In the Northern Gulf of Mexico, BP tries everything its engineers can think of to reduce the extent of the damage from the Deepwater Horizon ‘spill’, a catastrophe that just keeps on growing. Oil has reached the vulnerable Gulf Coast, tar balls are turning up on the Florida keys, and who really knows what is going on under the surface of the sea.
One method to reduce the damage is to dump immense amounts of a dispersant into the water. It is intended to emulsify the oil and render it biogegradable by bacteria.
The dispersant of choice until now has been Nalco’s product Corexit. How it acts in such a deep water situation is unknown – practically every effort that BP is making is experimental – but what little we do know indicates that it is relatively toxic (lethal) to anything exposed to it for very long, and that about half of it is likely to settle to the bottom substrate and accumulate there. Trawlers in the northen Gulf are understandably very worried about its impact on the bottom dwelling shrimp.
Because of concerns about the damage Corexit may do, on top of, or instead of, the damage caused by the oil itself, the EPA wants it replaced by another apparently less toxic dispersant. Probably this is PolyChem’s Dispersit. Much less seems to be known about Dispersit, but it identifies itself on its labels as user-friendly and environmentally safe. Since labels never lie, no doubt we would be in safer hands.
The widely admired but largely ignored Precautionary Approach is lying in shambles. The PA proposes that we do the least environemental damage possible when deciding among alternative actions, that we plan for catastrophes, and that in fact we hold off on taking very risky actions. Obviously precaution was ignored by all those companies and regulatory agencies whose comfort with taking major environmental risks resulted in the wreck of the oil rig and the awful disaster that is occurring.
The only tenet of the Precautionary Approach that will be met successfully is that the polluter pays. BP and its partners will be made to suffer financially, many lawyers will again make their fortunes, but the damage will not be lessened.
Applying massive amounts of dispersants is yet another major environmental risk. Again it is hardly precautionary. Just as the oil drillers relied on hope that a spill would not occur, we can now only hope that the dispersants will somehow help. Since there is no doubt that disperants will be used, we can only hope that the new dispersant, if it is used, will be less harmful that the previous one. But hope is rarely based on reliable science – I think that’s why we call it hope.
Clearly, controlling the damage caused by the oil has become a challenge that may overwhelm the coastal region of the northern Gulf. What recovery of habitats and fisheries will occur? How long will it take? What will happen to coastal communities while they wait? I have heard no reassuring answers.
These are anxious times – economically, politically, and of course environmentally. Not so long ago we used to include utopian environments in our dreams. Now they exist only as nostalgic science fiction fantasies. Now instead we struggle to reduce the environmental damage that we have inflicted on the planet.
Damage control – our 21st Century Dream.