Be wary of “Mission Accomplished” claims for BP disaster clean up

Back in early May, I interviewed experts on dispersants and oil spill clean up and wrote “Out of Sight: BP’s dispersants are toxic “” but not as toxic as dispersed oil.”

Chemically dispersing oil spills “solves the political problem of visible oil but not the environmental problem,” Robert Brulle, a 20-year Coast Guard veteran and an affiliate professor of public health at Drexel University, told me. These dispersants “do not actually reduce the total amount of oil entering the environment,” as a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report on the subject put it.  Nobody has any idea what will be the impact of massive exposure to these toxic chemicals on organisms that live on the bottom or feed off the bottom of the ocean.

In short: out of sight, out of mind. But not out of the body of marine life.

The dispersants seem to have done their job — and keeping oil off sensitive coastal habitats is a very good thing.  But some in the media seem to have confused not seeing oil with not being harmed by it.

In fact, as Science reports, “Oil Contamination of Crab Larvae Could Be Widespread“:

Researchers have found droplets of oil inside crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico. Although preliminary, the findings represent the first sign of hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon well entering the food web.

Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has more on the premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished”:

In a contrarian take today, Time Magazine‘s Michael Grunwald wrote a preemptive post-mortem impact of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, saying that it “does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. Grunwald believes that Rush Limbaugh “has a point” because the right-wing radio host spent weeks dismissing the disaster. New York Times reporters Justin Gillis and Campbell Robertson wrote that the “oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected.” The Associated Press’s John Carey believes “the oil slicks that once spread across thousands of miles of the Gulf of Mexico have largely disappeared.” The narrative of the disappearing disaster has been promoted by Politico’s Mike Allen and the Drudge Report.

Meanwhile, the oil blowout has been contained but not killed, oil continues to wash ashore, and the haphazard scientific effort to understand the 100-day disaster is hobbled by BP’s interference and governmental lassitude. It’s fair to point out, as Grunwald does, that the oil disaster’s impact on Louisiana’s shoreline is likely to be meaningless if the marshlands continue to disappear. Fringe rumors of global eco-collapse “” never promoted by major environmental groups “” continue to be as baseless as the nonsense spouted by conservative activists, media, and politicians on behalf of the oil industry.

However, the only honest take on the BP disaster right now is that this is a calamity, the true scope of which will take years to discover, with many impacts impossible to ever know. No one knows how badly this disaster will affect the dying marshlands of Louisiana. No one knows how badly the toxic oil plumes will affect the spawning grounds of the bluefin tuna, the feeding grounds of the threatened Gulf sturgeon, or the future of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, whose corpses have been found at 15 times the historical rate this summer. No one knows what the long-term physical and mental health impacts will be on the tens of thousands of cleanup workers.

Moreover, it is undoubtedly premature to announce that the vast oil slick has largely disappeared from the ocean’s surface. Thick oil, vast slicks, and tar balls continue to wash ashore along Louisiana’s coastline. Satellite imagery from July 27 and 28 “” as the stories of disappearing oil were being filed “” show a vast region still discolored by slicks and sheen, little diminished from previous weeks:

At the Gulf Restoration Network, Matthew Preusch reports that scientists like George Crozier, executive director of the University of South Alabama’s Dauphin Island Sea Lab, are deeply concerned about the undersea dispersed oil:

“A lot of our eggs and larvae are in the top 100 meters, so as this cloud of toxins spreads upward, we’re making an assumption that its killing all of them,” he said. “I absolutely hate the use of dispersants at depth. I think that was the most huge of mistake in the process of containment.”  Last week, a group of prominent marine researchers released a statement calling for the end of the use of dispersants in the Gulf, saying, “Corexit dispersants, in combination with crude oil, pose grave health risks to marine life and human health.”

10 Responses to Be wary of “Mission Accomplished” claims for BP disaster clean up

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    The fact that Grunwald leads off an article that purports to be about scientific, fact-based assessments of the impact of the BP oil disaster by quoting the ignorant, anti-science, partisan Republican propagandist Rush Limbaugh tells you everything you need to know about what Grunwald is up to in that article.

    And in his response to Kate Sheppard’s critique of his Time article over at the Mother Jones website, Grunwald characterizes the impact of the BP spill as “three oiled dolphins”.


  2. Joe, a noted marine biologist just told me today there were 8,300 odd species identified in the oil spill region in a comprehensive survey completed last year. It was part of an effort to study the Gulf which is well-known as one of the world’s richest regions in terms of marine biodiversity. No way to know impacts of disaster on all of these in short term or long term.

    Too bad the good folks approving the drilling didn’t know about that.

  3. Brian J. Donovan says:

    Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence and former chief scientist at NOAA, stated that “the instructions for humans using Corexit warn that it is an eye and skin irritant, is harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed, and may cause injury to red blood cells, kidney or the liver.” “People are warned not to take Corexit internally,” she said, “but the fish, turtles, copepods and jellies have no choice. They are awash in a lethal brew of oil and butoxyethanol.”

    One problem with breaking down the oil is that it makes it easier for the many tiny underwater organisms to ingest this toxic soup.

    Earle has called for a halt on the subsurface use of dispersants, while limiting surface use to strategic sites where other methods cannot safeguard critically important coastal habitats.

    For a better understanding of why toxic dispersants are being used by BP in such an excessive and unprecedented manner, visit:

  4. meander says:

    Nature moves slowly, so it’s preposterous to say that damage is limited at this early date. As an example of potential long-term impacts, the July 16 episode of Living on Earth included a conversation with an expert on sargassum seaweed, the primary vegetation that collects in the Sargasso Sea, an area of calm waters in the Atlantic Ocean. Most of this seaweed comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and now, because of the BP disaster, the sargassum is being suffocated by oil. Sargassum, it turns out, are a major habitat in the Gulf, much like grasses are in marshes, and so its death leads to trouble for anything using the seaweed for shelter or sustenance. In particular, blue fin tuna larvae use the seaweed for cover and forage before they head out to open see, and the expert interviewed expects that we could see “loss of that whole year-class of blue fin tuna” where sargassum is lost because of the BP oil disaster. Transcript and audio download available at Living on Earth.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    One of the best bloggers around Professor Smartass, notice what he saw on the beach in Prince William Sound –

    BP spill could move Southern whites left, but will Dems be there?

    I was a conservative & evangelical in 1989, seemingly the unshakable base of the GOP, but I went to work as a commercial fisherman in Alaska that summer and ended up cleaning oil off rocks and picking up dead animals instead.

  6. Terry Heidelberg says:

    This TED talk by Susan Shaw relates to the topic, especially the
    evil worsening effects of the dispersants used.

    However, I do think that her diving into the muck without hazmat
    protection shows a bit of lack of good judgment …

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Rush Limbaugh’s last eight year contract was for 400 million dollars.

    He got that big contract by being “a friend of corporate America”, in his own words.

    He’s not exactly an unbiased source, as other people on this board have pointed out.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Gulf Oil Spill in 3-D: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

    While a documentary on the gulf oil spill starring SpongeBob SquarePants will likely never see the light of day, the BP disaster is getting very real attention in filmmaking circles these days.

    It’s a film about the mass extinction of wildlife caused by humanity — I think it’s the biggest story out there right now.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Louisianan frames the local story of the disaster, and of persisting fears the tragedy may only be just beginning