Thoughts on Dispersant

First I will mention that this is coming after a lifelong interest in all things ocean, a BS and 3 years of Graduate School in Marine Biology, followed by making films in the ocean for over 35 years.  I know little of the chemistry of what the dispersant (primarily Corexit 9500) used in the Gulf of Mexico is precisely made of and the proportions of each chemical within it and how these chemicals interact with the various organisms that encounter it.  And I do not understand much of what happens when fresh crude oil is abruptly thrust into near-freezing water, injected with foreign chemicals and released into a huge gulf to be at the whim of the currents and the wind.  But I do know what I saw and what I feel and these last two points are the motivation for this story.  A lot of oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and a lot of Corexit dispersant was injected into it as it entered the Gulf and sprayed on it at the surface and the result of this experiment concerns me.

I have talked with many people about the dispersant issue and I try to take no sides when I speak with these people.  I’ve talked with fishermen, homeowners, scientists, Government Officials, coastal business owners, representatives from NOAA, NMFS, the EPA, Sea Grant, the FDA and many local academic and marine laboratory employees.  I found there are two clear opinions being expressed regarding the use of dispersants with surprisingly little grey area.

I say surprisingly little grey area as I expected this to be a hot topic when I arrived the Gulf and was eager to become engaged in the conversation.  The tragedy is there seems to be a dearth of information – research – on what effects the dispersant has on different ecosystems and how the animals and plants that encounter are affected.  My surprise was that this does not seem to be a hot topic in the Gulf.  While I encountered a few highly emotional people on the issue, in general there was an odd quietness on the subject everywhere I went.  In the early stages of the spill there was a lot of press coverage regarding dispersant; BP was using it at depth and spraying at the surface, the EPA stopped them, then they started using it again while the EPA, et all, studied the problem and several alternatives were considered.  Then came a lull in the coverage while BP continued to use the chemicals.  My conversations in the Gulf reflected the level of interest currently in the press- not much debate.

To illustrate what the dispersant actually looks like acting on crude oil, I ran a little qualitative experiment.  In a lab in Santa Barbara, I put equal amounts of crude oil in two identical beakers filled with sea water.  I then added equal amounts of crude oil to each and let them sit overnight with a spinning magnet in the bottom of each.  The next day I returned to essentially unchanged conditions – the oil was still floating on the top of each beaker with clear water underneath.   Then I added Corexit 9500 to one of the beakers and within five seconds the water became cloudy.  Within 10 minutes, the beaker with dispersant was a chocolate brown and completely opaque.  To say this was dramatic is an understatement; within minutes, the dispersant had spread the oil throughout the entire volume of the beaker.

I believe the use of chemical dispersants at the surface as well as at 5000 feet, and the use of a lot of it, at the very least should be thoroughly tested.  I would be shocked if I was wrong, but I doubt this dispersant has ever been tested on anything at 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure and water temperatures of just above freezing.  Adding to this elixir is hundreds of millions of gallons crude oil shooting from a pipe, which is under even higher pressure.  Several independent studies state that the dispersant is toxic, which should surprise few after looking at its ingredients.  What more do we need to know to at least place it on the controversial list and have people seriously questioning its use in the Gulf of Mexico?

Many people have looked at the issue of whether or not to use dispersant in the Gulf  oil spill.  And many more are looking at it right now.  These are smart people and obviously the policymaking majority believes that we were right to use dispersant.  This fascinates me and I wanted to hear their arguments, so I asked.  In short, the consensus I found is that “it is the lesser of two evils”, and I heard this often.

The arguments generally go something like this: the dispersant keeps much of the oil from hitting the surface and consequently ending up in the marshlands and on the beaches.  It also breaks down the oil into small particles that are more easily and rapidly “eaten” by bacteria and microbes present in the water.  I see validity in both of these points.  But to put these ahead of the potential downsides of dispersant use is baffling to me.  While I agree that the dispersant probably stops much of the oil from hitting the surface, is this a good thing?  And yes, if the dispersant does what it was designed to do it will break the oil into tiny particles and “disperse” these particles throughout the water column, and is this desirable?  And does the dispersant affect the potential for oil-eating microbes to actually “eat” the oil?

