What really happened to cause the devastating oil leak in the gulf of Mexico? And what is BP doing to fix the problem?
For an answer to the first question, watch this 60 Minutes story. As for the answer to the second question, read my special report on the devastating choices made by BP to "clean up" the mess -- choices that could WORSEN the environmental impact of the spill, rather than improve it.
"They [BP] hid the body," said Ian McDonald, FSU oceanographer. BP's initial statement on April 21st that "there is no leak," and later, their impossibly low 5,000 barrel-a-day estimate is like the serial killer with the neighbor's head in the refrigerator, who says he shouldn't be charged for murder because you can't prove it was attached to the rest of the missing body."
The above is a quote posted by Sayer Ji and hits the nail squarely on the head.
Ji's mission is to bring attention to the inherently futile approach of using chemical dispersants on the Gulf oil leak, which actually magnify the damage even further.
In particular, Ji has brought together a good deal of toxicological information, all research-based, about the environmental impact of using oil dispersant chemicals, particularly the agents BP has chosen, which are the WORST possible dispersants for the environment.
Our very planet is in peril, as a result.
BP's History of Environmental Crimes
The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was far from the "unavoidable accident" BP claimed it to be, driven by a reckless pursuit of profits and selfish disregard for our planet.
Followed by a rather obvious cover-up.
BP is no stranger to environmental crime. Over the past two decades, BP subsidiaries have been convicted of three crimes in Alaska and Texas, including two felonies. BP also holds the dubious honor of receiving the stiffest fine in history for work safety violations[i].
And with the current disaster, their lies have spewed forth as fervently as the oil.
First, BP denied there was a leak. When they could no longer hide that fact, they lowballed the estimate of the leak at 5,000 barrels a day, which is probably low by a factor of 20. And instead of taking responsibility, they are playing PR gymnastics and finger pointing.
Making the environmental disaster even worse, BP is dumping dispersants into the Gulf by the bathtub-full—and they have chosen the worst of the worst.
Dispersants Banned in the United Kingdom
BP is using two products from a line of dispersants manufactured by Nalco: Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A[ii] .
Corexit products were removed from a list of approved treatments for oil spills in the U.K. more than a decade ago after the agents were linked with human health problems including respiratory, neurologic, liver, kidney and blood disorders,[iii] and "harmful effects" on sea life.
Corexit is on the EPA's list of approved chemical dispersants, and BP could have chosen any one from the list. The EPA's table comparing toxicity and effectiveness shows that Corexit is toxic at much lower levels than many of its competitors. Only 2.61 ppm of Corexit 9500 is required to kill 50 percent of fish exposed to it within 96 hours. Sayer Ji clarifies this by explaining that the Corexit itself actually only has a toxicity level of 25.20 parts per million. The test oil the EPA uses has a higher toxicity of 10.72 ppm. It is when you add the Corexit to oil at a 1:10 ratio that the combined toxicity of this third entity "dispersed oil" goes all the way to 2.6 ppm.
So, why would BP choose Corexit, given its higher toxicity and poor performance in handling Louisiana crude?
As it turns out, BP has financial ties with Nalco, which explains why they have now poured more than 1,021,000 gallons of it into the Gulf and have another 805,000 gallons on order. Because of these industry ties, Corexit is the only dispersant available in the massive quantities "needed" for an oil spill of this size.
In fact, they used up all exiting stockpiles of Corexit 9527A, the older and less desirable formula, and Nalco states it will be discontinued, now that it has been used up.
And if it is toxic enough to be discontinued, why was it being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico in the first place?
Of all 18 dispersants tested, Corexit 9500 and 9527A are the LEAST effective, further confirming that BP's preferential use of these products is motivated by profit, rather than their proclaimed intention to "clean up the mess," as Sayer Ji points out.
Although using less toxic dispersants is a good idea, relative toxicity is NOT really the issue. A far more critical point is the inherently damaging consequences of dispersing the oil by any means.
Casting Dispersions of Doubt
As Ji states:
"Dispersing the oil into the water column accelerates the poisoning of all marine life, deep throughout the water column and seabed. Ultimately it results in "covering-up" the extent of the disaster on the surface, while amplifying the damage within our oceans.
