CORDOVA, Ak. — The use of dispersants at the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was carefully watched at the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and it caused great concern.
“Well intentioned people thought it was the right thing to do, and we may wake up to find that it was a tragic mistake, and we annihilated a bunch of life in the Gulf of Mexico, and traded that for perhaps cleaner beaches,” said Mark Swanson, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or RCAC.
The RCAC has decided that dispersants should not be used to break up oil spills in Alaska, in part because of the cold climate.
But the other reason is concern about how poisonous dispersants are, and how the way they break up oil into tiny droplets could affect marine life.
“Very simplistically, dispersants are great if you’re a bird, and bad if you’re a fish. But we’ve done lots and lots of studies in the intervening twenty years that show that oil in the water at a very, very low, almost parts per billion level, has tremendous impacts on larvae of salmon, the larvae of herring,” Swanson said.
Swanson said there are good reasons to use dispersants in some cases, such as a small oil spill, or one where an endangered species is threatened. But he said just the size of the BP disaster makes it uncharted territory for dispersants.
“This is an experiment on a scale the world has never seen before, and so what are the long term impacts to the Gulf of Mexico?” Swanson said. “Nobody knows that, and we probably won’t know that in six months, or in eight months, or in two years, or even in five years.”
“We’re living with a potential time bomb waiting to explode in our faces,” said Rosina Phillipe, a Grand Bayou, Louisiana leader.
With nearly two million gallons of dispersants being used in the Gulf of Mexico, Swanson’s concerns were matched by the worries of the Louisiana delegation that visited Alaska.
“Very concerned regarding the dispersants, the fact that the EPA has done no testing on what it does to seafood long term is a big question that’s unanswered,” said Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts.
“As this stuff is broken down, eventually microbes will biodegrade it and render it benign, but how much damage will it do between now and that time, how far will the oil go, and at what levels, what very low levels, does that do irreparable damage to the marine ecosystems, to the food chain?” Swanson said.
“The fact that it was used at the well head, which was never done before, we don’t know how much the food chain is going to be interrupted,” Roberts said.
“Nobody’s ever seen that anywhere, there’s no science on that,” Swanson said. “We are learning as we go.”
A new Environmental Protection Agency report says studies indicate dispersants alone are less toxic than oil, and less toxic than an oil-dispersant mixture.
“I think well, are you any less dead if you’re run over by a Volkswagon or by a truck?” Swanson said.
“What has been created is a cocktail, a toxic cocktail, and I’m concerned,” Phillipe said.
“What’s really important is oil mixed with dispersants is more toxic than just oil alone, is more toxic than just dispersants alone, and now we have dispersants on an unprecedented scale put into the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico,” Swanson said.