Oil Dispersants In The Gulf: A 'Scientific Experiment?'

ATLANTA - The use of dispersants on oil leaking from the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig could create a toxic stew of byproducts, and past oil spills are of little help in predicting what damage could be done to the Gulf of Mexico, speakers said today at HB Litigation Conferences' Oil in the Gulf: Litigation & Insurance Coverage Conference here.

Dispersants are used to break down oil into smaller droplets that can be eaten by ocean microbes.

"God only knows what's being made in that scientific experiment known as the Gulf," said Robert Bowcock of Integrated Resource Management in Claremont, Calif.

Mixing dispersants with petroleum products could result in extremely toxic byproducts such as 1, 4 dioxane and hydrogen sulfide, he said. Bowcock said BP used dispersants to "conceal their crime" and that it would have been better to allow the oil to come to the surface.

"We're basically going to turn the Gulf into an oxygen-starved environment," Bowcock said.

Glenn "Max" Swetman of Swetman Baxter Massenburg LLC in New Orleans said that "[u]nfortunately, not much" has been learned from other oil spills, including how well Alaska's Prince William Sound has recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill, because there typically have been few rigorous follow-up investigations.

Another Gulf spill, the Ixtoc I oil rig disaster, spilled 475,000 metric tons of oil, Swetman said. He said hundreds of kilometers of crab habitat was "totally wiped out," that shrimp populations declined by as much as 67 percent and that 80 percent of worms and amphipods were reduced immediately after the 1978 spill. He said fishermen are still seeing the effects of the spill 32 years later, information that, while anecdotal, shouldn't be ignored.  The Ixtoc Ispill differs from the BP spill in that it occurred in the Mexican side of the Gulf and no oil reached shore to smother sensitive tidal areas.

Swetman said the BP spill is an opportunity to gauge the environmental impact of a large oil spill.

"We have a lot of pre-spill data," he said.  "We need to find that pre-spill data and compare it with the post-spill data we have."