An Unsettling Experiment: Dispersants in the Gulf

The view from above, taken during the spill in the Gulf. Image courtesy of Anthony Clark

On April 20th, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, kicking off a long summer of videos of crude gushing into the sea. Two years later, the offshore oil business is booming, and conventional wisdom has it that the Gulf has fully recovered from the disaster. Not so fast, says Sandy Aylesworth, in an in-depth investigative report.

Gulf of Mexico, 2009
The stars spin overhead as our 135’ schooner charges through eight-foot seas. The night is black at 0200, and I am on watch for the beginning of our 24-hour passage through the Yucatan Straits, the slim body of water between Mexico and Cuba through which the Atlantic squeezes to become the Gulf of Mexico.

I march forward to inspect the headsails and pinrails, where most of the ship’s lines are made fast. Two sparkling missiles suddenly shoot through the water below and erupt alongside the schooner. I dash aft to alert my still-awake students, who squeal to see the dolphins outlined in fluorescent green.

The bow wave hisses, and the dolphins’ echolocation calls ring shrilly against the hull. The froth of the wave sizzles green with the bioluminescence of phytoplankton, the microscopic marine plants that produce half the world’s breathable air. Seven years at sea have taught me that phytoplankton are essential to human existence, knowledge that only enhances the magic of seeing them strewn like glitter across the black sea.

The ship’s bow wave thrusts the dolphins forward like watermelon seeds squeezed between wet fingers. Though they’re clearly enjoying the surf, the dolphins are also hitching a free ride to their feeding grounds, where they will feast on Gulf menhaden and flying fish. And those baitfish, in turn, eat five hundred times their biomass in marine larvae, zooplankton, and phytoplankton every day.

Today, three years after I delighted in that sparkling scene, I worry for the health of those dolphins and their precious feeding grounds. That night’s voyage through the Yucatan Straits brought us within 200 miles of the Macondo oil well: the BP-owned well which, on April 20, 2010, unleashed the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The crude oil from that well and the chemicals used to treat that oil are toxic to nearly all marine organisms, and even today the Gulf’s abundance remains in jeopardy.

In the nearly two years that have passed since the Macondo well was finally capped, however, the media’s summary of the disaster has often been unabashedly sanguine. In The New Yorker, Amy Parker wrote, “(S)omething was accomplished, and the Gulf is in better shape for it.” Lisa DiPinto of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said, “Based on what I have seen so far, it could have been a lot worse.” Now that the wellhead is tamed, the business of deepwater drilling is again booming (eight new drilling rigs are expected to be built in 2012), and Gulf fisheries are reopened, there are some who may wonder what all the fuss was about.

Yet although the Deepwater Horizon disaster has not proved apocalyptic for the Gulf, the spill carries the potential for long-term damages, many of which may not become clear for years. Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who has studied the Gulf for 30 years, says “I expect the hydrocarbon imprint of the BP discharge will be detectable in the marine environment for the rest of my life.” And Matt Rota, Water Policy Director at the Gulf Restoration Network in Louisiana, cautions, “The disaster isn’t over. Our fisheries are still impacted, we still have wetlands that have oil in them. There are still tarballs washing up.”

Those impacts threaten the United States’ most valuable body of water. Gulf oil accounts for 25% of domestic crude oil production; the Gulf’s fishermen harvest 1.3 billion tons of seafood each year, with total landings worth $659 million; and tourism revenues generated $20 billion in 2010. If the Gulf States became a country, that country would have the seventh largest economy in the world.

Despite the Gulf’s enormous value, however, BP and government agencies were both ill-prepared to defend it. During the spill, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) insisted that keeping Louisiana Sweet Crude off the Gulf’s shorelines and wetlands was critical, and rightly so: the Gulf’s wetlands provide a nursery for 98% of marine animals that live in its pelagic waters. But BP’s method for “preventing” oil from encroaching on the marshes was destructive in its own right: the company used chemicals to disperse Sweet Crude over swaths of ocean hundreds of miles wide and thousands of feet deep. Chemical dispersants do not make oil disappear—they simply transfer oil from surface waters deeper into the water column. BP’s dispersants simply moved the oil from one ecosystem to another.

