Scientists are still working to understand the ecological and human health impacts of the environmental disaster that followed BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico one year ago. While it may too soon to identify the long-term consequences of the disaster, a growing body of evidence reveals that the massive release of oil combined with the unprecedented amount of chemical oil dispersants applied by BP is still an environmental threat a year later.
Truthout reported on BP's decision to exclusively use the controversial dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 in early June 2010, when conservationists blamed the chemicals for massive fish kills and health agencies reported that the chemicals were making people sick. Research conducted in the past year suggests that Corexit, combined with dispersed oil in broad undersea plumes, could have been the culprit.
Dispersants like Corexit do not eliminate oil, but break it down into tiny, more biodegradable droplets that are less visible on the surface and can sink to the bottom. Nalco, the company that currently manufactures Corexit, claimed the chemicals were safer than dish soap and would decompose in 28 days. Scientific research conducted since the disaster, however, shows components of Corexit and dispersed oil lingered in Gulf waters much longer and could still be in the food chain.
In late May 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency urged BP to use dispersants thought to be safer and more effective, but BP argued that the Corexit line was the best choice and bought up large reserves of the chemical. BP continued to exclusively use Corexit dispersants even after it was revealed that Nalco's board of directors includes Rodney Chase, who spent 38 years with BP and 11 years on BP's executive board. A report released this week by watchdog group Food and Water Watch (FWW) reveals that Nalco has shown tremendous revenue gains as a result of $70 billion in dispersant sales to BP.
An unprecedented 1.84 million gallons of Corexit were added to the Gulf of Mexico over several months after the blowout, according to the FWW report. Nearly a million gallons of Corexit were applied near the leaking wellhead below the Deepwater Horizon, a novel and unprecedented application technique that has caused some experts concern over the long-term health of marine life.
Corexit applied in deep water was trapped in layers of the ocean and traveled on ocean currents, and a team of researchers with the University of Georgia found one chemical component of Corexit had not degraded by December 2010. This persistence, the FWW report claims, raises concerns about long-term impacts of the dispersants and shows that wildlife and seafood eaters may have been exposed to the chemicals for a longer period of time that previously thought.
"We're still extremely worried about the underwater plumes of oil and dispersant since they're even more toxic than dispersant sprayed on the top of the water," said FWW Director Wenonah Hauter. "The dispersed oil in plumes is more easily absorbed and consumed by marine animals. We should definitely consider this when researching the dolphin and sea turtle deaths. A year later, the body count keeps rising."
The FWW points out that, on March 11, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an "unusual mortality event" after more than 80 dead dolphins washed up on Gulf state shores between mid-January and early March. As of April 7, 153 dead dolphins were found, and experts believe the actual death count to be as high as 7,650. Many of the dolphins were premature, stillborn or newborn. The carcasses of hundreds of turtles and other endangered species were also found.
"Basic physiology suggests that dispersed oil will negatively impact the reproductive capabilities of a wide variety of animals," said Richard Condrey, an associate professor at Louisiana State University who specializes in coastal ecology and fisheries.
Researchers believe Corexit also made hundreds of people sick during the disaster in the Gulf, and efforts are underway to determine potential long-term impacts on human health. Corexit 9527 was one of the dispersants used to clean up the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Nearly 7,000 cleanup workers reported feeling ill with breathing problems at the time, and chemicals in Corexit have long been suspected to be the culprits. FWW reports that the average age of death for Exxon Valdez cleanup workers is 50 years.
Despite these warning signs, BP chose to use Corexit exclusively. In early August, 275 oil and cleanup workers and 84 members of the general public reported "spill-related health problems" consistent with symptoms of exposure to Corexit, according to the FWW report. A door-to-door survey taken 11 days after the well was capped found that 48 percent of people living in coastal communities in Louisiana reported having short-term bouts of coughing, headaches, rashes, and other symptoms consistent with chemical exposure.
Although controversial, Corexit did keep large quantities of oil from washing up on America's beaches. Critics, however, say widespread use of the dispersant on the surface and below the Gulf was a big experiment and safer products and methods should have been considered. The decision to apply Corexit with unconventional methods was a hasty one, the FWW report concludes, and only long-term research will reveal its full impact in the Gulf of Mexico.