The government’s happy face on the oil spill

This week the Administration revealed that its new approach to managing the PR disaster of the Deepwater Horizon explosion is to put a happy face on their efforts to clean up the spill.

On Monday the EPA released the second of its two reports analyzing the toxicity of eight oil dispersants, dated July 31. The first report was dated July 30. In both reports each of eight different chemical dispersants were tested, including the one BP used. In the first report the “toxicity” of the dispersants were tested on two species: (1) the mysid shrimp, Americamysis bahia, an aquatic invertebrate, and (2) the inland silverside, Menidia beryllina, a small estuarine fish. The explanation offered for the limited testing is that these are “standard test organisms used in toxicity tests for a variety of pollutants.” It also performed in vitro cytotoxicity and endocrine screening assays using human cell lines. The result of the tests in the first report were (1) 7 of the 8 dispersants tested showed no to slight toxicty to the two species; one was moderately toxic. JD-2000 and Corexit 9500 (the dispersant BP used) were generally less toxic to small fish and JD-2000 and SAF-RON GOLD were least toxic to mysid shrimp. As for the in vitro tests, cytotoxicity was found “only” at levels above 10 parts per million. (To measure that concentrate you would need to know how much the dispersants weighed. But if they had the mass of water, 10 ppm would be 1 teaspoon in 264 gallons. I suspect workers are exposed to that concentration regularly.)

The second report compares how toxic these substances are compared to the oil itself. The report concludes that the dispersant BP used  (Corexit 9500A) is generally no more or less toxic than “the other available alternatives.” Again the same two species were used for testing toxicity.  Here’s how the EPA summarizes the results:

“The results indicate that for all eight dispersants in both test species, the dispersants alone were less toxic than the dispersant-oil mixture. Oil alone was found to be more toxic to mysid shrimp than the eight dispersants when tested alone. Oil alone had similar toxicity to mysid shrimp as the dispersant-oil mixtures, with exception of the mixture of Nokomis 3-AA and oil, which was found to be more toxic.”

None of this shows whether there is any benefit to the use of dispersants other than visual. Nor does it discuss whether the atomized (so to speak) oil poses a greater risk to other systems (lower ocean, beaches, estuary) than crude oil in water. Nor does it address whether the dispersed oil has physical properties that make it more damaging—such as by being able to be dispersed to farther areas or in currents. In fact, all it shows is that it met the simplest form of “safety” test—one that one would have expected to have been done before the permission was granted. The public is owed more than this.

“What Happened To the Oil?”

The second publication is the Gulf “oil budget.” This is simply a flier with a pie chart, the kind that usually is shown to mid-level managers to fill up their day and show that someone higher up is paying attention. The National Incident Command compiled the “data” for this chart using the estimate that 4.9 million barrels (nearly a quarter of a billion gallons) released. Although the chart looks somewhat hokey, the government release at its “Restore the Gulf” website says: “More than 25 of the best government and independent scientists contributed to or reviewed the calculator and its calculation methods.” I guess we should be re-assured.

The New York Times today interviewed a number of what the National Incident Command must consider to be second tier scientists, because they are skeptical of the chart. The scientists it interviewed seemed to agree with the volume of oil released. I’m not sure how they can have a high degree of confidence of that. At the early stages of the disaster there did not seem to be a method in place to monitor the spill and the amount being discharged seemed to vary (increasingly higher) as time went by—and for a long time.

The scientists’ real concern, however, was the characterization. The “dispersed” amount has really not disappeared; it’s still in the ocean and still potentially lethal (perhaps more so because more widely dispersed). Others questioned how an accurate number could be placed on the quantity “burned.”

I’m not sure what “naturally dispersed” accounts for, perhaps oil that has gone to the bottom of the ocean or into estuaries or under beaches. In any event, a more accurate description of this category is probably “not currently accounted for.” The 25% called “evaporated or dissolved” appears to be another garbage can. Evaporated is entirely different from dissolved. And dissolved is certainly not a “hopeful” category.

In fact, all the chart does is try to show that the government has some idea what is going on. The pie chart gives the impression of more accuracy than they really have.

It’s also a sign that the I’m-mad-as-hell Obama really didn’t work out. Let’s hope that the new approach is not “Mission Accomplished.”

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  1. It is pathetic isn’t it. Thank you for posting~

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