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The Poisoning

It’s the biggest environmental disaster in American history — and BP is making it worse


On July 15th, just as this article was going to press, BP lowered a 75-ton cap over the damaged wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico and closed — at least temporarily — the gushing hellmouth of oil. How long that cap will hold is not clear. At the moment, BP and government scientists are trying to determine whether the structure of the well itself was damaged by the blowout, and, if it was, whether oil and gas could be leaking through other parts of the well, or even through the sea floor itself. Depending on the integrity of the well, the gusher could be permanently capped in a matter of weeks; or there could be oil flowing into the Gulf again tomorrow. “This is an extremely unstable situation,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal response to the clean-up, told me on the day the cap was lowered into place.

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Capping the well, even temporarily, is welcome progress, but it is not the end of the story. Since the blowout in late April, up to four million barrels of oil and nearly two million gallons of toxic dispersants have been dumped into the Gulf. The clean-up operation will continue for months, but it’s mostly PR — only a small fraction of the oil will actually be removed. More important, no one has a clue yet what the longer-term effects of this catastrophe will be: how many dead dolphins will wash up on the beaches, how many local residents will lose their livelihoods, how the complex ecosystem of the Gulf will be altered, or, indeed, what the political fallout will be for the Obama administration. Sorting all that out is a much larger story, and right now, it is just beginning.

— Jeff Goodell, July 21st, 2010

This article appeared in the August 5, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Day 68. That’s all the sign says on the wall of the Starfish Restaurant in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Everyone knows what it means: 68 days since the blowout, 68 days of oil gushing out at the rate of 30,000, 40,000, 60,000 barrels a day. Who knows for sure? Nobody trusts BP’s numbers. When it comes to the spill, Grand Isle is ground zero. Everyone here has seen the live pictures of the gushing wellhead, the hellish brown geyser a mile deep out in the Gulf. They have smelled the oil, touched it, walked in it, and they know more is out there, coming in with a shift of the wind and tides, killing the shrimp, coating the birds, scaring away tourists. The days tick by, the oil keeps coming. Day 68. On the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon blowout was the environmental equivalent of September 11th, an event so significant that it rearranges time itself.

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Around here, the biggest fear is what happens now that hurricane season has arrived. In the restaurant, diners glance up at the TV, tuned to the Weather Channel, where tropical storms swirl. They have been through them all – Katrina, Gustav, Ike. Each time, they rebuilt. But this time is different. “If a hurricane gets us now,” says Jeannine Braud, a waitress at the Starfish, “it will be all over. We will not recover. There will be oil and chemicals and a toxic mess everywhere. It will be the end of this place. It will be an apocalypse.”

The Vanishing Ice Sheets

It would be tempting to dismiss such sentiments as the unfounded fears of a local resident, one whose economic livelihood depends on the Gulf, if it weren’t for all that we know about the nature of oil spills. Crude oil contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemical compounds, many of which are lethal in high concentrations. As soon as oil began erupting out of BP’s well and into the water, the compounds in the oil began to separate, some drifting up to the surface, others remaining near the bottom, where they will inevitably spread a toxic brew into the cellular structure of virtually every plant and animal in the Gulf, from microscopic plankton all the way up to sperm whales. Even worse, BP has responded to the disaster by pumping nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf in an effort to break up the oil into smaller, camera-friendly slicks. The cleanup operation, in effect, has turned the Gulf into a vast science experiment, one whose consequences – untested and unforeseeable – are likely to haunt the planet for decades to come.

After lunch at the Starfish, I drive a mile or so down the road. Grand Isle is a thin spit of land on the edge of the bayou. It’s a place known for sport fishing – the annual tarpon festival draws thousands of people each year. The houses along the road all back up to the beach, and they are built on 15-foot stilts so the water can rush under them. In the early days of the spill, the sand dunes here were jammed with reporters from the major networks, all of them strolling along, picking up oil-covered bottles and rocks in lame attempts to help viewers understand the enormity of the tragedy. President Obama visited Grand Isle in late May, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has swung through here repeatedly. On the worst days, the oil flowed up on the beaches in ribbons, sticking to the sand like big black cobwebs. The smell was bad, too – a heavy, metallic, stomach-churning odor of volatilizing chemicals, of benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It was the smell of cancer.

