Cashing in on Disaster
Oil Spills Are Big BusinessAs oil continues to flow unabated from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico at what’s estimated to be a rate of at least 210,000 gallons a day, a suite of extraordinary measures are being deployed to both staunch and mitigate the underwater gusher. While much attention has been paid to BP’s efforts to build an oil collection dome and drill a relief well (estimated to take 90 days to complete), far less has been said about the chemical solution being undertaken.
According to the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, to date some 160,000 gallons of chemical dispersant—a chemical formulated to physically break up and disperse oil in and on water—have been deployed. The dispersant is being sprayed aerially from U.S. Air Force C-130 fixed wing aircraft, and, in a new technique designed to break up oil before it reaches the surface, dispersant is also being dispensed from a remotely operated underwater vehicle some 5,000 feet below the surface at a rate of nine gallons per minute. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this new technique “will require further monitoring to tell whether the sub-sea dispersants are having an effect and further analysis to ensure effects in the water column are not worse than those from oil.”
So, to deal with the failure of one advanced technology with unforeseen ramifications, another new technology with unknown risks is being deployed. And the solution comes from a company with ties to at least one major oil corporation.
As chemicals designed to combat a powerful pollutant, the oil dispersants themselves—and the dispersing oil droplets—can be toxic to marine organisms. The investigative website ProPublica reported that “The dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own and can concentrate leftover oil toxins in the water, where they can kill fish and migrate great distances.” They may also pose occupational hazards.
The dispersants currently being deployed in the Gulf were described at a May 4 press briefing as “fairly non-toxic.” But the material safety data sheets supplied by the manufacturer indicate both exposure hazards for workers handling the chemicals and toxicity to fish and aquatic invertebrates, for some at as little as 20 parts per million.
The dispersants are manufactured by a company called Nalco with ties to at least one large oil company. Sold under the trade names Corexit 9500A and Corexit (R) EC9527A, the dispersants are proprietary mixtures of organic sulfonic acid salts, propylene glycol, and various solvents, themselves petroleum-based.
While not a household name, Nalco’s reach extends far beyond its headquarters in Naperville, Illinois. Established in 1928 by two Illinois chemical companies with expertise in industrial water treatment, Nalco now works in more than 130 countries. In 1994, Nalco merged with Exxon Chemical and in 2001 it became part of Suez Lyonnais des Eaux. In 2003, Nalco was acquired by The Blackstone Group, Apollo Management L.P., and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners. Nalco board members are affiliated with similarly powerful corporations, among them DuPont, Eli Lilly, Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, and Monsanto.
“To date, sales related to these dispersants have not had a material financial impact on our company,” said Nalco Chairman and CEO Erik Fyrwald in a press statement. “But it is impossible to predict at this time how long this incident will last or the magnitude of the overall response needed.” Some 230,000 additional gallons of dispersant are now available and more may be needed. This week Nalco stock prices rose to their highest level since 2007.
Officials are struggling with a delicate balance of risks and trade-offs.
“What we’re looking at is a lot of new ground. Most spills are on the surface, not 5000 feet underwater,” said Charlie Henry NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator, speaking from a JIC headquarters in Hammond, Louisiana Tuesday night. “I can’t say what the time-line is yet,” said Henry about further underwater deployment of dispersant. “As far as I’m concerned it’s still in the test phase. That’s part of the reason I’m still here now.”
As Henry put it, “An oil spill is bad and we have to mitigate it as quickly as possible. So it’s a question of trade-offs. You need to look at the risks to the far off shore environment (where the dispersants are being deployed) versus those of the near shore estuarine, nursery environments.”
The off shore open ocean environment will have faster recovery than the near shore environment, which is ecologically very sensitive, he explained.
“It’s never good to add any new chemicals to the environment,” said Chris Reddy, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Coastal Ocean Institute. But he too points to benefits and risks. Both he and Jackie Savitz, senior scientist at Oceana, a non-profit marine advocacy organization, point out that it will take time to understand any adverse impacts of dispersants. “There will be long term effects to the ecosystem,” says Savitz, “but they will only be observable years from now.” But, she cautions, for two weeks now unchecked oil spill has been impacting important spawning grounds for bluefin tuna as well as habitat vital to four species of endangered sea turtles, shell fish and the invertebrates that are the base of the marine food web. “It’s spawning season now,” Savitz explains, and larval fish are very vulnerable to contaminants.
Dispersants are used to create oil particles small enough to be eaten by bacteria. Whether conditions in the Gulf – already plagued by excessive algal blooms and low oxygen, which combine to create a massive dead zone – will allow for natural processes that hasten oil dispersion remains to be seen, as do the biochemical impacts of oil droplets and the dispersants. Corals, important to Gulf of Mexico fish spawning, are particularly vulnerable. Recent research also indicates chemicals present in dissolved oil are toxic to fish embryos. And for every known negative effect of dispersant use and the resulting oil droplets, there are many unknowns associated with deepwater dispersant use.
Given the toxicity concerns, one might wonder how these particular dispersants were chosen as the default solution for ocean oil spills. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed largely in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster, the EPA maintains a list (National Contingency Plan Product Schedule - NCP) of dispersants and other measures officially deemed effective to control and clean oil spills. The Corexit products being used in the Gulf are on the list, and according to NOAA are among the most studied — and stockpiled — dispersants.
Who stockpiles and chooses the dispersants? The oil companies, in this case BP. Who submits new products to the NCP? Their manufacturers, in this case Nalco, which earned over $4 billion in 2008 and describes itself as the “world’s leading water treatment and process improvement services company.”
Oil spills, it turns out, are big business.Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, Watershed: The Undamming of America, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, Earth Island Journal, and other publications.
This piece first appeared in the Earth Island Journal blog.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, via Earth Island Institute.