The Deepwater Horizon blowout of 2010 marked the first time that chemical dispersants were injected into an oil spill underwater. Now a report from government scientists finds remarkably few ill effects from these chemicals. That has heightened concerns of several Native groups, and others who have been pushing for tighter regulation of dispersants.
Lead author of the report, Doctor Jane Lubchenko, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was a key advisor to Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson when she made the decision, shortly after the blowout, to allow them to use dispersants underwater.
“It was our judgment that use of dispersants would help the oil be naturally biodegraded more naturally, and that certainly seems to have been the case” Lubchenko said.
Nearly two million gallons of dispersants, mostly Corexit, were used on the spill, close to half of it underwater while the oil and gas was gushing out of the wellhead and the broken pipe a mile deep in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The result was a sort of undersea fog of droplets of oil mixed with Corexit. Just months later, scientists couldn’t find the fog, and there is some evidence that oil eating micro-organisms ate it. Depending on which scientist you talk to, it’s either gone or it made its way to the bottom and is still percolating through the food chain. The report says the location of the fog has yet to be determined.
But what if a spill happened in cold arctic waters? Would dispersants do the same thing? That’s a question everybody wants the answer to. The industry and government laboratories have just begun research to try to get answers. Cheryl Rosa is deputy director of the Arctic Research Commission, which recently issued a set of recommendations for what needs to be done to improve arctic oil spill response capability:
“The amount of dispersant that was applied in Deepwater Horizon was unprecedented,” Rosa said. “It was basically the world’s supply, from what I understand. And we need to be extremely well informed with respect to the Arctic about how that’s going to work. If they get applied, what the toxicity issues are, what the community concerns should be and hopefully this new research will start to get at some of those some of those questions.”
Jane Lubchenko and the co-authors of the Deepwater Horizon science report talk about a public perception problem about the safety of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. The government had a series of fisheries closures near the spill site and within a year re-opened all the fisheries. Lubchenko says the evidence for contamination just never showed up.
“We did learn a lot about that and discovered that in fact the fishes in particular, we were not able to find levels of dispersants in them after they had been swimming around in the ocean for awhile.”
She was quick to add that shellfish would not metabolize the chemicals as fast as finfish. She went on to say that any adverse effects that might have been found would not have been included in her report — because such damages are still the subject of litigation.
“Our papers don’t talk about consequences of dispersants because we don’t know that yet and the information that may be in hand, may be part of the legal proceedings,” Lubchenko said.
There is evidence on the record that oil mixed with dispersants is more toxic than oil on its own, particularly to larvae of marine life. And along the northern shores of Alaska, with their biologically rich lagoons, Cheryl Rosa says the questions about what such mixes could do are critically in need of answers.
“Basically dispersants get applied, drive oil into the water column where it is broken down to parts and pieces,” Rosa said. “They’re trying to figure out what the consequences of wide scale use of dispersants are. And that’s a work in progress as far as I can tell. And as far as the arctic goes, that question is still very open. It’s something in need of research.”
In August, Earthjustice and other environmental organizations sued EPA to force tighter regulation of dispersants. Then last month, a number of scientists and doctors joined several Alaska Native organizations in petitioning the EPA to ban Corexit or any other dispersant of undisclosed composition.