Dispersing oil into the plankton-filled water column still threatens a huge array of marine life. Plankton, like those bioluminescent flecks that illuminated my 2009 trip through the Yucatan Straits, form the basis of the food web that sustains the Gulf’s phenomenal bounty. Gulf waters are the briny domicile of loggerhead, leatherback, and Kemp ridley sea turtles; Minke, blue, and sperm whales; great white and hammerhead sharks, and fish from bluefin tuna to moray eels. And all of these animals would perish in the absence of the Gulf’s tiniest creatures—phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish larvae.

Scientists still don’t know the extent to which dispersants and dispersed oil poisoned these microscopic drivers of the Gulf’s ecosystem. Few studies have been published on the effects of dispersants, and that limited body of literature draws conflicting conclusions. Dr. Mandy Joye, a microbial geochemist at the University of Georgia who studies the BP Oil Spill, says, “We have no idea what dispersants are going to do to microorganisms. We know they are toxic to many larvae. The base of the food web in the ocean is going to be altered. There’s no doubt about that.” What those alterations will entail, however, remains an open question.

By the time the Macondo well was capped and officially declared “dead” on July 15, 2010, nearly five million barrels of crude oil had leaked into the Gulf. But “dead” doesn’t mean gone.

According to NOAA’s final Deepwater Horizon Oil report, 50% of the spilled oil is still in the water. That’s 2.5 million barrels of Louisiana Sweet Crude suspended in the water column or bobbing on the surface, enough to fill 159 Olympic-sized swimming pools – 48 of which would contain oil dispersed by chemicals. That lingering, chemically dispersed crude may constitute a unique threat to the Gulf’s marine ecosystem.


All we had were bad options.”—The Oil Spill Response Toolkit, April 2010
While deepwater drilling itself employs some of the most advanced technology in the world, the methods for cleaning up a spill remain laughably rudimentary. The existing arsenal of weapons against a spill is limited to skimming, burning, and dispersing, and each is flawed.

Skimming oil off the ocean’s surface may be the preferred method for dealing with a spill, but it remains hopelessly inefficient. The 30,000 people devoted to skimming, scooping and lassoing oil during the BP disaster managed to recover less than 3% of the total crude spilled. Although BP promised in its spill preparedness documents to be able to collect 500,000 barrels a day, it took the company a full week to mobilize its skimming flotilla, at which point it never recovered more than 15,000 barrels per day, a mere fraction of the oil gushing from the well.

Although burning off oil is more efficient than skimming it, burning crude releases clouds of toxic gases – sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxides to name a few – high into the atmosphere, where they can pose a serious risk to human health. The remaining noxious compounds are left to sink to the deep ocean, where marine animals can ingest or respire them. On a research cruise in the Gulf last February, Dr. Joye photographed heaps of dead sea cucumbers and starfish, up to 10 cm thick, amidst burnt crude oil debris.

Compared to the futility of skimming and the toxicity of in situ burning, chemical dispersants appeared to be the lesser of evils. As the well vomited the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every four days, local authorities, residents, and BP grew concerned about oil smothering marsh grasses, working its way into mangrove hatcheries, and, most visibly and so most worrisomely to authorities, floating onto beaches in black, stinking mats.

Like a squirt of dish soap dropped into a greasy lasagna pan, a shot of chemical dispersant breaks oil down into small droplets. These tiny droplets sink into the water column, where they either hover or continue to sink. Dispersing oil in the water column, therefore, can prevent crude oil from coating the ocean surface and reaching wetlands, and can save birds from drowning in life-sucking slicks. Additionally, some scientists think that smaller, dispersed oil droplets will biodegrade more rapidly than undispersed ones. Just as a horde of flesh-eating hagfish more easily consumes a partially decomposed whale than an intact one, so too might oil-eating microbes more readily digest dispersed oil than an entire slick. That line of reasoning propelled BP and the Coast Guard to begin administering dispersants almost immediately after the spill.

