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The Poisoning

Page 3 of 6

The Deepwater Horizon Incident Command Post – the regional headquarters where BP, the Coast Guard and various state and federal agencies are running the cleanup operation – is a pretty spiffy place on the edge of the bayou in Houma, Louisiana. Until the blowout on April 20th, the building was used as a training center by BP – it's bright and airy, the walls decorated with stylized images of pelicans and marsh grass. Some 1,000 people show up here to work every day, eating three meals a day in the cafeteria and monitoring the spill on giant screens, tracking ships and airplanes and skimmers, as well as the tides and the oncoming weather. "It's a little like the control room for Apollo 13 in here every day," says Mike Ziccardi, a wildlife veterinarian from California who is heading the efforts to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles and marine mammals.

Each day, the command center reviews a single fact sheet called "Operations and Ongoing Response." The numbers are a kind of simple, one-sheet accounting of the spill. The first day I visit – Day 65 – the sheet boasts of a cleanup response of unprecedented proportions: 94 airplanes, 6,210 ships, more than 35,000 people, 2.6 million feet of boom. More people are involved in the cleanup than live in most small towns, and the fleet of vessels trying to cap and clean up the spill is more than 20 times larger than the U.S. Navy. "We are fighting the oil at every front," says James Black, deputy chief of operations at the command center. "At sea, on the beaches, in the bays. This is an all-out war." 

But the command center's daily tally conveniently omits the most telling number of all: the monstrous size of the spill. Since it began, the BP blowout has flooded the Gulf with the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every four days. A third of the fishing waters in the Gulf – more than 80,000 square miles – have already been closed. Estimates of the total amount of oil dumped into the Gulf so far range as high as 4 million barrels. Put into gallon jugs, the oil would line the entire 1,680 miles of the Gulf Coast – 19 times over. It is the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters, and by the time it is sealed for good, it could turn out to be the largest offshore spill in history.

From an environmental standpoint, the BP blowout could not have occurred in a worse place. The warm currents of the Gulf make it one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, home to 1,200 species of fish, five species of endangered sea turtles, scores of mammals like bottlenose dolphins and millions of migratory birds. Even worse, the spill took place in "biological spring," the moment when the entire Gulf comes to life – the migratory birds returning to nest, the sperm whales nudging along the edge of the continental shelf, the bluefin tuna laying their eggs, the pelican eggs cracking open in the rookeries. In the first three months alone, the spill has killed 1,978 birds, 463 sea turtles and 59 marine mammals – and that's just the official tally.

"No list can ever do justice to what's happening in the Gulf," says Doug Inkley, a senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation. "The birds that get sick and die in the wetlands will never be found. And there are so many things we are not counting. Who is out there counting the mortality among deepwater squid, which are important to the survival of sperm whales? Who is out there counting the impact on plankton, which are key to the Gulf's food chain?"

The true scope of the catastrophe is best viewed from the air. Flying out to sea, just a few miles offshore from the mouth of the Mississippi River, it's easy to see how the oil and gas industries have systematically ravaged the Gulf Coast over the past 75 years. The wetlands and marshes are sliced by canals and pipelines, eroding the barrier islands and making the region more vulnerable to storms. Every 38 minutes, a patch of wetland the size of a football field vanishes under the weight of energy development. All told, some 2,300 square miles of coastal land have been lost in Louisiana since the 1930s. Runoff from fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers has also had a devastating impact, creating an oxygen-starved dead zone in the Gulf the size of New Jersey.

But the damage done by decades of development is being rapidly accelerated by the catastrophic nature of the BP spill. Viewed from the sky, streaks of oil appear not far from the swampy coast – black stripes in the water, 50 or 100 feet wide, stretching out across the bays and inlets. Farther out, the streaks get wider and nastier – some of them brown, some of them gold, some of them caught in riptides, turned into a thick, orange goop floating on the surface. It is not one slick but many – great sheets of oil covering 35,000 acres of water at a time, according to the Coast Guard.

