Experts: Submerged oil threatens organisms


FAIRHOPE, Ala. — Two of coastal Alabama’s foremost marine experts agree that using dispersants to combat this summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill will cause problems in the northern Gulf of Mexico for years to come, but not because the chemicals BP PLC administered to break the crude into microscopic pieces pose any significant human health risk.

Instead, Dauphin Island Sea Lab Director George Crozier and Robert Shipp, chairman of the University of South Alabama’s Marine Sciences Department, said during a Friday night lecture at USA’s Fairhope campus that by suspending bits of oil in the water column, generations of filter-feeding organisms could be lost in portions of the northern Gulf.

“The whole issue of toxicity is really a red herring, and it’s far more important to realize that keeping (oil) in the water column is not a good thing,” Shipp said. “The Mississippi River pours more dispersants into the Gulf every day than anything BP did.”

Said Crozier: “All of its components, even the proprietary ones, you will find in shampoos, you will find in Dawn liquid detergent, lipstick. The answer that I heard from (the Food and Drug Administration) today was that they were not concerned because there was, frankly, nothing there that wasn’t already being slathered on our bodies or on our hands.”

Crozier said that in animal testing, the dispersants used by BP have shown to be variously slightly more or somewhat less toxic than oil, depending on the species they were used on. As such, he said he was far more concerned about the more than 200 million gallons of oil that were released into the Gulf — an estimated 70 percent of which is still floating around in one form or another.

“Now we’ve got this stuff in the Gulf of Mexico, unknown locations, unknown toxicity, unknown rates of degradation, unknown rates of assimilation into the food chain,” Crozier said.

For effect, Crozier showed a slide of an anchovy, its mouth open and ringed with oil-like chocolate and its gill rakers coated as if it were a child who had gotten into chocolate.

“The anchovy swims through the water mouth agape, gill rakers out picking up tiny particles of food — well tiny particles of oil also,” Shipp said. “And it’s most likely that if an anchovy swims through any of that oil mass that it’s going to be fatal.”

Ditto for menhaden, he said. Same, too, for larval red drum and snapper. Even the newborn of deepwater species like bluefin tuna could be affected. “What we’re concerned about is, basically every species in the Gulf of Mexico has some phase in its life cycle when its a filter-feeder,” Shipp said.

And consider the hundreds of planktonic species that rise from depths of 500 to 1,500 feet to the surface each night to feed and reproduce. That’s two chances each day that such plankton have to pass through plumes of oil, and only one encounter would be fatal, Shipp said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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