Yet, since dispersants simply shuttle oil from one ecosystem to another, using dispersants imposes what Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator at the time of the spill, called a “tradeoff.” According to Jackson, the quality of tradeoffs in this particular spill put EPA “in a position with no perfect solution.” During her congressional testimony Jackson recalled with anguish sitting in a meeting with fishermen and having to explain that her decision to use dispersants represented the better “of two very evil situations:” forced to choose between poisoning fish’s wetland nurseries or poisoning their open-ocean habitat, she chose to save the wetlands.

Unfortunately, Jackson was operating under a serious information deficit. Even thirty years after dispersants first became integral to oil spill cleanup, scientists still don’t fully understand how dispersed oil affects plankton or larvae. Most alarmingly, dispersants’ long-term impacts on marine ecosystems remain completely unknown. Not knowing the precise nature of those impacts made it almost impossible for EPA to make a well-informed decision. As Jackson said, “It would be my wish that no one ever has to make the same risk-management decision with the same level of science.”

Using dispersants is illegal in the marine industry: if I used even a bottle of dish soap to disperse a thin film of gasoline, the Coast Guard could revoke my captain’s license. But somehow the same Coast Guard authorized the use of 1.8 million gallons of dispersants during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

When BP submitted its mandatory Oil Spill Response Plan to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) (the notoriously corrupt agency that oversaw offshore oil leasing in federal waters, since restructured into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement), the EPA and the Coast Guard “pre-approved” the use of certain dispersants. Granting pre-approval is standard practice, and although the Response Plan ostensibly limits dispersant use during a spill, the Coast Guard and EPA have the authority to approve more dispersants after a spill begins – meaning that BP effectively had no upper limit on the volume of dispersants it could spray into the Gulf. Not until a month into the spill did EPA exercise its authority to limit chemical inputs into the Gulf, leading Rep. Edward Markey, D. Mass, and chair of the House Energy and Environment subcommittee, to observe that BP’s applications for increased dispersant use “appear to be rubber stamped.” BP’s 582 page Oil Spill Response Plan was, in essence, a carte blanche for unlimited chemical dumping.

Overall, nearly two million gallons of Corexit, BP’s dispersant of choice, were pumped into Gulf waters. Roughly 40% of that total was sprayed directly into the oil as it gushed from the wellhead. Injecting Corexit into the sea almost a mile below the surface was a Deepwater Horizon innovation, and the approach had never before been tested for its efficacy or its effects on deep ocean ecosystems. The decision to deploy Corexit in the deep sea, then, was a grand experiment that used one of the U.S.’ most important assets as its lab rat.

Not only did BP experimentally apply huge doses of chemicals to the Gulf, it choice of which chemicals to apply seems to have been made for dubious reasons. Nalco, Corexit’s manufacturer, makes two kinds of Corexit—Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500A. Of the two, Corexit 9527 was the first to go into the water, despite not being the best dispersant available. Instead it seems that BP purged its warehouse of the stockpile they’d had on the shelves since the 1990s. Ron Tjeerdema, an environmental toxicologist who consulted for NOAA during the spill, said that he understood immediately that BP was “getting rid” of their old Corexit. “They’re kind of efficient in wanting to get the most out of their stockpiled dispersants,” he observed wryly.

In this case, BP had stockpiled a very toxic compound. Nalco no longer makes Corexit 9527 because it contains 2-butoxyethanol, a carcinogenic solvent linked to health problems during the Exxon Valdez cleanup: after the cleanup, Valdez response workers observed blood in their urine and were later diagnosed with kidney and liver disorders. Corexit 9527 has the same health rating as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Once BP had rid itself of its Corexit 9527 stocks, the company switched to the scarcely better Corexit 9500A – a chemical that’s listed as an “acute health hazard” and shares the same human health rating as jet fuel.

Some scientists and environmental groups suspect that BP’s choice to use Corexit was borne of Nalco’s intimate relationships with oil companies. Nalco and Exxon Mobile formed a joint venture in 1994, and there’s considerable oil industry representation in Nalco’s leadership, including an 11-year BP board member who is now a Nalco executive. Nonetheless, BP’s decision to use Corexit was wholly legal — Jackson, EPA administrator, says, “If it’s on the list and they want to use it, then they are preauthorized to do so.” Never mind that Nalco’s entire Corexit line was banned in the UK for the harm it does to marine life.