Also, when the dispersants mix with the crude oil, a third far more toxic product is produced called "dispersed oil." Dispersed oil has been shown to be more toxic than the sum of its parts.
Dispersing simply keeps the oil deeper in the water column so that it will not surface, into the light of public scrutiny."
Out of sight, out of mind... right?
Like blasting an asteroid into millions of smaller fragments, by dispersing the oil, you multiply the damage over a far wider area. They should be using mechanisms to remove the oil—rather than dispersing it.
Dispersants are up to 4.5 times more toxic to aquatic life than the oil itself.
In fact, dispersants, as a group, have been shown to cause fish to absorb toxic hydrocarbons 15 times faster than if they were exposed to plain crude oil. As evidence of this, refer to the impressive list of scientific studies about oil and dispersant toxicology on the GreenMedInfo.com website.
In a letter written by Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who is leading an investigation into the Gulf oil disaster:
"The release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico could be an unprecedented, large and aggressive experiment on our oceans. The information regarding the chemical composition, efficacy and toxicity of the dispersants currently being used is scarce."[iv]
Dispersants Have NEVER Been Tested for These Conditions
Little is know about how the oil and dispersants will react in such a deep-water ecosystem—under extremely high water pressure, very low temperatures, limited oxygen and light.
The environment at the bottom of the Gulf could adversely affect the bacteria that help break down the oil near the surface, as they are less active in cold water than in warmer surface waters. If the oil on the ocean floor is not degraded by bacteria, it may remain toxic for much longer than it would near the surface, and its persistence there makes it more likely to enter the food chain.
The massive dispersed oil further depletes the water of oxygen, resulting in "dead zones"—massive hypoxic areas that have started to appear in the world's oceans. One hundred forty six of them were counted in 2004 alone.
And environmental tests have already confirmed that oil dispersants are bioaccumulative and can be stored in the fatty tissues of living organisms[v]. Substances that bioaccumulate tend to move from water into fish, then into predator fish, and on up the food chain to YOU—leaving a trail of devastation along the way.
As dispersed oil collects on the seabed, the evaporation process concentrates the toxic compounds left behind, particularly oil-derived compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which kill fish eggs and accumulate in many sea creatures, like mussels.
A study examining fish health after the Exxon Valdez spill found that PAHs damaged the developing hearts of Pacific herring and pink salmon embryos.
In fact, now, 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the herring population is still completely devastated, with no signs of recovery, according to an interview with Riki Ott, a Marine Toxicologist in Alaska.
The Health Effects of Oil Dispersing Chemicals
Despite the EPA's claims that Corexit is safe[vi], there is an abundance of data suggesting otherwise.
According to Carys Mitchelmore, a researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the detergent-like brew of solvents, surfactants and other compounds are known to cause a variety of health problems in animals, including:[vii]
- Reduced growth
- Reproductive problems
- Cardiac dysfunction
- Immune suppression
- Altered behavior
- Carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic effects
But it isn't just marine animals that are impacted by dispersants.
The toxic effects to humans are also well known. The MSDS for Corexit 9527A lists the human health hazard as "acute," stating[viii]:
"Excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects. Excessive exposure to 2-butoxyethanol (an active ingredient) may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver. Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE (2-butoxyethanol) may result in damage to the blood and kidneys."
Corexit 9527A contains between 30 and 60 percent 2-butoxyethanol by weight, according to the "maddeningly inexact" information obtained by Grist's Tom Philpott[ix]. Haz-Map reports the following health effects associated with this chemical:
"Severe hemoglobinuria and changes in the lungs, kidneys, and liver are seen in mice after 7-hour lethal concentration studies. Volunteers showed no evidence of adverse effects other than mucous membrane irritation after 8-hour exposures to 200 ppm... For ethylene glycol ethers, there is limited positive evidence of spontaneous abortions and decreased sperm counts in humans and strong positive evidence of birth defects and testicular damage in animals."
Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, makes the point2:
"The biggest problem is that the vast majority of testing done on these chemicals is that when it is done, it is at best limited to very short-term, acute toxicity tests. The concern here is not [short-term exposure] nearly as much as longer-term chronic toxicity. The dispersants are going to get diluted, spread out over a large area, and effects they're likely to exert would be due to relatively long exposures over a long period of time."
And if you think the dispersant chemicals stay out at sea, consider this.
According to a recent ABC report[x], a "brown slime" has appeared on the shore of a barrier island off the coast of Louisiana. The slime, which was thinner than oil, was determined to be a collection of the dispersant BP has been pumping down into the area around the hemorrhaging oil well.
Rainforests of the Sea
Dispersed oil is particularly deadly to coral reefs, beautiful "underwater rainforests" brimming with life for many thousands of years.
Yet they are disappearing faster than our rainforests[xi].
In coral reefs, thousands of species found nowhere else on Earth live in a complex competition with each other. According to Australian Institute of Marine Science biologist Terry Done[xii]:
"It's plant against plant or it's plant against animal. When you think about it, in a given acre of coral reef, you've got thousands of things trying to occupy this given acre. And the way they do that is through some very novel chemical defenses. The chemistry, which goes on, it could be the same source of chemistry and the same sort of compounds that may be helpful for humans in medicine."
Here are just a few examples:
- The Great Barrier Reef holds the raw materials for a chemical thought to have a role in slowing aging.
- Another chemical that produces a sunscreen more effective than anything on today's market is found inside the reef's brightly colored corals.
- Coral skeletons are used as bone substitutes in reconstructive bone surgery[xiii].
Many of the sponges are stationary—they cannot swim away from danger—so they've evolved complex chemical defenses, and those chemicals contain metabolites with the potential to cure human diseases, including cancer.
As Go Coral Reefs, So Go We
In 2004, a study found that about 70 percent of the world's coral reefs were either threatened or destroyed—an 11 percent increase since 2002. More than 20 percent were already "damaged beyond repair," largely due to human activities.
In December of 2008, Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations, said we are "currently facing a sixth wave of extinctions, mainly as a result of human impacts." The current extinction period even has a name—the Holocene extinction event—and may be the "greatest event in Earth's history."[xiv]
Are we the first species to name our own extinction?
Unlike prior extinction events, it is happening over the course of decades, rather than centuries. Only time will tell if Homo sapiens will be one of the species to survive.
Filling the ocean with chemicals is certainly not increasing our chances!
One of the major factors in this extinction is warming sea-surface temperatures and seawater acidification, due largely to increasing levels of carbon dioxide dissolving into the oceans and combining with water to form carbonic acid. The more acidic the water, the less corals are able to rebuild their structure. Warmer waters lead to "coral bleaching"—their ominous death throw before crumbling to dust.
According to Charlie Veron, an Australian marine biologist regarded as the world's foremost authority on coral reefs:
"The future is horrific. There is no hope of reefs surviving to even mid-century in any form that we now recognize. If, and when, they go, they will take with them about one-third of the world's marine biodiversity. Then there is a domino effect, as reefs fail, so will other ecosystems. This is the path of a mass extinction event, when most life, especially tropical marine life, goes extinct."
Permian-Triassic Extinction Event Revisited
Contemporary parallels have been drawn to the Permian-Triassic extinction by a number of scientists.
These Scientists believe the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago, a.k.a. the Great Dying[xv], was the Earth's most severe extinction event in that 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates met their demise.
Based on the geologic record, these scientists believe the following factors were at play in the Permian extinctions:
- Significant increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (related to volcanoes in Eastern Russia that spewed lava and gases for a million years)
- Resultant global warming and anoxic seas (warm water is less able to hold oxygen; atmospheric oxygen went from 30 percent to 15 percent during the Permian; dead organic matter flooded the seas, pulling even more oxygen from the water)
- Frozen methane hydrate welling up from the ocean floor escaped into the atmosphere (methane is an extremely potent "greenhouse gas")
- Deadly bacteria took over, which produced hydrogen sulfide gas, deadly to marine life
- Hydrogen sulfide gas bubbled out of the seas into the atmosphere, killing terrestrial animals and plants
Many of these chemical changes are exactly what some scientists are already seeing today in our oceans and lakes.
