BP Oil Spill Part II – What you need to know

Nov 2010

By: Laura Crawford Williams

What Scientists Are Saying: How This is Different From Valdez

Should we assume we will need the same intense cleanup efforts in the Gulf that took an estimated 18 years to complete in Alaska? In response, most scientists will give you the following three reasons why we should not:

  1. Because the Gulf of Mexico is so much larger than the Prince William Sound (where the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred) scientists theorize that we won’t see the same dangerous concentrations. They think it’s a good thing that much of the oil will settle on the sea floor before coming to shore. (I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils.)
  2. Apparently, the Gulf’s warm waters will accelerate the evaporation of oil. (I didn’t even know oil evaporated.) Warmth increases chemical and biochemical reactions. Swedish scientists theorize that what took 18 years in Alaska will take only 5 years in the Gulf.  The rule of thumb is that for every 10 degrees Celsius increase in water temperature, chemical and biochemical reactions happen twice as quickly.
  3. There are oil-digesting bacteria that occur naturally in the Gulf. BP is counting on these handy little devils to take care of the rest of the problem. However, according to a New York Times article in August 2010, scientists are quarreling over the amount these microbes are actually consuming and, therefore, how effective the bacteria will be. There are also concerns about large oxygen depleted columns of water created by the bacteria as they ingest oil.

What Are The Big Concerns: Health, Dispersant, and a Fragile Ecosystem
Approximately 1.84 million gallons of Corexit 9527A dispersant were applied by BP in the Gulf. According to a quick search on the internet, most scientists agree that this dispersant poses significant human health risks because it contains a toxin that can cause injury to red blood cells, kidneys, reproductive organs, and the liver. Corexit 9527 and 9500 were sprayed during the Exxon Valdez spill. According to a CNN report in July 2010, 6,722 of the 11,000 Valdez cleanup workers became ill with upper respiratory infections. Some suffered severe long-term effects.

For more information see: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/07/video-fmr-exxon-worker-blames-cough-on-cleanup or http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edward-f-blizzard/as-task-force-works-to-ve_b_584850.html

We’ve all seen the photos of birds covered in oil, but what about birds covered in dispersed oil? One USFW biologist told me that dispersant damages the insulating properties offeathers, making birds more susceptible to hypothermia. He continued to say that birds covered with dispersed oil may not look sick now, but may die slowly as they have difficulty thermo-regulating.

I found more information backing this theory at http://cleanthegulfnow.org/archives/review-of-oil-spill-dispersant-literature and the National Library of Medicine‘s http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgibin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@[email protected]

Now, a new fear is brewing. When dispersant is sprayed into the air, either by  waves crashing or power washers being used to clean marshes, hydrocarbons are released. When hydrocarbons mix with precipitation, you get toxic rain. New Orleans receives an average of 53.9 inches of rain a year. If fears are justified, this could become a health issue for people in the city as well as a possible disaster for farmers whose crops and topsoil may become contaminated. For more information see: The San Francisco Chronicle at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/ybenjamin/detail?entry_id=65552

The fact is, Corexit did a lot more damage to the marsh than was originally thought, affecting plants much like Round-Up herbicide would do. Grasses have been “burned” in lightly oiled areas, but heavily oiled areas are simply dead. While it’s true that flora and fauna in the Gulf have evolved with disasters like hurricanes, what happens if the oil and dispersant washing into the marshes continues to kill grasses over a long period of time? This would speed coastal erosion in a fragile area already losing 75 square kilometers a year. The domino effect of failure that may result, could affect every species in world-changing ways. For more information see Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana at http://www.crcl.org or PBS Broadcasting at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/environment/july-dec10/erosion_09-22.html