Chemical oil dispersants may harm environment

05/10/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:


BP has reportedly begun to continually spray oil dispersant at the site of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout at an unprecedented depth. That the impact of these chemicals is not well known, but they could be hazardous.

Since the April 20 blast sent millions of gallons of oil gushing into the gulf, BP has unloaded at least 372,000 gallons of dispersant into the water. Researchers say the effects of such a massive application of dispersants is unknown. University of South Florida Biologist John Ogden says the stuff works like soap.

Just like detergent does in your washing machine, breaks up the dirt molecules and grease molecules and things, and disperses them in the water column.

He says the idea is to reduce the concentration of crude in the water.

The oil will disperse in the water, and then be more rapidly, have a greater opportunity to be spread widely and diluted, so essentially the solution to pollution is dilution.

Ogden added that the use of dispersants is intended not only to water down the oil that’s at sea, but also to keep some of it from washing ashore.

It prevents the oil from reaching the surface — or some of it, at least from reaching the surface — and from going onto shore, where of course it's a much more conspicuous event, and is much more likely to impact and to affect those animals that, essentially, the public really cares about, such as birds, marine mammals, and so on — turtles.

Despite this copious application of the chemicals, oil reached the Chandeleur Islands Wednesday. And there’s another problem, Ogden said.

Many marine organisms have, essentially, very similar fatty components that are similar to oil chemically. Dispersants have major impact on marine organisms, and particularly those things that can get coated, like small organisms in the open-ocean water column.

He added there’s no telling what the pieces of dispersed oil might do to ocean creatures that may mistake the small floating oil globules for food. Walter Jaap is an independent consultant for environmental consulting firm Entrix, a company that is advising BP in the wake of the slick. He said the path of the slick and the chemicals used to treat it may become a problem down the road.

Well, the spill is obviously out in the Gulf of Mexico, and the risk is that the Loop Current, which is a major current in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, central Gulf of Mexico, could trap the oil and bring it south, and into the Florida Keys area. It potentially could come into areas all the way from say the Dry Tortugas up to Palm Beach, Miami, and those areas, which would be difficult to work with if it got in there in great quantities.

Jaap said chemical oil dispersants in high concentrations are detrimental to coral reef ecosystems.

We don't recommend using dispersants in and around coral reefs; it's been shown to have harm. It's actually more dangerous to use that actually petroleum itself. And this particular petroleum is what we call crude oil, or, you know, just doesn't have all the nasty stuff that, say, benzene or something like that would have.

He added that the impacts of the dispersed crude itself should be of concern. Jaap added that reefs aren’t the only ecosystems at risk.

The dispersants have a tendency to, as you said, break up the oil in small globules, and then it can go into various places. So it might be more risky for it to be used in that respect as well. So the chemical itself, the dispersant chemicals, are harmful.

As of yet, scientists are not in agreement on whether the Loop Current will pick up the slick and everything that comes with it. Some, like University of Miami’s Hans Graber, say it’s already there. But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the current is too far south of the slick. Jaap said that however bad dispersants may be for reef systems, they’d likely be diluted once they reached the Keys.

Everything that's, you know, been spilled, and all of the various components and chemicals that have been put down to try to disperse the oil, potentially could get into the Loop Current, and could be traveled around. But I think over time, the long-term result would be it would be diluted a lot, by the time it got say a hundred, or two hundred, three hundred miles from the point of source.

Another chemical BP is using is methanol. It's a toxic alcohol they're using to prevent ice crystals from forming in a dome with which they plan to once again attempt to cap the leaky well.

More WMNF coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

BP's track record on safety and are the chemical dispersants harmful to the environment?

Coast Guard holds secret meeting with environmental groups

Seabird sanctuary prepares for oil slick disaster in Tampa Bay

Officials give rosy view on oil spill recovery efforts

Sen Bill Nelson wants pause in exploration until cause of oil spill determined

Nelson says BP might not pay full economic damage of its oil leak

comments powered by Disqus