From what we have seen on the news and I have seen personally, the dispersant did not prevent the oil from hitting the shorelines, it did this shortly after the blowout occurred.  I dived under both dispersed and undispersed oil and it is a different experience with each.  The dispersed oil is relatively undefined; the floating portion is essentially non-distinguishable from the water below and it tapers across the surface laterally into a milky edge never seeming to end.  At the surface the dispersed oil resembles an orange mousse with the underlying water filled with brown particles sticking to everything they touch.  Conversely, the undispersed oil has relatively clear water under it and finite edges both where the floating portion meets the water below and at the outer edges; a sharp delineation is usually present where the oil stops and the clear water begins.

I feel that if BP and the US Government had not used dispersants and allowed the oil to rise to the surface, we stood a better chance of removing oil from the Gulf.  Had BP re-configured the vast resources they employed in the Vessel of Opportunity program during the clean-up, sent every skimming-capable boat out to sea focusing HARD on removing the oil at the surface, we would have removed far more oil than we did.  Employing a fleet of suddenly out of work people with a vested interest to collect oil at the surface, perhaps even placing a bounty on the oil, seems more prudent than scattering ineffective booms near shore and filling the entire Gulf with dispersed oil.  This approach did not work in Santa Barbara in 1969, did not work in Alaska in 1979, Ixtoc in ’89 so why would we think it would work on the BP blowout in 2011?  Wasn’t it Einstein who defined insanity by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?   Furthermore, the tiny dispersed oil particles seemingly stick to everything they touch and I have to wonder how the gills of fish, the swimmerets of tiny shrimp, the eyes and antennae of countless marine creatures and the massive oyster beds filter feeding in the shallow waters, cope with this onslaught.

Then there is the dispersant itself.  Millions of gallons have been used and remain in the Gulf waters.  Nobody knows what the chemicals do at depth and studies conducted on Corexit at the surface have proven fatal to experimental fish.  Some scientists report that it bioaccumulates, meaning it reaches a higher and higher concentration as it moves up the food chain.  Many questions regarding the toxicity of Corexit remain, yet we still allow it.

As I have stated, a lot of smart people have looked into the dispersant issue and the decision is to use it.  They obviously know and believe something I am not aware of.  I do not see the advantages outweighing the disadvantages.  Nor do I see it as the “lesser of two evils” but rather an additional evil that we are voluntarily adding to the disaster we already are facing.  I do not know as much about the dispersant as many of the people who have made this decision, at least I hope I don’t, but it seems to me that we are adding to the problem, not alleviating it.  I agree that allowing more oil to go into the marshlands is a bad thing.  But using dispersant not only allows oil onto the marshes, but also finely distributes it throughout the entire water column.  This exposes every animal in the Gulf, as well as the shorelines, to oil and dispersant and I have a hard time with the logic of this practice.  I cannot imagine it is better to contaminate the entire Gulf, when we could vastly reduce the pervasive extent of the oil in our environment by simply not using dispersant.  The oil is “dispersed”, not removed; it remains suspended in the water, settles on the bottom, or both.

Somewhere, I like to imagine cloaked in white lab coats, teams of scientists are studying this issue, trying to determine if this massive experiment we are running is a good idea.  I feel sure they will come up with a consensus.  But these results will come long after huge quantities dispersant have been sprayed and injected into the Gulf of Mexico.  We may have this information stored away for the next oil spill, but it is too late for this one.  As we continue deepwater drilling, while I certainly hope not, we’ll most likely have more incidents.  My hope is that we learn from the Deepwater Horizon disaster; intensely study why it happened, how we might prevent it from happening again and be better prepared for the next such incident.  We owe at least that to the families of the men who died on April 20, 2010.

7 Responses to Thoughts on Dispersant

  1. Adam says:

    Cool article! Love the pictures of you running the experiment … keep the posts coming!

  2. Procesory says:

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  4. The very core of your writing whilst appearing agreeable in the beginning, did not settle well with me after some time. Someplace within the sentences you were able to make me a believer but only for a short while. I however have a problem with your leaps in assumptions and one might do well to help fill in those breaks. When you actually can accomplish that, I would certainly end up being amazed.

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  7. Plyty,
    Thank you for your comments. I would like to hear more regarding the “leaps in assumptions” you refer to. I’m happy to elaborate on what I personally witnessed and believe, but do not know what you refer to. thanks,