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Dispersant Disaster: A Closer Look at BP’s Toxic Solution

Kristian Gustavson found "all sorts" of dead dolphins and sea turtles on Ship Island in past weeks. Dead marine life is a common sight in the Gulf of Mexico these days

Kristian Gustavson found “all sorts” of dead dolphins and sea turtles on Ship Island in past weeks. Dead marine life is a common sight in the Gulf of Mexico these days, but Gustavson said the water was clear. The beaches on the Mississippi barrier island were white and clean. Oil from the British Petroleum’s underwater catastrophe had not reached the sprawling marine graveyard.

Gustavson, co-founder of conservation group Below the Surface, believes these animals may not have simply fallen victim to the oil that has been gushing from BP’s deepwater well since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster. He said the controversial oil dispersant BP is spraying across the slick could be the culprit.

Dispersants break up the oil slick into smaller, more biodegradable droplets. Gustavson said the process is good for aesthetics, but huge plumes of dispersed oil are now clouding the deep sea with toxins and moving inland.

Corexit, the main line of dispersants used by BP, came under public scrutiny last week after a Congressman informed The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it is all but banned in the United Kingdom. The EPA told BP to use less Corexit and invest in chemicals proven to be less toxic and more effective. BP issued a response defending their decision to use Corexit, and soon the amount of dispersants dumped in the Gulf neared an unprecedented one million gallons.

Dozens of residents along the Gulf Coast have reported headaches, nausea and trouble breathing after coming in contact with oil and dispersant fumes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. But Corexit producer Nalco claims the newest version, Corexit 9500, is “more than 27 times safer than dish soap,” according to a web release.

Nalco is an international chemical company directed by board members who cut their petrochemical teeth with companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Exxon and – you guessed it – BP. When the media discovered the EPA had rated 12 dispersants as more effective than Corexit, all eyes turned to Nalco board member Rodney Chase, who spent 38 years with BP and left as an executive.

A million gallons of any chemical, including dish soap, could certainly harm people and wildlife, and Corexit is no exception. Nalco’s own safety data sheet identifies three hazardous chemicals in Corexit 9500, and lists symptoms of exposure as “acute” and consistent with reports from the poison control centers.

Corexit 9500 predecessor Corexit 9527 contained the notorious chemical 2-butoxyethanol that allegedly poisoned cleanup workers during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster. The Corexit 9500 data sheet does not include the chemical in its list of hazards, but a 1996 University of California study on invertebrates concluded that there was no “significant difference” in toxicity between Corexit 9500 and the older formula.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK reported that Corexit’s ability to kill invertebrates constituting the base of the underwater food chain increases substantially at a certain concentration level. The report concluded that Corexit poses a threat to shallow water ecosystems like wetlands, estuaries and coral reefs.

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This threat is a reality for conservationist Casi Callaway, director of the Mobile Baykeeper group. Oil had yet to officially reach Alabama’s Mobile Bay when Callaway spoke with Truthout on last Thursday, but she said the devastation had already begun.

“We’ve had massive fish kills,” said Callaway. “The first fish kill we had was two weeks ago … it was everything, thousands of dead fish.”

Callaway said locals have observed BP contract workers filling trash bags with “brown goop” and requesting observers stop taking pictures. She believes the microbes and invertebrates consuming the vast underwater plumes of dispersed oil are depleting the oxygen in the Gulf and choking out other species. She also said it is a “very strong possibility” that dispersants are moving into Mobile Bay ahead of the oil.

Like many researchers and conservationists, Callaway knows that some ecological sacrifices must be made to save the Gulf from destruction. But both Callaway and Gustavson say the dispersants are just a dirty way for the giant corporation to save face.

“The chemical dispersant to us is a PR mechanism,” Callaway said. “Get it out of sight, get it out of mind. What we don’t know about the chemical dispersant is every reason not to use it.”

She insists options like siphoning and burning the oil are not perfect, but they are safer than filling the water with chemicals and expanding clouds of sinking oil droplets. Gustavson, who insists that “fighting pollution with pollution” can never work, said he is researching ways to use the Mississippi River and the natural filtration power of the wetlands to address the disaster.

For conservationists like Callaway and Gustavson, the fight to restore the Gulf Coast will continue for years. They don’t have billions of dollars to throw around like BP and corporate disaster profiteers, but they know environmental stewardship does more than scratch the surface. It goes much deeper than that.

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