Here and there, bobbing about like tiny insects trapped in the oil slick, are boats pulling what look like loops of rope off each side – skimmers. The skimmers are supposed to operate as giant sponges, soaking up the oil. But from the air, it is obvious what a colossal failure the skimming operation has been. In its pre-spill response plan, BP claimed to have a skimming capacity of some 500,000 barrels a day – more than enough to soak up a worst-case spill like the one in the Gulf. But in fact, like almost everything else in BP's response plan, that claim proved to be hollow. By early July, BP had skimmed only 67,000 barrels out of the water – roughly the amount that is blowing out of the well each day. All the sophisticated technology in the company's command center, it turns out, means nothing against the vast tide of oil that is blasting out of the bottom of the sea.

"The technology and hardware that are deployed all look impressive at first glance," says Rick Steiner, a marine scientist who played a central role in the cleanup effort after the Exxon Valdez. "But none of it really works very well. In fact, it is all theater."  

The Macondo Reservoir, which BP was tapping into when the blowout occurred, is estimated to hold up to 500 million barrels. The reservoir is not particularly large by industry standards: It contains about as much oil as Americans consume in a month. But because Macondo has a high permeability – a measure of how mobile the oil is within the rocks that contain it – the blowout was "like uncorking a volcano," says Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

According to BP's response plan, mandated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a disaster of this magnitude was a virtual impossibility. The plan was a 582-page joke, filled with boilerplate instructions, bureaucratic forms and a total lack of preparation for anything like a blowout of this scale and complexity. More important, in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez, the oil industry has invested billions of dollars to develop new ways to access oil – multidirectional drilling, sophisticated imaging systems to locate reservoirs – but very little to improve the technology needed to clean it up. "The tools we have today aren't substantially different than the tools we had 20 years ago," concedes Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who is commanding the cleanup operation.

When it comes to dealing with oil on the water, there are really only three options: skim it up, burn it off or use a chemical agent to disperse it. "Each tool has trade-offs," says Allen. Skimming the oil off the surface of the water is by far the safest and least damaging option, but the technology is cumbersome and expensive. It takes time to get the equipment deployed, and you need good weather. Even under ideal conditions, a big skimmer soaks up only a few thousand barrels of oil a day; you would need a whole fleet in operation to capture the tens of thousands of barrels blowing out into the Gulf every day. But there was no fleet of skimmers in the Gulf – at least not one that could be launched quickly.

That left burning the oil or dispersing it. "In situ burning," as it is called by the industry, can be an effective way to get oil out of the water, but it's an environmental nightmare, polluting the air and sending a lot of heavy residue to the seafloor. It's also dangerous, especially in open water, where workers have few resources on hand should a fire burn out of control. "Until this spill, no one had ever done offshore burning of this magnitude in the history of this country," Allen says. Although BP initially planned for burning, it would be more than a week after the spill before the conditions were right for major burns. So the company, in a move that only served to worsen the environmental nightmare unfolding in the Gulf, decided to rely on dispersing.

Chemical dispersants work in a similar way to dishwashing detergent, causing the oil to break up into smaller droplets and moving it from the ocean surface down into the waters below. In theory, those droplets make it easier for bacteria and other natural processes to digest the oil. Many dispersants are made from petroleum byproducts: The dispersant that was stockpiled around the Gulf, which is sold under the trade name Corexit, was developed by Exxon in the 1970s. Dispersants, which can be sprayed from ships or planes, are quick and easy to apply – they are often used to break up small spills near land, where they can help keep oil from hitting fragile shorelines. But dispersants are full of chemical compounds, some of them toxic to humans and animals. One variety used heavily in the early days of the spill, Corexit 9527, contains an agent called 2-butoxyethanol, known to cause internal bleeding and kidney damage. For this reason, dispersants should never have been the primary tool to respond to an oil spill like the BP disaster.

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