Today – Day 68 – the smell remains. A red fence has been erected along the beach, accompanied by a string of yellow crime-scene tape that reads no admittance. A few shrimp boats, their booms lowered to collect oil, bob out in the distance. The beach is paved with the heavy footprint of vehicle tracks. A few hundred yards away, there’s a big white tent pitched on the sand. Workers are lifting plastic bags into a Dumpster – the last of the oil they have sopped up from the beach. Rumors around Grand Isle are that BP is using tents like these to cover up environmental horrors beyond anything that has been reported. One local resident tells me that he has it on good authority that BP is shredding sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins at sea, then bringing them to shore and disposing of their remains. Impossible to imagine, but who knows? “You should never put the murderer in charge of the crime scene,” says Carl Safina, a noted ecologist who has spent a lot of time in the Gulf observing the cleanup. “Their impulse is always to hide the body.”

I walk up to a security guard, who is stationed under a small tent on a sand dune. He is about 30, works for Talon Security, a BP subcontractor. He looks sour and angry. He won’t reveal his name. But we start talking. He tells me he’s from California and that he is only out here because he has a new wife and baby, and needs a few extra bucks. So he stands out on the beach all day – different beaches on different days – and makes sure tourists and sightseers and reporters don’t get too close.

I ask him how long he’s been here. “Since Day 12,” he says. “It depresses the shit out of me. I never thought I’d see something like this happen in my lifetime.”

“It doesn’t look so bad today,” I say.

“Have you touched the water?”

“Not here.”

We walk down to the beach, put our hands in the surf. “Feel that?” he says.

I raise my hand. It’s sticky, coated with a thin film of . . . something.

“Oil,” he says. “It’s everywhere.”

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.

But with the Deepwater Horizon, they were. The day after the rig sank, BP sprayed 1,900 gallons of Corexit on the site. Within a week, it was dropping tens of thousands of gallons out of airplanes. Because the use of dispersants had been preapproved in BP’s response plan, there was little oversight provided by federal health or safety agencies. As long as the chemicals were applied according to certain conditions – sprayed at least three miles off shore and in water at least 30 feet deep – there were no limits to how much could be used.

In the first weeks, BP discovered that dispersants did indeed help break up the oil slicks and drive the oil down into the water. But the chemicals also had another, more disturbing effect: They made the skimmers less effective. The best technology – known as an oleophilic, or oil-attracting, skimmer – uses mops or other absorbent materials to blot the oil out of the water. “Normally, the oleophilic skimmers should have been the backbone of our operation,” says Mark Ploen, BP’s offshore operations section chief at the command center. “But with all the dispersants being used, we found that less oil was sticking to the skimmers, and they were far less effective.”

That meant the biggest skimmers in the Gulf, including a 174-foot-long, high-volume skimmer known as the HOSS barge, were of little use in the spill. It also meant that BP had to rely on a technology known as weir skimmers, which are placed just below the surface of the water, drawing both oil and water into a sump. But weir skimmers work best in thick, heavy oil spills; in the Gulf, where the oil was rising up from the seafloor and spreading out into a thin sheen, weir skimmers often picked up far more water than oil, making them troublesome and ineffective. By early July, with the cleanup effort undercut by chemical dispersants, BP was skimming up less than 1,000 barrels of oil a day.

But instead of dialing back on dispersants and deploying more skimmers, BP decided to wage chemical warfare in the Gulf. Within three weeks of the blowout, the company had dumped 300,000 gallons of Corexit into the ocean. By mid-July, the total had surpassed 1.8 million gallons. BP argued that dispersing the spill reduced the number of brown pelicans and sea turtles coated in oil, and prevented it from reaching fragile shorelines, where it is difficult to clean and deadly to breeding grounds for shrimp and other sea life. But the chemicals also benefited the company by effectively covering up the spill, breaking it up into thousands of smaller slicks that don’t look so bad on the nightly news. “It’s about PR,” says Steiner, the scientist whose expertise helped contain the Valdez disaster. “It’s about keeping the oil out of sight, and out of the public mind, so fewer people really understand what is happening in the Gulf and get outraged by it.” During the Valdez response, he adds, Corexit earned a telling nickname: “Hides-it.”