An oily slick coats the shores in the Gulf. Image courtesy of Anthony Clark

Sailing into a plankton bloom during Gulf Spring smells like an oyster tastes: salty, fresh, strangely earthy. That smell is biomass, a briny slurry of phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish larvae and minute jellyfish. A water sample from such a bloom teems with these organisms, the very foundations of marine ecosystems. A look through a microscope at a single droplet of seawater might reveal a robust bluefin tuna egg. Each year thousands of prized and threatened Atlantic bluefin tuna swim thousands of miles to spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the species’ two known spawning grounds.

While Corexit prevented some of the Gulf’s marsh grasses and mangrove harbors from drowning in crude oil, dispersants and dispersed oil could prevent tuna eggs from developing normally or maturing at all. Scientists such as Dr. Joye are concerned that long-term exposure to dispersed oil will kill or disable some of the Gulf’s most important micro-organisms. Dispersed oil contains higher concentrations of toxic compounds than undispersed crude, is readily ingestible, and does not necessarily biodegrade faster than undispersed oil does.

Current dispersant testing protocols measure an animal’s acute toxicity to dispersants over a period of 96 hours – the immediate, short-term effects of exposure. But for Dr. Nancy Kinner, a microbiologist at the University of New Hampshire, chronic toxicity is a much more interesting, and heretofore unexplored, issue. According to Dr. Kinner, chronic toxicity tests better mimic the underwater reality of today’s Gulf. Innumerable marine animals now live inside of dispersed oil plumes that penetrate for miles deep into the ocean. Much of the Gulf’s biomass will be exposed to dispersed oil for months or years—much longer than the standard 96 hour test period. Instead of spending a few nights at a smoky bar, these organisms are now experiencing the equivalent of lifetime with a chain-smoker.

While Corexit supposedly biodegrades in 28 days, that period is still three times the duration of a bluefin tuna’s larval stage, meaning that plenty of miniature tuna spent the most sensitive phase of their life bathed in dispersants. But standard toxicity tests typically use adult fish and shrimp rather than larval fish or plankton. When the EPA performed its own toxicity tests during the spill and reported that Corexit was “slightly toxic” or “practically non-toxic,” many scientists refuted the findings on the grounds that the animals used in the tests, mysid shrimp and inland silverside fish, were both mature specimens. Dr. Kinner insists that “a new set of protocols to evaluate the risks associated with dispersants” is needed, and that those protocols should require testing animals in “relevant life stages,” including larval phases.

In many ways, the BP spill could not have come at a worse time of year for the Gulf. In April, when the well erupted, warming surface waters stimulate fish to release billions of eggs into the water column. A single bluefin tuna will release 30 million eggs, though fewer than 1% will survive to adulthood. If dispersants or dispersed oil poison half of those eggs, the world’s truncated tuna stock could shrink even closer to commercial extinction. Scientists have already announced that the Gulf spill has resulted in a 5% decline in tuna populations, and the full effects remain to be seen.

Yet another problem with generic dispersant toxicity tests is that they do not test all of the affected local species. The EPA’s tests during the spill used emuysage shrimp and inland estuarine fish, types of shrimp and fish that, Dr. Kinner says, “may not be the most relevant species for this particular spill.” Unsurprisingly, different species respond to dispersants in different ways. Previous toxicity studies show that bacteria, Atlantic menhaden, giant kelp, and phytoplankton are more sensitive to Corexit 9527 than the species used in the EPA studies. Exclusively using hearty species such as shrimp and silversides for toxicity tests is like using a 160-pound male for all FDA health studies and not worrying about toxic effects on a 10-pound child.

