26 May 2010

Oil disaster: is battle already lost?

Renowned marine biologist Professor Rick Steiner, writing for Channel 4 News, examines the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and warns: “once oil is spilled – the battle is lost”.

Clean up operation begins (Reuters).

Prof Steiner, who is in the field monitoring the disaster, tells Channel 4 News that attempts to clear up the oil spill are mostly futile. His warning comes as BP tries to ‘top kill’ the oil leak with is pumping barrels of oil into the sea each day.

Prof Steiner wrote: “Something we have learned in every large marine oil spill around the world deserves repeating here – once oil is spilled, the battle is lost, and the damage is done.

Oil spill response and clean-up has never been effective, and a 10 per cent recovery rate is considered a ‘successful’ response by most experienced responders.

Indeed, ‘oil spill clean-up’ is a pretentious façade, that has never worked effectively, and it seems to serve more of a palliative and public relations role.

Rehabilitating oiled wildlife and ecosystems is impossible, but must be tried. The BP oil spill response plan (OSRP) for the Gulf of Mexico called for the deployment within 72 hours of response equipment capable of recovering over 450,000 barrels of oil per day, but obviously this didn’t happen.

The plan also called for attention to “walruses, sea otters, and sea lions” which of course do not occur in the region, indicating they simply cut-and-pasted parts of the Gulf oil spill plan from other regions, likely Alaska.

And the link provided for a list of equipment from their main response contractor – the Marine Spill Response Corporation – goes instead to a Japanese home shopping network.

A BP spokesman said that BP Regional Oil Spill Response Plan was for a spill “many, many times the scale of the current event” and that BP had “1200 vessels, 60 aircraft, 16,000 personnel, 12,000 volunteers, etc. That doesn’t happen without a plan.”

Although mechanical recovery of oil from the sea surface is the preferred method for all spill response, as it attempts to remove oil from the marine environment, it has been largely ineffective in this spill because the oil is so emulsified with sea water, its density is approximately the same as sea water, and mostly just sinks beneath the booms when contact is made.

The sorbent booms along shorelines are collecting some of the oil before it reaches the shore, but the oil is still reaching the beaches. From sand beaches, it is a relatively easy clean-up task – remove the contaminated sand.

But as the oil enters the sensitive wetland marshes along the north Gulf coast, it will not be possible to remove without causing more damage.

There may be opportunity to add fertilizers to enhance the indigenous bacteria community, to aid biodegradation of the oil in the marsh muds.

The chemical dispersants being used on the surface and at the blowout are a particular concern. Never has there been such heavy use of chemical dispersant in any oil spill response.

The product used – Corexit 9500 – is intended to break oil into smaller droplets in order to speed natural breakdown into harmless substances.

The problem is that the dispersant is itself toxic, the oil is even more toxic, and research has shown that the combination of the oil and dispersant is even more toxic than the sum of the individual toxicities alone – there is a synergistic toxicity.

Further, if the dispersant works as intended, it will simply transfer the impact from the sea surface down deeper into the water column, thereby exposing the upper water column biological community to more toxic contamination.

As the dispersed oil mixture is known to be very toxic, the cardinal rule in use of dispersants is to never use them in shallow water near shore as this would contaminate the productive sea bed communities.

In the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore surface waters contaminated with oil / dispersant have flowed up the continental shelf, and into shallow inshore estuaries, thereby contaminating the productive inshore habitat from surface to seabed.

Plus, if the dispersant is working as designed, it will make mechanical recovery from the sea surface virtually impossible.

The dispersant use at-depth at the blowout is a novel approach, having never been attempted before. This use should only be allowed if it is conclusively shown that the oil droplet size exiting the jet plume from the blowout can be significantly reduced by the addition of the chemical dispersant.

I have asked both the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for any data that show this, and at the time of writing, none have been provided.

In fact, to date EPA’s monitoring of dispersant and oil in water, sediment and air is all conducted near shore.

Further, when the Coast Guard and EPA ordered BP to find a less toxic dispersant on 19 May, BP responded essentially “no.”

Their letter responding to the government directive contained a number of factual and typographical errors, and they missed any discussion of one dispersant – JD-2000 – that is not only far less toxic than Corexit and other products, but it is also far more effective on south Louisiana crude oil.

In response to BP’s “no”, the U.S. government simply said: “Well OK, then please use less of the substandard product.”

BP statement
A spokesman for BP has said: "The investigations have not been completed, and we won't prejudge them. However, here's a note on our initial findings.

"The EPA asked us to evaluate other approved dispersants for effectiveness and availability. (Corexit is an EPA approved dispersant). This we did, and Corexit was the only one which met both requirements. We continue to evaluate other dispersants and supplies.

"The subsea injection of dispersants which received the regulators' approvals is more effective than surface spraying and requires less dispersants for each treated barrels. Both subsea and surface treatment continue.

"In the meantime, and for longer term, we have announced a $500m research programme."