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A Year After the Spill: The Consequences of COREXIT

A Year After the Spill: The Consequences of COREXIT

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Published by: Food and Water Watch on Apr 15, 2011
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On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rigexploded. Seventeen crewmembers were injured and 11died.
Two days later, on Earth Day, the rig sank into theGulf of Mexico.
These events were the beginning of acatastrophic environmental, economic and social disas-ter. On April 22nd, the agency tasked with responding tothe spill determined that there was a leak at the wellheadand that cleanup crews would use chemical dispersantsto combat the oil spill.
Referring to the decision to usedispersants, the Coast Guard’s 8
District commander,
Rear Admiral Mary Landry stated, “Our goal is to ght this
oil spill as far away from the coastline as possible.”
Wasthis successful, or did use of dispersants do more harmthan good?To mitigate the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, both BP and the U.S. governmentused two types of COREXIT, a dispersant that was origi-nally developed by Exxon and is now manufactured byNalco Holding Company.
A total of 1.84 million gallonsof dispersants were added to the Gulf of Mexico overseveral months.
A combined volume of 1.06 million gal-lons of COREXIT 9500A and 9527 were sprayed on thesurface using planes and boats.
A new technique to ap-ply dispersant was also used, adding 0.78 million gallonsof COREXIT 9500A directly at the leak in the wellhead,approximately 5,000 feet below the surface of the water.
www.foodandwaterwatch.org • 1616 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20036 • info@fwwatch.org
 A Year After the Spill
What is the cost of spilled oil?
Under the Clean Water Act, the owner and operator of
an oil platform faces nes of up to $1,100 for each bar
-rel of oil spilled.
If authorities determined that BP com
mitted gross negligence or willful misconduct, the nefor the Deepwater Horizon spill could be up to $4,300per barrel.
Based on the government’s estimate that206 million gallons of oil leaked from the DeepwaterHorizon blowout, BP could face civil nes alone be
tween $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion.
Both the novel application technique and the unprecedent-ed volume of dispersant used make the BP Deepwater Ho-rizon response unique.
Many experts remain concernedabout the increased use of toxins in the ocean which maylead to longer-term ecological problems and may have un-predictable impacts from use of the chemical underwater.Dispersants do not eliminate oil from the environment;they break down the oil into smaller, less visible particlesand often sink it to the bottom, out of sight. The dispersantand the smaller oil particles remain as toxins in the water.
 Although dispersants do transfer oil away from the sur-
The Consequencesof COREXIT
face of the water, they increase exposure deeper below the
ocean’s surface and on the seaoor, increasing exposure forsh, eggs, larvae, shrimp, corals and oysters.
Dispersantsmay prevent unsightly masses of oil from washing up on ourbeaches, but the oil becomes a more persistent presence inthe environment, with increased likelihood of long-term eco-logical effects. The use of dispersants is a trade-off betweentwo bad options: more oil on the shore or more oil in theocean.
It is hard to decide which is worse without sufcientinformation on possible outcomes. Scientic literature still
disputes the usefulness of dispersants on reducing wildlifeimpacts.
A year after the decision to apply large volumesof dispersants to the gulf, including application through theuntested underwater technique, scientists are publishing their
ndings from various studies.
How are dispersants regulated?
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 amended Section 311 of theClean Water Act to include plans for a National Oil andHazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) anddelegated authority to the president to manage this plan. TheNCP, prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), includes a schedule of dispersants and other chemicalsthat can be used to mitigate oil spills, lists the appropriate
quantities for use, and identies the waters in which they
may be used.
To be added to the NCP product schedule, amanufacturer is simply required to determine the product’scategory and supply data, including recommended use,effectiveness and toxicity. It is the company’s responsibility
to determine this information, and it is not tested or veriedaccording to any specic government criteria.
Toxic concerns
A standard method for measuring toxicity is to determinethe lethal concentration that kills 50 percent of the sampleorganisms (in shorthand called “LC50”) during a set periodof time. The LC50 values for the NCP are based on 48- and96-hour timeframes. Higher LC50 values indicate lowertoxicity. Another method for evaluating toxicity is to measure
the effective concentration that causes a specic effect on 50
percent of the sample organisms (known as “EC50”) in a set
timeframe. The specic effects could include reduced repro
-duction, decreased movement or reduced ability to obtainfood. LC50 is the method used to compare the toxicity levelsof different dispersants on the NCP, meaning that death is theonly concern of these toxicity tests, and not possible long-term effects. Manufacturers of dispersants submit LC50 toxic-ity tests for both the dispersant and the oil plus the dispersantto the EPA for their product to be added to the NCP.Toxicologists question the reliability of this testing methoddue to the many variables involved, and experts are con-cerned about whether it can be effectively used to accuratelycompare impacts from different dispersants.
“There isn’t anyinformation on what is the environmentally relevant levelof dispersant,” says toxicologist Carys Mitchelmore at theUniversity of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