Further muddying the oily waters was the fact that only Nalco’s own lab had conducted toxicity tests on Corexit 9500A. And Nalco used fuel oil Number 2, a different type of oil than Louisiana Sweet Crude, meaning that there was zero scientific data on the effects of combining Louisiana Sweet Crude and Corexit 9500A. Ideally, the EPA would have developed Gulf-specific, dispersant-specific, and oil-specific data before the largest oil spill in US history.

When the agency’s toxicity findings finally came back a month after the spill, Jackson confidently announced that all of the dispersants were “practically nontoxic to slightly toxic” to the shrimp and fish tested. Good news, but the EPA forgot one detail: the oil.
Scientists are primarily concerned about how dispersants interact with oil. According to Dr. Mervin Fingas, one of the world’s foremost experts on oil spill response, “Most researchers found that chemically dispersed oil was more toxic than physically dispersed oil.” This puts the EPA’s sanguine findings very much in the minority.

A month into the spill, I saw a photograph of two blue crab larvae extracted from the Gulf of Mexico. Their bodies were translucent and tinged sunset orange – save for the black glob of dispersed oil that floated inside each larval crab. These crabs’ contaminated state was far from unique: in May 2010 The Huffington Post reported globs of oil in “almost all” of the crab larvae sampled along a 300-mile stretch of coast. Dr. Susan Shaw, a toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, says that when dispersants break oil into tiny droplets, those droplets are better able to permeate planktonic cell walls and cause damage. “The dispersant acts like a delivery system for oil in the water,” she explains. “And oil contains hundreds of compounds that are toxic to every organ in the body, including many carcinogens.” In this case, dispersed oil penetrated the larval crabs’ walls, wrecking potentially severe damage to their development.

Not only do dispersants transport oil to internal organs, they can also increase the concentration of oil’s most toxic compounds. These especially toxic compounds are called polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAHs) and are carcinogenic compounds inherent in all crude oil. Transforming oil globs into minute droplets, as dispersants do, makes these PAHs more readily ingestible to small fish, filter feeders, and plankton. Dr. Richard Camilli, an oceanographer, says that PAHs are “often associated with adverse biological effects.” Water samples from the Gulf collected two months after the spill show that these deleterious compounds “may be in greater abundance at depth,” according to Dr. Camilli.


Someone said to me yesterday, ‘Where did the oil go?’” recalled Frances Beinecke. “And I said, ‘You know what? They don’t have any idea where the oil went.’” A recent study highlights why even Frances Beinecke, one of the few true experts on the BP spill, doesn’t know where the oil went.

Eric Adams, a chemistry professor and Nobel Prize recipient, studied subsea-dispersed oil to find out why determining the fate of Corexit-stamped oil is so difficult. Dr. Adams announcing that spraying oil with Corexit directly at the wellhead resulted in “atomizing” small oil droplets tenfold. An “atomized” oil droplet could take a full year to rise to Gulf surface waters. Or the droplet might never surface: Adams says that the droplet’s slight positive buoyancy paired with the Gulf’s water cycling processes means that, “In essence, this oil is just standing still.”

Manhattan-sized swaths of immobilized crude pose another host of threats to the Gulf’s biodiversity, exposing plankton and larvae to PAH invasions, oxygen deprivation, and poisoning. Dr. MacDonald says such a sustained impact on an already stressed system “could be severe.” Once dispersed oil is integrated into the bottom of the food web, predators like tuna, sharks, dolphins, turtles and whales run the risk of consuming or filtering dispersed oil.

Not all organisms that come into contact with oil are harmed by it, though. One potential salvation for the Gulf, some scientists and pundits speculated in the weeks after the spill, was the oil-eating bacteria that abound in the Gulf. These naturally occurring microbes use surrounding oxygen to ravish crude oil and transform it into less toxic, biodegradable components. The Gulf’s oil-chomping bacteria have adapted to the Gulf’s many natural hydrocarbon seepages, and thus are especially adept at biodegrading oil.

