BP's Deep Secrets

| Wed Aug. 11, 2010 4:36 PM EDT

Julia Whitty reports on the ongoing cleanup of the Gulf oil spill:

"BP's two prime cleanup methods — setting out boom and using dispersant — completely undermine each other," [says Carl Safina, marine conservationist and cofounder of the Blue Ocean Institute]. The containment and absorbent boom that BP is deploying around beaches and marshes — largely ineffectively — is designed to do just that: contain and absorb oil. But the Corexit dispersant BP has flooded onto the leaking wellhead 5,000 feet down, and sprayed from the air onto the surface — some 2 million gallons in total — is designed to break up the oil. "Which one is it?" asks Safina. "Do you want to contain it or disperse it? It makes absolutely no sense to be doing both. Let's face it, with pollution, you count your lucky stars if you have what's called point-source pollution, that is, a single identifiable localized source of pollution, like the Deepwater Horizon. So what's BP doing with that? They're turning it into the worst pollution nightmare of them all: non-point-source pollution."

That's because untreated oil quickly rises to the surface, where it can be skimmed with relative ease. But treated with dispersant, it becomes a submerged plume, unlikely to ever float to the surface, and destined to migrate through underwater currents to the entire Gulf basin and eventually the North Atlantic. "Oil is toxic to most life," says Steiner. "And Corexit is toxic to most life. But the most toxic of all is oil that's been treated with Corexit. Plus, dispersants may well kill the ocean's first line of defense against oil: the natural microbes that break oil down for other microbes to eat." The EPA has never seriously examined Corexit's effects on marine life (see "Bad Breakup"). Now it'll get the biggest and baddest field experiment of all time, as the flora and fauna of the shallows and the deep scattering layer collide with the dispersed plumes.

Julia's piece, as a friend jokingly says, isn't written in the inverted pyramid style. It's a close look not at the surface of the Gulf — the part everyone sees — but at its deepest reaches, where dispersed oil is likely to remain for years or decades, interrupting food chains and delicate ecologies in ways we can only begin to guess at. This is the stuff BP would just as soon no one pay attention to, and it's not a story that can be easily summarized. But if you really want to understand what's happening in the Gulf, put aside a few minutes and read the whole thing.

And when you're done? Just click here for the rest of our coverage of the BP spill from this month's issue of the magazine.

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