Wake Up and Smell the Methane
We haven't heard much about the massive quantities of methane gas spewing out from BP's leak.
Given that the mixture belching forth is roughly half methane and other gases by mass, shouldn't we be concerned about the potential effects on climate, since methane is 26 more times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide?[xvi]
Methane is a large enough part of the leak that some have even suggested using it to measure how much crude has been released, since tracking methane is easier than tracking oil in seawater[xvii].
Same Old Blame Games, Lame Excuses and PR Stunts
Rather than focusing on what is of critical importance, BP continues to dump more toxic dispersants into the water to hide the spoils, in spite of the EPA's demands to stop.
In a New York Times article[xviii] , Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute is quoted as saying:
"It's not at all clear to me why we're dispersing the oil at all. It seems to me you would want it as thick and as concentrated as possible so we can deal with it right there. We seem to be saying we're going to take this concentrated oil, and we're going to dissolve it. It's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy. It's a PR stunt to dissolve this oil with dispersants. It's just to get it out of the way of the cameras on the shoreline."
So, why hasn't the government stepped in?
Too many shared financial agendas between BP and the government, and corporate interests that supersede your health and security.
Whether it's Big Pharma, Big Food or Big Oil—just pick one—the deplorable behavior is the same.
Sadly, BP's underlying motive is to prevent satellites from capturing the extent of the leaked oil by dispersing it below the water surface—and on this BP has succeeded. Most of the underwater "plumes" will never be successfully measured.
In a desperate attempt to hide the truth, BP has also pulled strings with the Coast Guard by threatening to arrest journalists trying to cover the story.[xix]
And you will continue to be distracted by the increasingly rancorous debate over which dispersant is "best," rather than the real issues, making it all the more obvious that the damage of greatest concern to BP executives is the damage to their bonuses.
A Call to Action
The time to act is now, and the stakes couldn't be higher.
Two experts told a House panel on Friday that "the use of oil dispersing chemicals should be halted until the ingredients and effects are better understood." You can join the movement to stop these dispersants by signing a petition that Ji has posted on his site.
This issue does NOT ONLY affect the Gulf States, or just the U.S.—it has global ramifications that grow with each passing day. I urge you to take action now, without delay, pressing your representatives to hold BP accountable.
A special thanks goes to Sayer Ji for providing an abundance of resources for this article.
[i] Mauer R and Tinsley A M. (May 8, 2010) "Gulf oil spill: BP has a long record of legal, ethical violations"
[ii] Wheeland M. (May 27, 2010) "As gulf spill drags on, chemical use remains a big question" GreenBiz
[iv] Guarino M. (May 18, 2010) "Gulf oil spill: Has BP 'turned corner' with siphon success?" MinnPost.com
[v] "Markey to EPA on Oil Dispersants: How Toxic, How Effective?" (May 17, 2010)
[vi] "Nalco releases additional technical information on COREXIT" (May 27, 2010) Market Watch
[vii] Feldman S. (May 13, 2010) "Criticism of secret oil dispersant in Gulf grows louder in U.S."
[viii] Philpott T. (May 6, 2010) "Chemical dispersants being used in Gulf clean-up are potentially toxic" Grist
[ix] Philpott T. (May 7, 2010) "Chemical dispersants being used in the Gulf clean-up" Grist (posted by CounterCurrents.org)
[x] Blackburn B. (May 5, 2010) "Oil spill: BP prepares to place dome over the leak, but spill continues" ABC World News
[xv] Ham B. "New clues about the 'Great Dying' traced in science" MSNBC Science
[xvi] Eisenberg N. (May 19, 2010) "Could the largest oil drilling catastrophe also end up the largest natural gas and climate disaster in recent history?" AlterNet
[xviii] Quinlan P. (May 24, 2010) "Secret formulas, data shortages fuel arguments over dispersants used for gulf spill" New York Times
[xix] "BP, Coast Guard officers block journalists from filming oil-covered beach" (May 19, 2010) Huffington Post