Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the Dispersant, Stupid!

I happen to be working pretty late tonight, and as always, I have one of the video feeds from the floor of the Gulf open on my other computer. I looked over and saw this image. For the record, this is a screen capture from the Skandi Rov2 feed taken at 2:33 AM Eastern time. The label applied to this feed by BP is "Dispersant Ops." The white liquid is the dispersant.

Apparently, while still unable to stop the leak, the folks at BP have come up with a way to increase the amount of dispersant being intentionally pumped into the Gulf. The orange ring that is pumping the dispersant out is something new. At least, I have never seen it. Up until now, the dispersant has been coming through single hoses. This is a growing secondary problem that I firmly believe will soon be a huge problem.

We hear about unintended consequences all the time. Be it related to war or development or hastily passed laws, it is a phrase being used more often daily. Well the dispersant is going to prove to be the unintended consequence of this mess. What makes it all the worse is that this stuff was not supposed to be used at all.

In the interests of actual transparency, I am not an engineer, chemist or scientist. But I can read and think.

Let me first say that this is in no way directed at Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit. They make a product designed for surface use. Corexit is basically a surfactant, sort of like dishwashing liquid. It breaks the surface tension of the oil and allows it to be washed away. It does not disappear it anymore than dishwashing liquid disappears the food from your pans. It just allows it to wash off and into the drain.

The problems with the dispersant use are numerous. First and foremost, the overall effect on the environment is unknown since this product is not intended for underwater use and not in these quantities. Latest estimates run around 64,000 gallons per day. To my knowledge, there has never been any level of testing of this much Corexit being used.

Next up is BP's brazenly stated reason for using the stuff this way. They say they are keeping the oil off the surface. That is their sole reasoning. Before I get into this, let me add that this reasoning is endorsed by Admiral Allen, and therefore okey-dokey with the environmental president. The problem with keeping it off the surface like this is two-fold.

First off, the oil that does reach the surface could be picked up at sea if we had the equipment (a different issue altogether). Oil that is broken up and remains below the surface never goes away. It is dispersed over a much larger area throughout the water column and across more of the Gulf. And, since it is now laden with Corexit, it poses an almost unresolvable problem. It cannot be collected or even gathered.

The other problem is that since the Corexit breaks the oil up from large visible patches into tiny little pieces, this makes it a lot easier for it to enter the food chain. Smaller fish can consume it as they swim, which transfers it it up the food chain to larger fish and eventually the dinner plate. And, the smaller oil particles will do more damage to the plankton and the reefs since they remain underwater. As an added attraction, the oil is safely kept away from the sun, which at least could evaporate the worst of the volatile chemicals in the oil.

As to the Corexit, well, that is a problem all by itself. Look at what the manufacturer provides in public information. This is taken from their product data sheets:

Eye and skin irritant. Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver. Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed. Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing. Do not take internally. Use with adequate ventilation. Wear suitable protective clothing. Keep container tightly closed. Flush affected area with water. Keep away from heat. Keep away from sources of ignition - No smoking.
May evolve oxides of carbon (COx) under fire conditions.

EYE CONTACT : Can cause moderate irritation.
SKIN CONTACT : Can cause moderate irritation. Harmful if absorbed through skin.
INGESTION : May be harmful if swallowed. May cause liver and kidney effects and/or damage. There may be irritation to the gastro-intestinal tract.
INHALATION : Harmful by inhalation. Repeated or prolonged exposure may irritate the respiratory tract.
Acute : Excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects.
Chronic : Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the
AGGRAVATION OF EXISTING CONDITIONS : Skin contact may aggravate an existing dermatitis condition.
HUMAN HEALTH HAZARDS - CHRONIC : Contains ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (butoxyethanol). Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE may result in damage to the blood and kidneys.

This is not a harmless chemical. In fact, Obama's EPA initially ordered BP to cease the use of Corexit and use a less harmful chemical. Well, BP and Admiral Allen were having none of that. The first limit was supposed to be 15,000 gallons per day. Based on that, I estimated a total of around 2.5 million gallons of this stuff used until the relief wells are complete. Much like the oil estimates, that is now up to between 8 and 10 million gallons.

There is no way this does not have a long term effect. It is a lot of dangerous chemical pumped into the Gulf along with the oil. Except the oil is an accident. The dispersant is intentional. And the government is allowing it. Perhaps instead of using his speech the other night to call for "clean energy," President Obama should have called for a stop to this intentional extra poisoning of the Gulf. We already have oil in there. We should not be adding more stuff if we don't have to.

One of these days, a scientist is going to let us know how harmful this stuff is. If the oil spill is Obama's Katrina, then the dispersant is the levees failing.

I am offering shirts with this design and will be sending the profits directly to the Plaquemines Parish Fund that is set up to help the folks most hurt by this mess.

I spoke to the good folks at Plaquemines and I have to say that for people living a horror show, they are some of the nicest and most grateful people you would ever want to talk to.

Please help out and get the message out at the same time.

You can order them here:

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