Is the News Coming From the Gulf Too Good To Be True? Unfortunately, Yes

News & Politics

Over the past week, the headlines about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have been good. After months of oil pouring into the Gulf, at last the well was capped. Even better, experts cited a recent document from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing that 75 percent of the oil is gone. As the good news flowed and the oil no longer did, government officials made optimistic remarks to the press about the situation. "The vast majority of the oil has been contained, it's been burned, it's been cleaned and that's good news for the people of the Gulf," White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner cheerfully reported recently. "Mother Nature will do her part, but we'll continue to be vigilant."

Disaster Response Chief Thad Allen added, "We're finding less and less oil as we move forward." In addition, the EPA has announced test results showing that a combination of dispersants and oil are no more toxic than the oil itself. To celebrate, President Obama himself dined on Gulf seafood for his birthday. Is the news too good to be true?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. If Thad Allen is struggling to find the oil, it's because it's harder to find, not because it's gone. A look at the actual NOAA document tells a very different story about the location of the estimated 4.9 million barrels (more than 200 million gallons) of oil discharged from the well between the time of the blowout and July 14, when the well was capped. BP recovered a little over 800,000 barrels (16.8 percent of the total amount discharged), preventing it from ever entering the Gulf. Additionally, 3.4 percent of the oil was skimmed. That leaves just over 3.9 million barrels of oil still in the Gulf. An additional 30.6 percent evaporated, dissolved, or was burned. While that may have removed it from the water, it polluted the air instead. Another 23.8 percent was dispersed, naturally or with chemical dispersants. Dispersed or not, this is oil that is still present in the Gulf. Add that to the estimated 25.4 percent of the oil that remains, and there are more than 2.4 million barrels (over 100 million gallons) floating around the Gulf or coating the shoreline. That's about half of the total oil spilled and nearly 10 times the amount spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Scientists monitoring levels of toxic chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) already have evidence of the oil's invisible impact on the Gulf ecosystem. The Natural Resources Defense Council described PAHs as "a class of chemicals which have been linked to DNA damage and cancer." PAHs in the Gulf were 40 times higher on June 7 than they were at the beginning of May. However, the water appeared to be clear of oil when the measurements were taken.

Scientists fear the long-term impact the oil, visible or not, will have on the ecology and wildlife of the region. In an August 4 Senate hearing, Dr. Ronald Kendall, an environmental toxicologist, voiced his concerns about the fate of endangered species like the Atlantic bluefin tuna, sperm whales and Kemp's ridley sea turtle. The losses suffered by these species may not be apparent for years. For example, the juvenile sea turtles now swimming to the affected parts of the Gulf from breeding grounds in Texas will not return to the Texas beaches to breed for 13-15 years. Dr. Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State, expressed worries for the fates of the burrowing fauna in the coastal sediments and soils and "a lowering of the productivity baseline -- the size and diversity of biological communities and their reproductive success -- for the Gulf ecosystem." He says, "A small, but significant, decrease, say 5-10 percent, would be difficult to demonstrate scientifically or prove legally, but would nonetheless be very grave."

How about the good news that the dispersants, when combined with oil, are no more toxic than the oil itself? The test was done on two species frequently used in such experiments, a shrimp-like crustacean and a fish, exposing the specimens to various concentrations of the oil and dispersant mixtures for 48 to 96 hours. However, an absence of acute toxicity for two species proves very little about the long-term impacts the dispersants will have on the environment. Even if a species is not killed directly by a chemical, it could die all the same if the chemical kills its food source, for example. Perhaps better indicators of the effects of dispersants are previous oil spills where they were used. In the 1978 Amoco Cadiz spill off the coast of Normandy, some areas were treated with dispersants and others were not. The untreated areas recovered within five years of the spill; the treated areas had not recovered even 30 years later.

In the August 4 Senate hearing, Barbara Boxer read from the Material Safety Data Sheets of the dispersants, Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500. Corexit 9527, which was used for the first 30 days of the spill, comes with considerable safety warnings: "Eye and skin irritant. Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver. Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed. Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing. Do not take internally. Use with adequate ventilation." The product's rating as a human health hazard is "high." Corexit 9500, which BP used after the first 30 days, only rates as a "moderate" human health hazard according to its MSDS. However, it also states that "no toxicity studies have been conducted on this product." The scientists in the hearing agreed that the use of dispersants, particularly in deep water, is a massive ecotoxological experiment. Right now, nobody knows what the effects of the dispersants will be. As for the EPA's testing, Kendall said, "a laboratory experiment on maybe a shrimp and a fish doesn't help us understand much about the environmental chemistry and effects on other parts of the ecosystem."

If that's the case, why is the government so eager to give us good news? For one thing, these are politicians in an election year. The last thing any politician wants to say is "Oops, I screwed up." Furthermore, with a recession dominating Obama's time in office, the conventional wisdom is now that jobs are the major issue of the 2010 mid-term elections. And, as devastating as the oil spill was to marine life in the Gulf, it was also devastating to those who make their livings catching that marine life. The faster the oil goes away, the faster the fisherman and tourism industries in the Gulf get back to work. Already, the government has re-opened a large area in the Gulf for fishing.

Also, if Americans believe the seafood from the Gulf is chock-full of hydrocarbons and dispersants, they probably won't eat it. Perception is just as important as reality in returning the fishermen to work. Of course, no amount of wishful thinking and PR can make the marine ecosystem and fisheries recover faster. Although the FDA assures Americans that Gulf seafood is safe, researchers began finding juvenile blue crabs tainted with specks of oil a few weeks ago. They've expressed fears that as predators eat the crabs, the oil will travel up the food chain. Additionally, re-opening fisheries in areas with ecosystems under stress too soon may make a bad situation worse in the long term.

The government's recent optimism is merely the latest way that its handling of the oil spill seems to show more concern for BP than for the bluefin tuna. The EPA has more or less allowed BP to call the shots on the dispersants; OSHA never forced BP to allow cleanup workers to wear respirators; and some government officials have assisted BP in keeping journalists away from cleanup efforts. BP has given lowball estimates of the amount of oil spilled, dispersed the oil under water (effectively keeping it away from cameras), and threatened to fire cleanup workers who wear protective gear, even after some workers got sick. For BP, this is all about limiting liability and getting the oil out of sight and out of mind, not saving jobs or marine life. But why is the government playing along?

Some say "follow the money," pointing their fingers at BP's single largest shareholder, financial company BlackRock, and its CEO Larry Fink. To those on Wall Street and in the government, BlackRock and Fink were heroes of the 2008 financial crisis and the bailout that followed. BlackRock oversees $130 billion in toxic assets for the U.S. government (assets the government took on in the course of the bailouts) and it provides services to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the New York Fed. During the crisis, Fink was the man everyone on Wall Street and in the U.S. government turned to for advice. Underestimating the amount of oil released would save BP millions in Clean Water Act fines. Underestimating the amount of oil left saves BP in Natural Resource Damages penalties. Could the government be repaying a favor to Fink with its utterly wimpy treatment of BP?

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