Whatever its motives, BP was slow to provide respirators to workers in the Gulf, leaving them exposed to a dangerous combination of oil and chemicals. Many complained of illnesses, headaches, nausea, and BP’s own tests have shown that more than 15 percent of the response workers in the Gulf have been exposed to 2-butoxyethanol. “When oil goes into the water, nothing good happens,” concedes Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral overseeing the cleanup. “It’s always a trade-off to try to minimize consequences.”

Those consequences would be disastrous for the Gulf even if BP had refrained from using dispersants. Crude oil is poison to most living things. To make matters worse, the nasty chemical compounds in crude oil – benzene, toluene and heavy metals – don’t stick together very long. Once oil blows out of a well and begins its hours-long journey to the surface, it undergoes a process that geologists call “fractionation,” the heavier compounds drifting to the bottom of the ocean, the lighter compounds rising toward the surface. Where all these compounds go, and how they interact with living organisms in a complex ecosystem like the Gulf, is one of the great unknowns of oceanography.

One of the central factors in determining how oil moves is the loop current, which swirls around in the center of the Gulf like an underwater conveyor belt, transporting water in and out of the basin in a giant circle. “My initial fear was that this oil was going to get caught up in the loop current and moved right to the pristine beaches of Cuba and the Florida Keys, then up the coast as far north as North Carolina,” says Rader, the chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. But a few weeks after the blowout occurred, an unexpected and fortunate thing happened: A large eddy developed in the Gulf, cutting off the current from the Florida Straits and keeping the oil largely contained in the Gulf itself. “We got lucky,” Rader says.

The cutoff eddy lasted until late June. Now, however, it has separated into two eddies – which means the loop current could begin transporting the oil to more distant regions. But even if the oil remains in the Gulf, its effects on the environment could be felt thousands of miles away. Great migrations of fish visit the Gulf each spring and summer, using the waters as a spawning ground. “If they pass through the oil, billions of larvae and babies will be killed,” says Rader. “It could have a large impact on populations outside the area.”

The oil from the BP spill is not just swirling in the loop current. As it drifts up from the blowout site, it’s also collecting in vast underwater plumes – some of them 10 miles long and three miles wide – composed of fractionated oil and methane. As bacteria begins to devour the oil in the plumes, they could leave behind huge swaths of water with little oxygen – massive dead zones that would suffocate any life within them. The plumes are also direct evidence that the oil is mixing at every level of the ocean, from the fragile coral reefs at the bottom of the Gulf to the shallower spawning grounds of the bluefin tuna. “The largest part of the Gulf ecosystem is out of sight beneath the surface,” says Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. “It’s incredibly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil and dispersant.”

As tragic as the images of dead seabirds are, scientists studying the environmental consequences of the Gulf spill are most concerned about the effects on the ecosystem that could take years to begin showing up. Scientists studying a spill off Cape Cod in 1969 are finding that 40 years later, fiddler crabs are still sluggish from the narcotic effects of oil. Studies after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 found that oil ingested by marine life accumulates in tissues, lowering reproductive rates and increasing disease and mortality rates. Oil continued to kill pink salmon eggs incubating in Alaskan streams for at least four years after the spill. As many as 700,000 seabirds died in the first few months, and sea otters and harlequin ducks suffered large, long-term losses. What’s more, scientists found, the spill created a “cascade” of negative impacts up and down the food chain. The Pacific-herring population collapsed after the spill, and one pod of killer whales had its population cut by 40 percent. Two decades later, the whales are now doomed to extinction.

When you add dispersants to the mix, the environmental calculation gets even more complicated. Dispersants not only increase the amount of toxic chemicals in the Gulf, they spread the oil more widely – exposing far more plants and animals to a stew of hazardous compounds. “By breaking up oil slicks, you might reduce the number of acutely oiled pelicans and sea turtles,” Rader points out. “But what about the rest of the food chain?” Observers in the Gulf have noticed what one environmentalist calls “drunk-dolphin syndrome” – pods of dolphins unusually close to shore, behaving in strange ways. “Is this a sign of environmental stress related to oil or dispersants?” says Ziccardi, the wildlife veterinarian. “We don’t know.” The same is true, he says, of the death of more than 450 endangered sea turtles: “It’s a very high number that we can’t explain yet.”

