP would spend $500 million in the next decade to study the effects of the catastrophe, including the environmental effects of dispersant. Shortly thereafter, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asked BP to limit its use of the dispersant and to find a less toxic replacement.
At all times since the disaster occurred, the government has bent backwards for BP and accommodated their every need. One enviromental group is taking the feds to task on that now, in Federal Court against what it says is a fast-paced, wholesale “exclusion” from environmental laws to several companies, including BP.
Specifically, the Defenders of Wildlife claim the (US) Minerals Management Service (MMS) violated federal laws by “arbitrarily and capriciously” granting the exclusions, and finding that deepwater offshore drilling, including the Deepwater Horizon’s, was “not likely to have a significant impact on the environment.”
The nonprofit environmental group also sued the Department of the Interior and its Secretary Ken Salazar.
“In violation of NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] and its own regulations, MMS has authorized additional categorical exclusions for over twenty exploratory wells and drilling operations in the Gulf since the April 20, 2010 blowout, with over fifteen of these exploratory wells in waters classified as ‘deepwater’ pursuant to MMS regulations,” according to the complaint.
Before the MMS granted 11 oil and gas leases, including that for the Deepwater Horizon, it issued a final environmental impact statement that estimated that in the event of an oil spill, the maximum amount spilled would be slightly over 1 million gallons—an amount already dwarfed by the continuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the complaint.
“MMS estimated that over the 40-year life span of the eleven proposed lease sales, the total amount of oil spilled in the offshore waters of the Central Planning area, which includes the Deepwater Horizon site, would be 5,500 to 26,500 barrels of oil. … The maximum amount estimated – 26,500 barrels – is slightly over 1 million gallons, one-fourth of the current estimate of oil spilled at the Deepwater Horizon site,” the complaint states.
In applying for the lease, BP wrote in its “Exploration Plan” that it had “blowout prevention equipment” and that the “likelihood of a blowout was so remote that this possibility could be discounted entirely,” the complaint states.
BP added that “in the event of an accidental release, the water quality would be temporarily affected by the dissolved components and small droplets” but that “(c)urrents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels.” BP anticipated “no adverse impact” to marine life, birds or beaches.
Defenders says that MMS granted “categorical exclusion” to BP, which meant it did not have to file an environmental impact statement.
The MMS simply told BP to “(e)xercise caution when drilling.” It did not explain why BP was given the exclusion, according to the complaint.
In fact, the environmental group says, the disastrous oil spill will “drastically reduce oxygen levels in the Gulf, which will result in the loss of marine life at all trophic levels” and several hundred species are in danger, including endangered and threatened sea turtles, whales, seabirds and fish.
The Defenders of Wildlife wants the court to vacate all 27 “categorical exclusions” the MMS issued to several companies, including BP, since April 20 and to stop any more lease sales until a supplemental environmental impact statement has been prepared.