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You Can Hide, But You Can’t Run: Toxic Dispersants in the Gulf

by Mark Floegel

Now that BP’s jury-rigged contraption to contain its massive Gulf of Mexico oil spew has failed, the company's only resort is to continue pumping massive amounts of dispersant into the water near the wellhead, in an attempt to — what exactly?

The dispersant goes by the trade name "Corexit." It's supposed to be a pun on the words "corrects it." Marine conservationist and oil spill expert Rick Steiner says “Corexit” is called “Hidez-It” by insiders because its purpose is not to correct but deceive.

Gulf oil spill Greenpeace image
Read all the latest news about the oil spill, view pics, and take action to stop the next one.
Oil is toxic to marine life. Dispersant is toxic to marine life. Together, their toxicity exceeds the sum of their parts. The people running the spill response for BP are geologists, but what needs protection in the gulf is not geology, it’s biology.

One active ingredient in Corexit is 2-butoxyethanol, which in laboratory tests has been shown to reduce fertility, increase embryo deaths and increase birth defects in animals. Animals are the primary marine inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico.

Another ingredient is propylene glycol, which you may know as anti-freeze or airplane de-icer. It has high biological oxygen demand, or BOD. This means that as it degrades in the water, it removes oxygen via biological processes. The more propylene glycol in the water, the less oxygen for plankton and fish.

In all, Corexit acts like a surfactant, the same thing that’s in your dish or laundry soap. The oil is more attracted to the surfactant than to the water it’s floating in. The oil forms globules and sinks to the bottom. This is a boon for BP, because it creates less of a photogenic oil slick on the surface of the gulf to be filmed by television news crews.

As we’ve seen in Prince William Sound in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, oil that sinks to the bottom tends to be re-suspended in the water column by storms and with the frequency of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll see BP’s oil belched back up — with damage to the environment — for generations to come.

Why would anyone in their right mind pour chemicals that poison and suffocate fish into an oil spill that already threatens their lives? I think BP executives — in their long and sorry string of explosions, spills and mishaps — have demonstrated clearly that they are not in their right minds.

I’ll hazard a guess, though. The fewer dispersants you use, the more dead, oily birds and turtles you’ll have washing up on shore. The more dispersants you use, the more dead fish you’ll have — some of which will wash up on shore, many of which will sink to the bottom of the gulf and never be seen again. I imagine the PR department at BP prefers dead fish to dead birds and turtles.

If, when the lawsuits come, the plaintiff attorneys show up in court with plastic bags full of dead, oily sea birds, the jury is likely to award a bigger verdict than if the plaintiffs show up with plastic bags full of dead fish. Fish just aren’t as cute as birds. So I imagine the legal department at BP also prefers dead fish to dead birds.

Of course, what do shore birds eat? Fish and shrimp and other marine life. And if you kill a good portion of the marine life, it inevitably follows that the species that depend on that marine life for sustenance will also die. Just make sure they don’t get oily doing it.

Twenty-one years after Exxon’s huge spill, 20 of the 30 most affected wildlife species have not yet recovered.

People ask me: “Is BP doing enough?” My answer is that there is no “enough.” The tools we have to respond to oil spills are orders of magnitude too small to combat the damage they do. We can’t fix oil spills; we can only prevent them. And we can only prevent them by not drilling in the ocean.

 

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