I am an environmentalist who has studied the ocean and her creatures for more than thirty years. Though not strictly a scientist, my voice is as valid as a voice that calculates, quantifies, measures, and speaks with the authority of an advanced degree. We need facts, yes, we need analysis, but we also need emotion. We need to hear the voice of the ocean, measure with the calipers of our embracing arms, quantify with the beakers of our imperfect hearts.
As the world’s ninth largest body of water, the Gulf of Mexico does more than provide Americans with shrimp and oysters and petroleum. The Gulf’s waters, their flora and fauna, help to regulate the earth’s oxygen, climate, weather, and the rainfall we do or do not receive. For every breath you take, for every sip of water, you can thank the oceans of the world.
The most frustrating aspect of this environmental catastrophe is that it did not have to happen. It was entirely avoidable. When we started drilling a mile down, at the bottom of the unpredictable ocean, we knew we were walking in a dangerous neighborhood. We should have had emergency plans and backup plans, tested and proven and solidly in place before the first drill dropped below the surface. Even better, we should have never been there at all.
Sadly, pre-emergency planning is now moot for this spill. We must propel ourselves quickly into dealing with the aftermath. And the aftermath of catastrophe is never pretty. This is not President Obama’s Katrina, as some have said, this is his Chernobyl.
In addition to allowing BP to direct the cleanup efforts, we have given them carte blanche to choose which dispersant they employ to treat the spill, and—big surprise—they chose a dispersant (ironically named Corexit, said: “Corrects it”) that is manufactured by a company with which BP and Exxon both share close ties. Conflict of interest much? Adding toxicity to economic-and-environmental-injury, Corexit is a petroleum-based dispersant (there are less-toxic, water-based dispersants available, just not in the quantities BP claims it needs).
At the time of this writing, over a million gallons of dispersant have been sprayed over the surface of the Gulf or spewed into the deep ocean at the site of the spill—an even more environmentally risky area, as we have no evidence that oil-eating bacteria can function in deeper, colder waters. But I’ve moved too quickly here. I want you to go back and sit with that number for a moment: 1,000,000 gallons.
Scientists have never studied the environmental effects of dispersants used in concentrations this high. We do not know what we are doing, even as we are doing it.
BP asserts that the dispersants are non-toxic. Any toxicologist will tell you, though, that it’s the dose that makes the poison. Most substances are toxic when ingested in large enough quantities. Drink too much alcohol, and you can die. Drink too much caffeinated coffee, and you can die. Drink too much water and, yes, you can even die from that.
Dispersants make the oil spill look better from the air, from the coastline, for the cameras, which benefits BP. They break up the massive sheen of oil on the surface. They mean fewer shots of birds floundering helplessly, mired in oil. They break up the oil, yes, but dispersants do not change the quantity of oil in the water; they simply cause it to collect in smaller and smaller aggregates, rendering it largely irretrievable.
I am deeply concerned that dispersants not only spread the oil farther and wider, but also add another chemical to the water, to an environment that is already extraordinarily stressed by millions of gallons of crude. The warning label for Corexit cautions that it is an eye and skin irritant. It is harmful when inhaled and when it comes into contact with skin. If swallowed, it may cause injury to red blood cells, to kidneys or to the liver. Humans should not take Corexit internally, but sensitive marine mammals, fishes, sponges, corals, turtles and jellyfish are all swallowing it. They are soaking in it. They are breathing it.
Meanwhile, the minute-but-essential creatures in the Gulf of Mexico (phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria) are being killed invisibly, beneath the surface, away from the cameras, but no less dramatically. Even the larger fish and marine mammals that are killed will likely plunge to the deep sea floor after they die—completely outside our field of vision.
The birds and mammals at least have a chance of avoiding the oil. And it is possible to clean and relocate them (although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of that strategy). But millions of tiny sea-dwelling creatures in the Gulf have nowhere else to go. If the poisonous oil doesn’t reach them, the dissolved dispersants will.
Right now, billions of fragile eggs and larvae of the bluefin tuna (that spawn only in the Gulf and only at this time of year) are floating in the top ten to fifteen feet of the water column, along with billions of droplets of oil and dissolved dispersant. The very same bluefin who are already in danger from overfishing fueled by our insatiable appetite for sushi. No one knows what effect the oil will have on this critical bluefin nursery, on this threatened species.
But perhaps most compromised of all are the sensitive sessile creatures, unable to move away, unable to avoid the oil. No one is talking about the sponges that are animals, too, but are fixed to the substrate and will filter this poisoned seawater through their bodies twenty-four hours a day. And what about the fragile corals, already threatened by human activity in the form of effluent discharge and agricultural runoff from hotels, farms, golf courses, and cruise ships? The Florida Keys are home to North America’s only tropical coral reef system. The only one.
Dispersants are not a fix-all; to avoid environmental collapse of the Gulf we must halt their subsurface use and carefully target their limited surface use to areas (such as coastlines), where the benefits outweigh the risks.
The tragedy incurred by Louisiana’s residents, the blow dealt to their wetlands and marshes is already unfathomable. And yet, like that first levee breached during hurricane Katrina, or those first few moments when the ground trembled and shook in Haiti, this is only the beginning of a much larger tragedy that will be felt for years, for decades, perhaps even for centuries to come.