The evidence of the disaster is most visible at the pelican rookeries of Barataria Bay. Cat Island, a tiny spit of land not far from Grand Isle, is teeming with birds – not just brown pelicans, but great egrets and roseate spoonbills. It is a Manhattan of birds, hundreds of them crowded together on a few hundred yards of mangroves, flapping, preening, basking in the sun. It’s as if all the troubled birds in the bay have come here, seeking refuge, like animals fleeing a forest fire.

As it turns out, however, it was a foolish place to seek shelter. Barataria Bay has been hard hit by the spill, with oil moving in and out with the tides and the wind. Cat Island is surrounded by two rings of containment booms – but the concerted effort has failed to keep the oil away. The crude is thick among the mangrove trees, where it coats roughly half of the birds on the island. The oil doesn’t look all that thick on their feathers – but that doesn’t mean it won’t do serious damage.

“We’re not sure what the impact of this is going to be,” says Melanie Driscoll, a bird-conservation director with the National Audubon Society. “We’re definitely seeing more lightly oiled birds, which are more capable of escaping rescue attempts than heavily oiled birds. We’re also seeing birds that are wet to the skin, which is unusual. There is some thought that the dispersants might be having an impact on their feathers, but we’re not sure. Are these birds better off in the long run than the heavily oiled birds? We don’t know. We don’t know yet about their survival rate weeks or months from now, or about their reproductive capacity in the future. Frankly, there are just a huge number of unknowns here – and that’s what concerns me.”

BP hasn’t let the unknowns slow it down. Every morning, weather permitting, a group of small planes take off from private airports in Louisiana and Mississippi and fly over the Gulf, looking for oil slicks. The spotters are experts at seeing the rainbow ribbons of water and oil – the guys at the command center say they have “calibrated eyes,” because they’re able to make distinctions about the oil and determine whether it’s best suited for skimming, burning or dispersing.

When they report their findings to the command center, the information is fielded by the operations section and directed to Nick Benson, a subcontractor with O’Brien’s Response Management, a firm that specializes in helping oil companies respond to spills. Benson, who grew up nearby, bristles with clean-cut efficiency: He has five pens in his pocket, two BlackBerries and a look of permanent worry. His desk – little more than a laptop and a mess of papers – sits in the middle of the command-center operations room. Benson is in charge of deploying and tracking all of the cleanup equipment in the Louisiana region. “I’ve worked hundreds of spills,” he says. “Small, big, anywhere – I’ve done it, I’ve been there.”

You don’t have to spend more than 10 minutes watching Benson work before you figure out one reason BP has favored the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf: Skimmers are slow, dull and prone to breakdown. Dispersants, on the other hand, are fast, sexy and usually delivered by specially equipped planes like C-130s or DC-3s, as well as a newer BT-67 – which happens to be painted red, white and blue. (“I get so pumped up when we use it,” Benson says.)

When Benson hears from the spotters, he reviews the conditions at slicks they have picked out – dispersants work best on fresh oil and when there are light waves to mix them in with the water. If conditions are good, he dispatches sprayer planes that carry as much as 2,000 gallons of dispersant. The planes approach the oil as if they were on a bombing run, swooping low over the water and spraying the dispersant out of nozzles on the wings. Benson calls it “dropping their payload.” On some days, a plane will make as many as seven runs. By mid-May, BP was spraying an average of 24,000 gallons of dispersants on the Gulf each day. 

