Oil and Dispersants a Deadly Brew in Gulf Hurricane Season

Gulf spill area like a cauldron waiting to be stirred

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All BP oil spill cleanup and containment efforts are on hold as wind and waves from the former Hurricane Alex push through the oil spill area. Although the storm stayed 600 miles to the west, it still had enough punch to not only stop the cleanup but actually push oil deeper into coastal wetlands and onto beaches.>

Alex has been upgraded to a hurricane and continues on course, veering away from any direct contact with the Gulf oil spill area, but still disrupting containment and cleanup efforts. Tar balls "big as apples" have been pushed deep into wetlands by the storm, reports AP. >

Wind and waves from Hurricane Alex are stirring up more questions than havoc so far at the BP oil spill site, hundreds of miles away. Pundits, scientists and outright guessers just can’t agree on what’s going to happen to that stew of oil and dispersants when a storm makes a direct hit on the spill scene.

Much of their uncertainty has to do with the chemical makeup of the dispersants, which have been strewn like a giant lab experiment over thousands of square miles of spilled oil, and shot into the oil at seabed level as it escapes. After Earthjustice demanded answers from the EPA, the agency revealed the ingredients, but toxic effects of those ingredients—especially in combination with the oil it binds to—are hard to tie down. And there seems to be nothing but conjecture when it comes to figuring out the added factor of hurricanes.

At this moment, it appears Alex will temporarily halt oil containment/clean up efforts, which are recovering about half of the estimated 60,000 barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf every day. By the time it hits land Wednesday, probably near the Mexico/U.S. border, the storm will have lobbed enough energy eastward to push globs of oily goo deeper into coastal wetlands and along a much broader expanse of beaches in relatively untouched states such as Florida and Mississippi.

But, imagine if Alex’s 75+ m.p.h. winds were directly ravaging the spill area, pulling trillions of gallons of that toxic water into its vortex and raining it down over a many-states area.

Think of the ocean zone itself and how it would be churned by monster waves and then sent surging over coastal plains, depositing a great unknown upon sensitive wetlands.

One writer thinks the result will be poisonous fallout across vast areas of the country. A Mother Jones article also warns of hurricane-pushed toxics, even as it discusses the invisible health effects from all the spill chemicals.

We know from Louisiana Health Department reports that at least 162 people have been harmed, and some hospitalized, by exposure to the oil/dispersant toxics. We also know that air pollution levels in that vast area of spilled oil are loaded with toxic chemicals linked to the spill and are at concentrations higher than routinely measured in such pollution-saturated cities as Mexico City and Los Angeles. More ominous for creatures that make up the Gulf ecosystem are impacts being assessed by marine toxicologist Susan Shaw. In an interview with OnEarth, she described, among other things, the deadly nature of those vast oil plumes created by the interaction of dispersants and oil.

And those are just some of the known health effects. The big unknown is what happens—as it surely will—when a hurricane tears up the spill and spreads it far and wide. There is no precedent.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.