 Both forms of COREXIT used in the gulf are capable of killingor depressing the growth of a wide range of creatures, from
phytoplankton to sh.
Proting from the use of COREXIT in
the gulf?
Nalco Holding Company’s board of directors includes aformer BP executive and board member.
This con-
nection between BP and Nalco raises the question asto why COREXIT was exclusively used for the Deepwa
-ter Horizon spill, rather than other dispersants that are
associated with less ecological damage and that couldhave performed better on the type of oil spilled into thegulf. Nalco Holding Company has shown tremendousrevenue gains since it was announced that cleanupcrews in the gulf would use its products. The companyreported second-quarter prots of 41 cents per shareafter the spill, a 215 percent adjusted earnings per
Second-quarter revenue jumped 19 percent,equaling $1.09 billion, in part due to $70 million in dis
persant sales to the government and BP.
President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf inspect a tar ball on a Louisiana beach on May 28, 2010 resulting from theBP Horizon oil spill. Photo by Chuck Kennedy.
“EPA was presenting only partof the risk equation.” – PeterHodson, aquatic toxicologist
One toxic component in crude oil, polycyclic aromatichydrocarbons (PAHs), gets a great deal of attention in toxic-ity testing due to its health impacts. PAHs do not make upthe bulk of crude oil, but they can remain in the environmentlonger than other hydrocarbon components of oil.
Nalco’stoxicologist, Sergio Alex Villalobos, while speaking of disper-sants, stated, “Once it’s mixed with oil, that’s where you getthe most impact, that’s where you see most of the toxicity.”
 This elevated toxicity is due to an increase in accessibilityof PAHs in dispersed clouds or plumes of oil. The dispersedcloud of microscopic oil droplets allows the PAHs to contam-inate a volume of water 100 to 1,000 times greater than if the
oil were conned to a oating surface slick.
Large numbers
of sh could have been exposed to dispersed oil.
lasting as little as one hour could affect embryonic sh.
One big experiment
Beginning in late May, plumes of tiny underwater oil dropletswere discovered by various university researchers. At thattime, BP executives denied that the plumes of oil existed.
 On June 8, university researchers and the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conrmed that the
plumes not only existed, but that at least one of the plumesoriginated from the Horizon.
The dispersant applied to thespill at and below the surface kept oil particles in the deepocean.
One plume found by the University of Georgia was10 miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet thick at somepoints.
Researchers from the University of South Florida(USF) found a plume 45 nautical miles to the northeast of the well, as wide as 100 feet in some places and at depthsof 3,300 to 4,300 feet below the surface of the gulf.
DavidHollander, a chemical oceanographer at USF, stated, “Whatwe have learned completely changes the idea of what an oilspill is.”
Droplets of dispersed oil are more easily absorbedand consumed by marine animals.
The plumes are largeenough and dissipating so slowly that many animals mightbe bathed in dispersed oil for an extended time.
Dr. Samantha Joye of the Department of Marine Sciences at
the University of Georgia conducted research on the seaoor
in the Gulf of Mexico before the Deepwater Horizon Oilspill. Since the spill, her research team has taken samples
from the seaoor. In the summer, they recorded thick oil resi
due on the seaoor. Upon returning in December, the team
expected the residue to have been gone, but a large amountremained.
A number of factors affect the biodegradationrates of oil, such as water temperature, oxygen content andthe presence of microorganisms.
Dr. Joye attributes thisunexpected phenomenon to an unknown impediment inthe natural system of oil degradation.
The impacts from thedispersant application at the subsurface could be to blame.Speaking about the subsurface application of dispersant,
Mani Ramesh, chief technology ofcer for Nalco, stated,
“We do not have any knowledge that would allow us to pre-dict what would happen.”
 Dispersants are a mixture of hydrocarbon-based solventsand surfactants.
A study to determine the fate of disper-sants used in the Deepwater Horizon spill traced dioctylsodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), an ingredient in both forms of COREXIT, through the seawater of the gulf.
The dispersantapplied below the surface appears to have been trapped inthe deep layers of the ocean, supporting previous work byother researchers.
Dispersant traveled across the water dueto the currents and different densities of saltwater layers, withthe majority of the higher concentrations of dispersant occur-ring in the depths between approximately 3,280 and 3,900feet.
The DOSS was not degraded, and was less concen-trated mainly from dilution in the Gulf of Mexico.
The studyconcluded that it could not “assess whether the dispersantapplication was successful in reducing the oil droplet sizeor in increasing the sequestration of oil in deep water.”
Operational Science Advisory Team (OSAT) at the Unied
Area Command released data showing that another com-ponent of the dispersant was lingering in the Gulf as well.
 The continued existence of components from dispersants isunexpected; COREXIT was thought to decompose almost en-tirely in 28 days.
This persistence in the environment raisesconcerns regarding possible long-term impacts and lengthensexposure times for people and wildlife.
Carl Pellegrin (left) of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheriesand Tim Kimmel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiledpelican in Louisiana, one of the many animals affected by the DeepwaterHorizon oil spill. Photo by John Miller (U.S. Coast Guard).

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