And that’s just the delivery from the air. To keep the oil blowing out of the well from reaching the surface, BP is also using robots to pump dispersants 5,000 feet beneath the water and inject them into the plumes at the blowout site. This delivery method – unimpeded by bad weather – is taking place virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Benson is unabashed in his enthusiasm for dispersants. He calls them “the best tool in the toolbox.” Says they are getting “more refined” in their targeting, as well as “more efficient.” Bombing the oil with chemicals certainly fits well with the military mode of the cleanup operation. Dispersants are the oil-spill equivalent of pounding the Taliban with predator drones.  ‘

The Obama administration has tried to rein in BP’s use of dispersants, but its efforts barely made a dent in the company’s all-out chemical warfare. In early May, the company asked the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to inject dispersants 5,000 feet underwater at the blowout site. “One of BP’s main arguments was that you would be able to use much less dispersants if they were injected directly into the oil stream, rather than sprayed at the surface,” says Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA. The move would protect response workers from chemical exposure and reduce the tons of dispersant that BP was spraying on the surface of the Gulf each day. But it would also spread the oil and chemicals far deeper and wider, putting the entire food chain at much greater risk. After a few days of testing, Jackson reluctantly signed off on the operation. “It was the toughest decision I’ve ever made,” she told her aides.

Then, as Jackson touched down at the New Orleans airport for a tour of the region on May 23rd, she checked her BlackBerry. The day before, her staff had discovered, BP had dumped an unprecedented amount of dispersants – 70,000 gallons – in a single day. Instead of reducing its surface injections, BP had moved into toxic overdrive. Jackson was livid. “She was not at all happy to get the news,” says an EPA staffer.

Around the same time, Jackson was engaged in a concerted effort to get BP to use a less toxic brand of dispersant in the Gulf. Corexit was hardly the best option available: Of the 18 dispersants on the EPA’s pre-authorized list, 12 are more effective on southern Louisiana crude than Corexit – and some are far less toxic. So why did BP go for a chemical that worked worse and did more harm? The company claims that the choice was driven by availability: Corexit was already
stockpiled around the Gulf. But politics likely played a part: The board of the company that manufactures Corexit is made up of Big Oil veterans, including former ExxonMobil vice president Daniel Sanders and former BP executive Rodney Chase.

Initially, Jackson tried to hide behind bureaucratic camouflage. “If it’s on the list and they want to use it,” she declared on May 12th, “then they are pre-authorized to do so.” But a few days later she changed her tune, telling a Senate panel that the EPA was “working with manufacturers, with BP and with others to get less toxic dispersants to the response site as quickly as possible.” On May 19th, the EPA issued a directive to BP, telling the company that it had 24 hours to find a new, less toxic dispersant.

A day later, Doug Suttles, a top executive at BP, fired back a letter to the EPA, announcing that the company had every intention to keep using Corexit. Since then, the company has dumped more than 1.1 million gallons of Corexit in the Gulf.

The day she landed in New Orleans, Jackson traveled to BP’s command center in Robert, Louisiana, and met with David Rainey, BP’s vice president of exploration for the Gulf. She and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who was the federal on-scene coordinator at the time, told Rainey that BP had to reduce its use of dispersants, especially on the surface of the Gulf. After all, reducing the air-bombing of chemicals was one of the central reasons that Jackson had approved subsurface injection in the first place. “I certainly made it very clear to BP that we were getting the worst of both worlds and that they were not being judicious enough in their use of that tool,” Jackson says. One of her aides is more blunt: “It was a very heated meeting.”

That night, Jackson and Landry worked out a three-point agreement with BP, which became the basis for a formal directive issued by the EPA and the Coast Guard on May 26th. The agency ordered the company to eliminate surface application of dispersant except “in rare cases” approved by the Coast Guard, to limit subsurface application to 15,000 gallons a day and to reduce overall dispersant use by 75 percent from its maximum daily levels.  

If the purpose of the directive was to push BP to reduce the use of dispersants, it largely failed. The company – which applied for and received a waiver from the Coast Guard almost every day – continued to apply an average of 10,000 gallons a day to the water’s surface. It exceeded the limit of 15,000 gallons for subsurface application at least four times, at one point injecting 33,000 gallons beneath the water on a single day. And by late June, it had cut its overall use of dispersants by roughly 2,000 gallons a day – a decrease of only nine percent.

