It only took a few weeks for Jim Cowan to discover there was more to BP’s massive Macondo oil spill than meets the eye. He was part of a team of scientists that took to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico shortly after an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and caused the US$350-million drill rig to sink. As oil gushed uncontrollably from the damaged well 5,000 feet below, Cowan and his colleagues plied the waves until they came across a telltale sheen. They dropped their remotely operated submersible beneath the slick and confirmed their fears—a giant moving cloud of oil droplets, later dubbed a “plume.”
The discovery challenged the all-oil-rises-to-the-surface belief that had been guiding the cleanup and containment efforts. And it was met with resistance from both BP and the U.S. government, which had given the oil giant permission to spray an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants on the surface and, unusually, at the source of the leak. “We took a lot of heat,” says Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University. “There was a great deal of denial.”
More than three months later, the well appears to be on its way to being permanently capped, but Cowan and other scientists feel as though they’re still facing a sense of denial. This time, however, it’s about the extent of the ecological damage, with the underwater plumes once again figuring prominently into the equation. Indeed, ever since BP managed to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf on July 15, there has been a rush to turn the page on the worst oil spill disaster in American history. In a bid to revive ailing fisheries and the region’s tourism industry, U.S. President Barack Obama has been photographed frolicking in the surf with daughter Sasha and chowing down on Gulf Coast seafood whenever possible. Meanwhile, a recent government report suggested three-quarters of the 4.9 million barrels of spilled crude is no longer much to worry about, with much of it having been “dissolved” or dispersed. Even BP seems to have found its footing again. It has dumped its gaffe-prone CEO, struck a deal with Washington on a US$20-billion compensation fund, and is likely to be a key beneficiary from the current push to lift the moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf, where it is a key player.
But the nagging question remains: what happened to all of that undersea oil? While efforts to disperse the gushing crude may have helped minimize damage to the region’s sandy white beaches, there are mounting fears it did so at the expense of turning the Gulf into a toxic soup of hydrocarbons and other chemicals—the fallout of which could ultimately prove to be far worse and longer-lasting to the region’s marine life and the local economies that depend on it. “This was the largest man-induced oil spill to have occurred anywhere, and at one point the surface slick was as big as the state of Kansas,” says Cowan. “And we think only a fraction of the oil made it to the surface.”
On Aug. 2, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Department of the Interior released a study that attempted to account for the nearly five million barrels of oil that had been released into the Gulf over a period of more than 100 days. It suggested that 25 per cent of the crude had been mopped up by ships or lit on fire. Another 25 per cent is believed to have simply evaporated or dissolved, while 24 per cent was dispersed into tiny droplets—some of it naturally and some because of the estimated 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants used. The remaining 26 per cent is believed to be on or just below the surface or “has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments.”
Of course, 26 per cent of 4.9 million barrels is still about 1.3 million barrels, or about five times what the Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, creating what had previously been the worst-ever oil spill in the U.S. And Cowan and other scientists aren’t convinced that underwater clouds of oil are any less dangerous to marine life than bird-killing surface slicks. The same goes for “dissolved” oil. While the government report compares it to sugar dissolved in a cup of water, Cowan notes wryly that sugared water “still tastes sweet when you drink it.” Even the government figures remain contentious—a new report from the University of Georgia says 79 per cent of the spilled oil is still in the Gulf.
While commercial fisheries in the Gulf are slowly being reopened following testing by health officials (the industry is worth US$2.4 billion in Louisiana alone), Cowan says he is concerned that dispersed or dissolved oil may actually be easier for fish to ingest through their gills, adding that many non-scientists overlook the fact that animals tend to be resilient in the face of a short-term threat—oil-stained birds, for instance, can be cleaned off and released—but are often extremely vulnerable to long-term exposures to toxins. He just can’t shake a feeling that BP’s decision to rely heavily on dispersants, themselves toxic, could one day prove to have been a deal with the devil. “The problem with the dispersants,” Cowan says, “is that they kept so much of the oil away from the surface, but subsurface oil is impossible to clean up.”
Anita Burke has first-hand experience with oil spills and the chemicals used to treat them. She once worked as a consultant on the front lines of the Exxon Valdez spill. “Corexit”—the brand of dispersant used in the Gulf—“is a pretty nasty solvent,” says Burke, who formerly also held the title of senior adviser in charge of sustainable development for Shell. “I was pretty shocked when I saw they were injecting that directly into the wellhead. The stuff just doesn’t go away. I think it’s early days and I’m nervous about the outcome.”
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