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Massive Amounts of Underwater Oil Droplets Which Organisms Eat Does Not Equal Victory in the Gulf

Michael Grunwald took a run at carrying forward this idea that the BP oil disaster is actually, you know, not so bad, a perspective contrasted by his own colleague at Time, Bryan Walsh:

I think it’s far too early to declare the oil spill a bust. It’s true that the coastlines don’t seem to have experienced the damage they might have—though as Mother Jones’s Mac McClelland points out, there’s definitely still oil in the waters and the beaches. (One of the challenges of covering this spill has been geography—as Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has said, it’s like fighting hundreds or thousands of smaller spills, each of which can hit hundreds of miles of coastlines. It’s the fog of environmental war—just because one island hasn’t been hit by oil doesn’t mean another might not be, and vice versa.) […]

But look beyond the coastline. The truth is we know very little about what the release of tens of millions of gallons of oil underwater will do to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf. Add in the application of some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have never been used—and were never meant to be used—in such vast quantities. We know that there are oil plumes under the water—but we don’t know what they might be doing to marine life. And there are great fears that the Gulf’s rich fisheries might take years to recover. The spill hit during the nursery season, and might have damaged oysters, shrimp and other species when they were young and vulnerable. 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, fisheries in Prince William Sound haven’t fully recovered, and nearly every fisherman you meet on the Gulf coast worries the same thing will happen to the waters they once plied.

Indeed, the real problem now might be that the oil, along with dispersants, have absorbed into the marine life. The whole PR strategy for BP has been to keep the oil off the shore, so people like Michael Grunwald would bail them out with articles about how the disaster isn’t all that bad. But just because we can’t see the insides of the organisms in the food chain, that doesn’t mean their intake of oil and other chemicals isn’t devastating for the ecosystem:

Scientists have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them “in almost all” of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Toxic droplets that can affect the ocean life in the Gulf for generations – that’s not my idea of a dodged bullet. So the idea that BP can “scale back” their operations now is outrageous. They can scale back the dumping of toxic chemicals into the Gulf, to be sure, but it’s way too early to take the cleanup crews out of the water. The situation is still bleak.

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David Dayen

David Dayen