The recent events associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill seem to be in need of a bit of explanation. What we the public have been told is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie. We are facing the worst environmental disaster in the history of this country. Never before have so many been affected by a single point source event. To help understand the implications of this mess I offer a few observations.
What Exactly Happened at Deepwater Horizon?
Oil is a significant hazardous material. The Federal EPA guidelines state that oil in water in excess of 10 parts per million (ppm) is hazardous. To put this in perspective 1 ppm is about 30 seconds out of a year. It does not take much oil to create a hazardous situation. What we are currently looking at is a massive amount of fuel oil in an almost 100 percent concentration.
How this spill is being handled is a bit mind blowing. First, it is required by Federal law that the oil company (BP) prepare and submit a spill containment and control plan before even contemplating a drilling project. This would include all contingencies, including a massive failure such as what happened with the Deepwater Horizon rig. The countermeasures would be put into action immediately and then clean-up could begin.
Obviously, this did not happen.
The oil was allowed to continue to pump into the Gulf. It seems the BP’s only strategy was to come up with a way to continue harvesting the oil. The first attempt would have sealed the leak so that they could keep pumping more oil out. When this failed, they tried to insert a straw into the broken pipe so that they could transfer it to a ship. That did not work either. Now we are finally looking to plug the pipe. This should have been done on day one.
Using the principle of the solution to pollution is dilution, BP decided that a dispersant should be applied. The idea was to disperse the oil so that it would result in a safe level of pollution (i.e. <10 ppm). The problem with this idea is that the dispersant is even more toxic than the oil. The EPA guidelines for the dispersant state that levels in excess of 2 ppm are hazardous. To add insult to injury is the fact that a dispersant disperses the oil. The last thing we want to do is disperse the oil. Now the darn stuff is so well dispersed that we in North Carolina are looking to see if it shows up on our beaches.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
I have no political agenda in writing this. However it seems that there is a failure in leadership on many levels. The agency responsible for the protection of our water (EPA) seems to not have a say in what is going on. BP has demonstrated that it has its own agenda: Spend as little money as possible and keep the flow of oil coming.
The implications to the wildlife and coastal ecosystems are horrific. The scientific community has no benchmark to compare this too. The parallels to the Exxon oil spill in Alaska are obvious. However, the rocky coastline of Alaska is very different from the wetlands of the Gulf coast. You can steam clean a rock. How do you clean a marsh?
Of course, BP did have a solution. Lets burn the marshes to the ground. It’s a quick fix. Thankfully, this seems to have been taken of the table for now.
We are now being told that the oil will have to naturally work its way through the ecosystem. That is a complete fallacy. Oil does not naturally exist in the ecosystems of the Gulf Coast. What it will do is kill whatever it comes in contact with. If you want an example of this go visit the oil laden coastal marshes of New Jersey. Many of the marshes along the eastern rivers are devoid of life due to petroleum contamination. We are still waiting for the oil to clean itself up. It’s not happening. The stuff even kills the microbes.
So What Do We Do Now?
So how do you clean a marsh? First, keep as much of the oil out as possible. This is done by not dispersing, but rather concentrating the slick using booms and other physical barriers and then harvest the oil. There are a number of new textile technologies that could be put into play. Second, put people on the shoreline to manually harvest the oil that gets past the barriers. Oil does float and it can be scooped up. This will require many people, but last time I checked there are bunches of folks looking for work.
If the oil does get into the marsh this presents huge problems. But, not insurmountable ones, just expensive. I have been doing marsh restoration projects for nearly 25 years. I have pulled PCB’s out of marshes, as well as all kinds of fun heavy metals and organics. We know how to do this. It is not quick, but it is effective. Quite frankly, unemployment in the wetlands business should be a thing of the past.
The scientific and engineering community have a lot to offer in solving this problem. What we need now is leadership to take charge of the cleanup and restoration effort. There is a cost for further delays. We need to address the fact that this thing is not a quick fix and that it needs to be fixed. At this point it is not clear that this is even agreed upon. The focus has been on the “pipe cam” and not what the oil is doing to the ecosystem. BP plug the darn pipe and let us see those clean-up contracts get people back to work.
Marc Seelinger of the Swamp School is a Professional Wetland Scientist, certified by the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS), and is recognized as a Certified Wetland Delineator by the Baltimore District US Army Corps of Engineers. This post first appeared on B Lab, the blog of the B Corporation community. He has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments and provided consultation for major municipal watershed planning projects throughout the U.S.