Although BP has clearly flouted the spirit of the EPA order, Jackson insists that the company is doing nothing wrong, noting that its daily use of dispersants is now far lower than its peak of 70,000 gallons. “Personally and professionally, if I felt like BP weren’t complying, I wouldn’t hesitate to go to the president,” she says. “The president has made clear that he sees it well within EPA’s duties and authority to watch this process very closely. It would be unfair of me to characterize it as if somehow we are being dragged along. We are well aware of the trade-offs here.” 

I ask Jackson if she believes that BP is using dispersants to hide the oil and downplay public fears about the scale of the catastrophe. “I have no idea what BP is thinking,” she tells me, her voice laced with exasperation. “In my view, they just don’t understand why they can’t just use dispersants all the time.” 

By any measure, however, the administration has failed miserably in its attempt to reduce the amount and toxicity of chemicals that BP is dumping into the ocean. “The EPA is full of smart, competent, hardworking scientists who are trying to do the right thing,” says Wilma Subra, former vice chair of the EPA’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy, who has led the battle against dispersants in the Gulf. “But politically, they are no match for BP.”

On the way back from visiting the pelican rookery in Barataria Bay, our boat cuts though an inlet that is crowded with barges and supply ships headed out to the blowout site. The inlet is a vulnerable point in the barrier islands, the place where the Gulf meets the bay, the place where oil-laden waters can gain access to fragile marshlands. To protect the inner bay, Gov. Jindal and other local leaders want to build rock barriers across inlets like this one. “It’s a very bad idea,” says Denise Reed, a coastal scientist at the University of New Orleans. Reed explains that barriers, which interrupt the natural currents that flush the bay, are likely to do far more harm than good. Not that Jindal really cares – he is out to score political points against the Obama administration for its mishandling of the Gulf spill. But the widespread frustration directed at Washington is not misplaced. For a president who has promised to “guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch,” there is not a lot of it on display in the Gulf. From the initial permitting of BP’s well to the ongoing cleanup, the oil spill has been a story of federal ineptitude and corruption in the face of corporate greed and power.

As we cut across the bay, it’s hard not to feel the overwhelming tragedy of the place – not just the acrid smell of oil in the air and the islands of weathered crude in the bay, but the fact that this entire region has been turned into a sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry. It’s the water-world equivalent of the Appalachian Mountains, where Big Coal reigns supreme. Still, the resiliency of nature is surprising. We cut the engine and drift through a pod of dolphins frolicking in the bay – mothers and calves surface beside the boat. I hear the dolphins exhaling as they surface. A few sound like they are coughing – scientists who study dolphins call it “chuffing,” and it is not uncommon among dolphins reacting to environmental stress.

Once the blowout is capped for good, an accounting will begin. Steiner, the veteran of the Valdez response, estimates that when all is said and done, less than 10 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf will be recovered. Lawyers will fight for years over exactly how much oil was spilled, how large the penalties should be, how much economic damage was done. It’s easy enough to figure out the lost wages of a shrimper, the decline of tourism at a resort – but how do you put a price tag on hundreds of dead sea turtles or a pod of chuffing dolphins? How do you tally up a bill for the poisoning of an entire ecosystem? How do you track the future pain and suffering – human and animal – caused by exposure to cancer-causing chemicals? BP will spend millions of dollars on the best lawyers in the business, all in an effort to make sure that the answers to such questions, if they ever come, are as small and distant and insignificant as possible.

As for political reforms, every oil spill – like every coal-mine disaster and airline crash – provokes new laws and regulations designed to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. There will undoubtedly be new laws enacted in the aftermath of BP’s spill – raising the liability for oil companies responsible for such catastrophes, ensuring that more cleanup resources are on hand in the event of a blowout, perhaps even putting some of the most pristine and sensitive waters off-limits to drilling. But if that is where it ends, then this will turn out to be an ugly story indeed, just one more chapter in the larger narrative about America’s stupid and self-destructive addiction to oil.

“This can be the pivotal moment,” says ecologist Carl Safina. “We need to turn this catastrophe into something positive. We need policy changes to prevent this from happening again, and a national energy plan to truly phase us off fossil fuels. Otherwise, the disaster in the Gulf is just a nightmare, with no redeeming qualities.”


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