If there is one department in the federal government that is shirking its responsibilities as responders to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill it would be the Environmental Protection Agency.
It must act fast and now to determine the toxic damage the dispersant Corexit 9500 is inflicting on humans, sea and plant life, birds, and the underground water tables on the Gulf coastline.
The pungent oil globs permeated in the toxic chemicals sprayed on the surface and at the source of the Deepwater Horizons leak by BP could be making the disaster worse and its residual effects lasting hundreds of years — perhaps as deadly as DDT on its commercial use applied by farmers after World War II.
Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, did order BP to cut back the aerial drops of 800,000 gallons of Corexit on the Gulf surface waters May 14 but not those applied at the source, 5,000 feet on the Gulf floor where the gusher is estimated conservatively at 12,000 barrels per day.
As of Friday, June 4, the EPA has not reported its findings of samples sent to a Florida laboratory nor soil and plant samples in areas the slick has saturated in marshes and barrier islands of the wetlands near New Orleans.
The chemical dispersants applied by BP on the surface accelerates the evaporation process in which bacteria eat the oxygen-choking tendencies of the fluid while diluting its viscosity from microscopic to fist-sized globs. No one has explained to my satisfaction what long-term effect Corexit has when applied at the source at a mile’s depth.
The Coast Guard’s efforts of isolating the slick with booms and then setting them on fire seems the better of two bad choices.
But never before has so much volume of chemicals been used — BP has purchased 2 million gallons of Corexit from the oil industry’s favorite supplier — in a body of water even as large as the Gulf of Mexico.
The risks have been “substantially underblown,” according to Christopher D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of Coast and Environment. “I’m frankly surprised by the lack of discussion of it at the federal level, or from BP.”
The National Academy of Sciences published a report on dispersants in 2005 describing current understandings of their effects “not adequate.” It recommended further studies. They never happened.
James Diaz,.a medical toxicologist who heads LSU’s environmental and occupational health sciences program, said the dispersants contain ethylenes which cause peripheral nerve damage in humans, especially among painters and auto mechanics who use them for cleaning solvents.
The Coast Guard pulled all commercial fishing boats contracted by BP for cleanup efforts in Breton Sound after seven workers were hospitalized from exposure to the toxic-coated oil.
The LSU scientists believe the chemicals have created huge oil plumes at 2,000 to 4,000-foot depths that are now reaching shores from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
This has incensed some environmentalists.
Critics have accused BP of being less interested in the chemical’s effectiveness than in its ability to shape perceptions of the disaster by making it harder to see the oil. “They’re trying to dissolve it at the source so we don’t see it,” said Carl Safina, an ecologist and founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservationist organization in New York. “They’re just trying to hide the body, to hide the extent of the problem from view. It’s a PR ploy.”
Even BP acknowledges risks. David Nicholas, a spokesman for BP, announced a $500 million donation over 10 years for a study of the potential risks to sea life and underground water sources local municipalities draw their drinking water.
LSU’s D’Elia hopes to be the first recipient. “When you add dispersant, you keep that toxic phase in the water column. Does it ultimately reach the shore? What effect does it have when it gets there? What are the long-term problems to worry about?”
LSU’s Diaz frets the complexity of the region’s waterways often means water from the Gulf finds its way inland, and not only during a surge resulting from a storm or hurricane. “There comes a point in the summer when water level in the rivers and the bayous are very low, and the Gulf begins to creep up,” Diaz said.
If Gulf water is full of dispersed oil that was impossible to skim from the surface, or managed to get below the protective booms now lining the coast, toxins could come with it. “If it goes up high enough to get to the freshwater intake of municipal water-treatment systems, that could cause a significant problem,” Diaz said.
The EPA is monitoring air and water in the region for signs of contamination. Chris Ruhl, EPA incident coordinator for field operations in the area, acknowledged that BP’s reliance on dispersants added urgency to the monitoring, and described the potential threat to municipal water supplies as a “valid concern.”
In the rural fishing communities of southeastern Louisiana, most of the anger about the use of dispersants is directed at BP. The oil has become “an invisible monster,” said Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines parish. “Plus, we don’t know the health risks.”
The EPA should have halted the dispersants in early May when first concerns were raised and cooler heads other than BP making PR business decisions prevailed. It’s late in the game now but not THAT late, no matter what the government studies show. Better be safe than sorry. But as the 400-pound gorilla in the room says on TV. what do I know?
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Posted comments are welcome and automatically go to my email address at [email protected] Remmers’ varied career spans 26 years in the newspaper business. Read a more thorough resume on The Remmers Report.