[Coral-List] BP Oil Spill Response

Steve LeGore slegore at mindspring.com
Fri May 7 15:23:57 EDT 2010

I am going to contribute something that may well be unpopular, but I believe it must be said.  I implore the scientific community to abstain from crying wolf about the BP oil spill.  Cries of “disaster” and “destruction of fisheries” will, I believe, ultimately return to bite us in our collective asses.

Look, I am not stupid or uninformed.  My Ph.D. dissertation research at the UW (Seattle) concerned toxicity of Prudhoe Bay crude.  I have responded to several oil spills and I managed the year-long field sampling response to the Ekofisk Bravo Blowout in the North Sea – at the time the largest spill in history.  I have participated in training oil spill responders, and I evaluated IMO response procedures and policies to the Desert Strom spills in the Persian Gulf.

The BP spill is of course a problem that should not have happened.  Spilled crude oil makes a mess; it oils birds and turtles and is potentially devastating to air-breathing marine mammals.  BP must be held accountable for its shortcomings, which are many and profound.  BP should be encouraged to return to the days when its Environmental Affairs Department reported to its Chairman of the Board rather than its PR Department Head – as it did when BP earned the respect of the world’s entire environmental community.

However, we must remember that crude oil is not as toxic as refined petroleum products.  It is a mix of many hydrocarbons, including many heavy complex compounds as well as lighter fractions.  Leaving aside potential carcinogenicity, it is the latter that generally exhibit toxicity.  Fortunately, crude oil floats, and in doing so it provides opportunity for the more toxic lighter fractions to differentially evaporate into the atmosphere, removing them from the water column environment.  These same lighter fractions tend to dissolve into the water column, but fortunately they do so only to a limited extent.  They are, almost by definition, hydrophobic.  The only light component that dissolves to an appreciable extent is benzene, which, if I remember correctly, can reach 17 ppm in a super saturated state.  This means that there is a profound limit to the depth at which these compounds can exert their toxic impacts.  They are generally limited to the top few centimeters of the water column, which is of concern for floating eggs and some other planktonic components.

Yes, the rough weather and wind following the spill will tend to exacerbate these issues, causing more mixing and potentially affecting availability of toxins to marine organisms.  And yes, the extreme depth at which this oil is released in the marine environment may well create unprecedented opportunities for mixing and dissolution.   These factors may well enhance impacts of the spill in the GoM, but what concerns me much more profoundly is the wholesale use of dispersants.  The furor to control the spill, and BP’s concern for its public image with a  view to oil-coated shorelines, have resulted in pouring amounts of dispersants into the marine environment that I would have personally thought unthinkable before this spill.   Dispersants are in themselves toxic and run the risk of disrupting lipid-based cell membranes of fish eggs and other plankton.  They also emulsify spilled hydrocarbons, making them more biologically available in the water column..  I question whether BP would have used so much of these ill-advised compounds if public pressure had been more measured.

Oil spills are nasty when they reach shore.  There is no question about it, and the oil will indeed cause many environmental problems in these environments for many years to come, depending on how much oil reaches these areas..  But the oil will most likely NOT cause destruction of all GoM fisheries for the foreseeable future.  Deepwater fisheries likely will be affected more by fouling of gear by oil than by oil killing the target fish.

Yes, this spill is awful and was almost certainly preventable.  And yes, it will likely cause very unfortunate damage to the marine environment and marine fisheries, especially in shoreline environments that it may strike.  And yes, BP and its partners must be held fully accountable.  But the spill will not turn the GoM into a biological desert.  By screaming “Murder” I believe well-meaning environmentalists run the risk of providing “Drill Baby Drill” people an argument when the ultimate environmental effects fail to measure up to extreme panic calls.  Let us please be measured and realistic so as to not provide a free advantage to those who would overlook the real issues involved here.

Steve LeGore

Steve LeGore, Ph.D.
LeGore Environmental Associates, Inc.
2804 Gulf Drive N.
Holmes Beach, Florida 34217 USA
Tel: 941/778-4650
Fax: 941/778-4761
Cell: 941/447-8010
GMT + 4 hrs

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