Scientists hypothesized that populations of these oil-eating microbes would explode in response to an abundant supply of hydrocarons. And, in the October 8, 2010 issue of Science, Dr. Terry C. Hazen and his colleagues observed precisely that effect, claiming that an oil plume dispersed in the deep sea stimulated the growth of Proteobacteria within the plume. Even better, they found that the dispersed oil in the plume sample was biodegrading at a faster rate than non-dispersed oil in control samples. The study supported, then, the application of Corexit: dispersed oil appeared to biodegrade more quickly than undispersed oil.

Other scientists, though, were quick to refute Dr. Hazen’s study. In the same edition of Science in which Hazen’s team published their article, Dr. Richard Camilli and his colleagues analyzed water samples pulled from the same deep sea oil plume and found little evidence of biodegradation. Instead, they suggested that Dr. Hazen’s oxygen analysis was corrupted by an instrument contamination error. Dr. David L. Valentine, a professor of microbial geochemistry at UC Santa Barbara said that microbes’ ability to biodegrade oil “have been grossly overstated.”

According to Dr. Mandy Joye’s research, the oil does not appear to be biodegrading quickly. In order for microbacteria to bloom and consume vast patches of oil, says Joye, they need to be able to feast on increased quantities of all their life-sustaining nutrients, not merely the carbon oil provides. If just one of these limiting nutrients is absent, the microbial population will not grow, and dispersed oil won’t biodegrade any faster than undispersed oil. This nutrient limitation may be preventing the Gulf’s bacteria from fulfilling their oil-consuming potential.

While the oil’s fate remains uncertain, the dispersants are clearly lingering. In November 2010 Dr. Elizabeth Kujawinski, a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, announced that, while the Corexit injected into the deep sea had been diluted, it had “resisted rapid biodegradation.” “We don’t know if the dispersants broke up the oil,” she said. “We (also) found that (Corexit) didn’t go away, and that was somewhat surprising.” Dr. Kujawinski identified DOSS in her water samples, which is one of the compounds that caused health problems in the workers that cleaned up the Exxon Valdez spill. Clearly, Nalco’s claim that Corexit biodegrades completely in 28 days is false.

In contrast to the lingering dispersed oil, crude that floats on surface waters evaporates quickly: up to 50% of a Louisiana Sweet Crude slick will evaporate within two days of prolonged exposure to air. Given that dispersed oil could stay entrained in the Gulf’s water column for years or decades, allowing the oil to surface, and so evaporate, may have been the better risk management decision.


Because the BP oil spill was the largest in US history, and took place at precisely the frontier of future deep water drilling, BP’s cleanup strategy will likely set the precedent for future spills. “Industry will want to draw the conclusion that dispersants should be used all the time, at the wellhead, based on how well they worked,” says a distraught Jackson. “And I am personally not there” – meaning that she has not drawn the same conclusion. Jackson fears that if industry, scientists, and the media conclude that using dispersants succeeded, those parties will advocate for massive dispersant use in future spills.

And future spills will happen. Despite the passage of the Oil Pollution Act in 1990, approximately three million gallons of oil spill into US waters each year. Even when accounting for increased oil production, the average number of annual spills greater that two million gallons increased 500% from 1970 to 2009. Since spills are bound to occur, investment in clean up technology is imperative.

Just as it did following the Exxon Valdez spill, funding for cleanup research has surged since the Deepwater Horizon. The National Science Foundation has awarded $19 million to organizations requesting funding, and, in a display of either contrition or masterful public relations, BP’s Gulf Research Initiative has already granted $50 million to Gulf Coast universities and institutes, and promises to spend another $450 million over the next ten years. Other agencies, such as the EPA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, will also fund research and development projects.

Still, the attractive and seemingly non-partisan cry for more research will not, by itself, resolve the problem of inadequate spill response technology. The only federal money available for oil spill research comes from the annually allocated Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which contains zero dedicated funding for dispersant research. Much of that fund is dedicated to the Coast Guard’s annual operating costs, making it even less likely that dispersant research will receive its due.

