By Erin McKinley
|There has long been a saying that you should fight fire with fire, but what about oil? How do you prevent oil from spreading across miles of open sea and fouling hundreds of miles of fragile coastline? This is the task that faced BP in the wake of its Deepwater Horizon blowout.
BP employed chemical dispersants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a dispersant is a chemical used to “break up the oil and speed its natural degradation and prevent it from reaching fragile wetlands and shorelines.”
However, Gulf residents were concerned about the use of dispersants and their effects on seafood, wildlife and public health.
“My opinion is, if you can see it [the oil] you can fight it,” said Lafitte charter captain Chet Hebert. “If you can’t see it you can’t fight it, and that’s the bad thing.”
According to BP, the company does not apply dispersants within three miles of the shore.
According to a BP fact sheet, “by removing oil from the water surface, dispersants reduces the risk of harm to seabirds and other species and the shoreline from the impacts of oil sheens atop the water. By diluting and dispersing oil far from shore, they reduce the risk that oil will wash onto sensitive shoreline habitats.”
But what of the issue of the toxicity levels of the 1.1 million gallons of dispersants that BP has sprayed into the Gulf?
The chemical dispersants that was used is called Corexit 9500 and 9527, which was also used in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Corexit 9527 contains ingredients that have proven to cause lingering health problems. Corexit 9500 was the main chemical used in the Gulf. It is composed of light petroleum distillates made from oil and propylene glycol, a compound common in laxatives.
Responding to inquiries about the potential dangers of dispersants, the EPA stated that “dispersants are generally less harmful than the highly toxic oil leaking from the source and biodegrade in a much shorter time span.”
But, according to skeptics, this does not take into account potential environmental problems. It is generally acknowledged that chemicals in dispersants effectively cause oil spilled on the surface of the water to dissipate into tiny droplets that immediately sink and continue to disperse. But many scientists say they cannot definitely rule out harmful effects on viral enterprises like the seafood industry.
“We don’t really know what the long term effects are,” said Ray Griffin, owner of Cochiara marina in Lafitte.
Some people, life Griffin and Hebert, believe that BP began using the dispersants in an attempt to make it look like the problem was being fixed. Out of sight, out of mind, they said.
“It’s like fighting a two-headed monster,” said Hebert. “You leave it [the oil] up, you can fight it. You sink it, you don’t see it and it’s what they wanted. They wanted it to go down, keep the perception down, quiet everything out. There is no more oil. The reality is, there is oil still out there.”
We also hope to learn more about dispersants from this experience,” BP states on its website. “Our initial tests show that when we apply dispersants underwater at the well site, we can use much smaller amounts of dispersant than we would need at the surface, and achieve the similar results. They also sow that we can use dispersants underwater in good or bad weather, day or night, when other methods of containment can’t be used. That kind of information might be helpful to other companies in the future.”