When BP’s leak is finally plugged and the forensic examination begins into the disastrous events leading up to the spill, it should also examine the catastrophic events since the spill: and one of those will be the use of dispersants.
Their toxicity has just added to the ecological crisis unfolding in the Gulf.
We have heard that the oil industry was supposedly ready for a spill.
Yet the Washington Post reports this morning that the organisation set up by the oil industry to provide cleanup equipment and personnel if a catastrophic offshore spill were ever to hit the United States, the Marine Spill Response Corporation, was soon “swamped” and overwhelmed.
The basic premise of dispersants for the industry is that the problem is out of sight and out of mind. But dispersants break down the oil, not get rid of it.
In fact, perversely they can make it harder to get rid of.
Those trying to clean up the oil are now complaining that the dispersants are keeping the oil hidden in the water column rather than on the surface. “It’s like fishing for ghosts,” says Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, who blames dispersants.
In its response BP never learned the lessons of history:
I have already written that leading experts on the Exxon Valdez, like Riki Ott, warned that dispersants used on that spill were seen as an absolute disaster, especially in relation to causing health problems to the clean-up workers and combining with oil to make a toxic soup that is more potent than either of the individual parts.
But two other spills are also looking at:
To its credit, the other day, the Guardian ran a great article on the legacy of the Torrey Canyon, carrying 120,000 tonnes of crude oil, which sunk off Britain in 1967. And one of the lessons of the Torrey Canyon is that dispersants are a disaster.
“The use of detergents turned out to be ‘the worst thing possible’, according to Dr Gerald Boalch, a marine biologist with 52 years’ service for the Marine Biological Association (MBA) of the United Kingdom.
“The detergents made it look good,” Boalch told the paper. “We thought at the time it was doing a good job because the oil was disappearing.” But colleagues conducted lab tests “and it was realised that it was making the oil more toxic because it was accessible to organisms”.
The Guardian noted: “A year after Torrey Canyon, the MBA published its conclusions: it was scathing about the disastrous use of detergents, applied by methods ‘that were largely ineffective, uneconomic, and wasteful of effort’.
The second is the Braer, the 85,000 tonne tanker that ran aground in 1993 off the Shetland Islands. Despite the huge amount of oil on the tanker and the closeness to the Shetlands, the oil was dispersed not by chemical dispersants but by a storm that lasted on and off for weeks after the spill.
An official report into the environmental impact of the Braer oil spill concluded:
“Overall, the impact of the oil spill on the environment and ecology of South Shetland has been minimal. Adverse impacts did occur but were both localised and limited.” The violent weather had saved the day.
So BP could have learnt from Torrey Canyon that dispersants were a disaster. It could have learnt from the Braer that storms can naturally break up oil and it could have learnt from the Exxon Valdez that dispersants were a disaster for wildlife and for clean up workers.
It could have used the physical position of the Deepwater disaster to its advantage: The Gulf of Mexico is subject to a hurricane season every year. it is now upon us and everyone is predicting it will be a bad one. Hurricane Alex, upgraded from tropical storm status late last night is expected to hit the coasts of Mexico and Texas later today.
As of yesterday BP was still spraying dispersant with a Hurricane fast approaching – it does not seem to make much sense at all. Why add to the toxicity of the Gulf at such a time?
Maybe a better approach from the start would have not to have used dispersant at all – which means more oil would have been able to be collected on the surface.
So it would have had 70 days or so to collect as much oil as possible. And then BP could have used the Hurricanes and storms that are now starting to break up and disperse the rest of the oil. To work with nature not against it.
But BP has not learnt the lessons of history.
Maybe the next oil company will…