Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

What Will We Learn from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster?

By David Andrews, EWG Senior Scientist, and Nils Bruzelius, Executive Editor

One hundred and six days later, it finally appears that the gusher in the Gulf has been tamed, plugged at the top and soon to be plugged at the bottom. Today (Aug. 5), the government says that three-fourths of the unprecedented discharge of crude oil is gone from the rich, warm waters of the Gulf, indicating that the first act of the vast, horrendous floating experiment is winding down.

Let’s hope they’re right, but let’s not forget that, in fact, 50 percent of the oil is still there, either dispersed or in its original form. It’s in the water column, in rapidly thinning sheens on the surface, in the sediments below, perhaps hidden in the coastal marshes and tissues of the region’s marine life. And the 26 percent that’s still in its original form — just less visible — amounts to nearly 1.3 million barrels (53.5 million gallons). That’s nearly five times as much as spilled from the Exxon Valdez.

And then there is the matter of the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants that petroleum giant BP pumped onto and into the Gulf to try to limit the impact of the toxic oil.  Now that the spill is apparently ended, EPA has just publicized the results of its second round of testing. It concluded that these chemicals, used in unprecedented volume, had similar acute toxicity to the alternatives and was no more toxic than untreated oil when mixed with Louisiana crude.

It’s great to have more information and it’s fortunate that the dispersant BP used was evidently not much more toxic than other options.  But here at the Environmental Working Group, we don’t think that luck is an effective chemicals policy.

The government is saying that the worst is over, and that the remaining oil – wherever it is – is unlikely to do much additional damage.

But there’s much left to do, including finishing the cleanup as well as possible and gathering the data that will let us fully understand the consequences of this spill, the efficacy of the cleanup, and, hopefully, ensure that the nation is better prepared for the next one.

“I think we don’t know yet the full impact of this spill on the ecosystem of the people of the Gulf,” Dr. Jane Lubchenko, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told The New York Times this week.

No kidding.

The job of collecting and understanding the data has barely begun, but it’s certainly not too soon to be laying out the questions that NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies need to answer – must answer – before the next such hydrocarbon disaster unfolds. Here are just a few:

  • What will be the ultimate toll of the Macondo blowout on the environment, on marine life and on people’s health, both from the oil itself and the dispersants?
  • Did the dispersants limit the ecological consequences, or perhaps make them worse?
  • Was the chemical mixture in the dispersants the most effective, least toxic formulation? Was it used in the right amounts and applied in the least damaging ways?
  • If all but 26 percent of the oil has already disappeared from sight, what about the dispersed oil and the dispersants? What has become of them, and with what effects?
  • In a report released Wednesday, government agencies said the chemicals dispersed just 8 percent of the oil, a surprisingly small number to some. Was that the best they could do?
  • Since we won’t be free of our dependence on fossil fuels any time soon, will industry and the government be any better prepared to cope than they were this time? How can we reduce the risk that supposedly fail-safe devices like blowout preventers will not in fact fail, and to limit the damage when they do?

The EPA and other government agencies must not rest until they’ve answered these and many other questions with the best data they can gather from this disaster, a job that will take months and years.  The EPA can’t afford to wait until the next disaster happens to do test the chemicals that might be used to fight it.  And the nation can’t afford to confront the next such catastrophe with as little solid information as we had this time.

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