Since there is no guarantee that money will be spent on cleanup development, mandatory Congressional funding may be needed. After the Exxon Valdez spill, research funding initially increased for five years, and then decreased steadily over time. In the 1990s, deep-water drilling and oil production technology became more sophisticated, and complacency reigned at the EPA and MMS. Even as drilling innovation erupted, cleanup technology remained in the dark ages. The results of this discrepancy were clear during the BP spill. “There wasn’t any routine training going on,” explains Frances Beinecke; and so, when the spill began, “Everyone was scrambling to figure out what was going on.” The knowledge that spill respondents had gained during the Exxon Valdez was nowhere on display.

Congressional funding for oil spill research and development still remains paltry. Since 1995, Congress’ total relevant allocations have amounted to between six and seven million annually, not nearly enough to combat complex, high-volume spills. “The engineering sophistication required of deep water drilling blows my mind,” says Rota. But where is the equally sophisticated spill response? “We’re using booms and burning?” Rota scoffs. “It’s ludicrous.” Nancy Kinner’s Coastal Response Research Center complained in September 2010 that only 25% of their requested $40 million for research had been funded. The National Oil Spill Commission, established by an executive order from President Obama in 2010, unanimously agreed that oil spill research funding should be mandatory and at least equal to the amount allowed under the Oil Pollution Act, but their recommendation has yet to receive any serious Congressional attention.

While the United States is hardly unique in its inability to manage oil spills, it does lag behind many nations. “We thought, oh, it’s the US, we must be operating at the very highest standards,” Beinecke says, reflecting on the start of her tenure with the Spill Commission. “But that turned out not to be true.” When BP operates in the UK and Norway, the company adheres to higher standards than when it drills in the Gulf of Mexico. Requiring better safety performance from its oil industry is vital to prevent future spills and all the negative outcomes that attend them.


Today, I wonder whether dolphins could put on the same spectacular displays as they did during my trip through the Yucatan Straits. Since the spill there have been 627 cetacean strandings on Gulf beaches and a fourfold increase in monthly dolphin mortalities, up to 22.3 per month. Though scientists had warned of an “Unusual Mortality Event” for the Gulf’s cetaceans even before the spill, 85% of these strange deaths have happened after the spill: long enough for the effects of the oil to ripple up through the food chain. Scientists still can’t conclusively determine causation, but these numbers clearly imply a disturbance to the Gulf ecosystem.

I fear that the oil-engorged worms and pallid sea stars that Dr. Joye observed near the broken Macondo wellhead will become the norm in the Gulf of Mexico. If the US continues to allow loosely regulated drilling to dictate the Gulf’s future, plankton, larvae, and other marine animals will eventually lose their ability to survive major ecosystem disturbances. In response to the spill, BP fabricated a new emergency well cap. With ideal installation in ideal conditions, BP now needs seven days to cover a leaking well. “That doesn’t give me much satisfaction,” says Rota. “I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re going to do better next time.” And if we fail to do better next time, we will have given oil industry giants permission to poison US waters once again.


Editor’s note: The second paragraph from bottom has been corrected to reflect the actual number of dolphin strandings since June 3, 2012. The previous version of the article claimed that 22 total dolphin strandings had occurred since the oil spill – in fact, 22 strandings had occurred per month. All mistakes lie with the editors. Thanks to reader Darlene Eschete for bringing this error to Sage’s attention.

Sandy Aylesworth

Sandy Aylesworth is a first-year Masters student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She came to F&ES after nine years working as a mate and captain on educational sailing voyages in French Polynesia, Hawaii, Baja, the Caribbean, Maine, and Florida Bay. She holds a 500 Ton Ocean Master captain's license. Her work at F&ES focuses on oil spill response, shipping efficiency, and Marine Protected Areas.

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  1. very thorough, well-written but deeply disturbing article. one comment re: the figures in paragraph 8… $2.54/pound for gulf seafood landings seems surprisingly low.

  2. Helen Williams says:

    Really enjoyed your article! Thanks!

  3. Jean Cushman says:

    Thank you Sandy for the well written truth. It was painful to read but I hope that it gets into a lot of people’s hands. I will do my best.


  4. howard berkowitz says:

    Beautifully done, Sandy!

  5. Rachel Waranch says:

    Brilliant article and beautifully written.

  6. Margo Mosher says:

    Fantastic article, Sandy!

  7. Jane Shepherd says:

    I hope you have sent this excellent article to the pres. and everyone else–How about 60 minutes???

  8. Patrick Loy says:

    Congratulations, Sandy, on such a well-written, important contribution to our understanding of the impending ecological crisis. Keep up the good work!


  9. Cairenn Day says:

    I will disagree with those that feel that this is an excellent article. It is full of misinformation and in accuracies.

    Let me pick on a few. ‘Never mind that Nalco’s entire Corexit line was banned in the UK for the harm it does to marine life.’;

    Incorrect, Corexit is banned in the UK for use on rocky coasts, not because it is toxic, but because it prevent limpets from attaching to rocks. Good research would have found that information

    Now this statement ‘after the cleanup, Valdez response workers observed blood in their urine and were later diagnosed with kidney and liver disorders. ‘ Now for the facts, Corexit was only used on one island. I have looked and looked for the report on those workers. I have been unable to find any that linked any health problems to the use of Corexit. There were some in the workers that used hot water to clean oil off of rocks. The story about all the dead and dying workers seems to have come from an unpublished telephone survey of less than 70 workers, done by a student at Yale in the early 2000’s. There were never any comprehensive follow ups on the workers, since there was not a good list of them kept.

    Here is another one ” Dr. Kujawinski identified DOSS in her water samples, which is one of the compounds that caused health problems in the workers that cleaned up the Exxon Valdez spill. Clearly, Nalco’s claim that Corexit biodegrades completely in 28 days is false.”

    This also has the Valdez problem and then it implies that DOSS is some very toxic chemical—it is found in medicines and cosmetics, including infant stool softners.

    We do have a good example of the long term effect of an oil spill in the Gulf. We can look at the Ixtoc blow out of 1979. While not as big as the BP blowout, it lasted much longer, over 10 months. The oil reached most of the Gulf coast from just south of Corpus Christi to the Yucatan. Almost as much Corexit was used on it, but it was all used on the surface

    I do not work for any oil company, or any company associated with one. I have no personal ties to BP or Nalco, in fact I am a self employed artist. However, I have a college background in physics/geology with a lot of other science courses.

    I have spent many hours doing research on this.

    Cairenn Day
    alum of the
    University of Texas at Dallas

  10. Ann-Michele Gundlach says:

    Powerful piece of writing. Thank you. You’ve done a fine job calling into question our attention span for this kind of disaster. I agree with Jane — send this on to 60 Minutes.

  11. Darlene Eschete says:

    Very thorough article which is well-written and an easy, but long read. I did notice however, that your number of 22 dolphins stranded in 18 months since the oil spill is inaccurate. According to NOAA at the link below 139 dolphins were stranded in 2010 alone including 38 prior to the oil spill.
    “The average annual number of dolphin strandings in Louisiana from 2002-2009 was 20. For the entire year in 2010, there were 139 strandings in Louisiana, including 48 strandings prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Although the stranding rate fluctuated across months, the overall rate has remained elevated and there were more strandings in 2011 than in 2010 (2011 had 159 strandings in Louisiana, almost 8 times the 2002-2009 historical average).
    Dolphin strandings have also remained elevated in Mississippi and Alabama in 2010 and 2011. Strandings in 2011 for Mississippi and Alabama were 5 times and 4 times the 2002-2009 historical average respectively.”

    I hope you are able to edit/correct this information.

    Thank you!

    • SageMagazineEditor says:


      Thank you for bringing this mistake to our attention. As you rightly point out, far more than 22 dolphins have stranded since the spill –– rather, 22 dolphins have stranded *per month*. The author, Sandy Aylesworth, had the facts 100% correct in her original version of the article; the mistake is entirely the editor’s responsibility. The piece has been updated to reflect the correct information. We regret the error, and we send you our profound thanks for catching it. Thanks, too, for reading Sage Magazine!

      Best wishes,

      The Editors

  12. Helpful information. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident, and I am stunned why this coincidence didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

  13. Pingback: BP spill settlement talks stall as U.S. demands $18 billion - News and Current Events

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