Dispersants In Gulf

Host Liane Hansen talks with author Jeff Goodell about the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf oil clean-up effort. Goodell wrote an article about the issue for this month's Rolling Stone magazine, titled, "The Poisoning." He is the author of How to Cool the Planet and Big Coal.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

As BP continues to monitor the plugged Deepwater Horizon well, questions remain about the chemical dispersants the company has been using in the clean up process. Journalist Jeff Goodell characterizes BP's use of dispersants in the Gulf as chemical warfare. Goodell is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. He wrote an article about the dangers of dispersants. It appears in this past week's issue, and it's titled "The Poisoning."

Jeff Goodell joins us from the studios of WGY in Albany, New York. Welcome.

JEFF GOODELL: Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Before we talk about the effects of the dispersants, briefly, can you tell us why BP chose to use the chemicals as a primary clean up method, given other options that are available?

GOODELL: Well, partly, they use the chemicals because there weren't a lot of other options available. They did not have enough oil skimmers anywhere near the Gulf to clean this up by skimming it. Burning it was not really an option for a large-scale clean up. And so they were really desperate to do something, and chemical dispersants were fairly easy to use. They can drop them in with airplanes. And it also fit into their larger agenda of trying to downplay the severity of the spill.

HANSEN: How do dispersants downplay that?

GOODELL: Well, one of the virtues of dispersants is that they make the oil on the surface disappear. What they do is sort of break up the oil slicks into smaller particles of oil. But it also has big sort of political benefits in that you see less oil coming up onto the shore where it can be seen by television cameras and others.

HANSEN: So, the dispersed oil sinks down from the surface. How do the chemicals affect the sea life under the water?

GOODELL: Well, that's one of the big questions. The real issue is not so much the toxicity of the dispersants, although that is somewhat of an issue. The real problem is that the dispersants break the oil up into much smaller particles that sink down into the water column of the Gulf. And we have to remember that this oil is coming up from a mile deep, and so there's a lot of life in the Gulf there from the bottom to the top. And it's sending this oil out in smaller sort of particles that can be more easily sort of taken up by organisms, from coral reefs all the way up to killer whales, in the Gulf.

And it's going to be much harder to quantify this damage.

HANSEN: Now, the Food and Drug Administration has said that the chemical dispersants used to break up oil in the Gulf have a low potential for accumulating in seafood and do not pose a public health concern. What's your take on that? Is the food chain at risk?

GOODELL: I do think the food chain is at risk. I don't think the food chain is at risk - I don't think it's a question of the public health of, you know, us eating shrimp or something that has dispersants in it. I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue is, what effect is this broken up oil going to have on the food chain in the Gulf?

It's the oil that's the toxicity. And there's a big question about how this dispersed oil will impact, for example, shrimp and crab larvae and how it will impact some of the fish eggs and things like that in the life cycle of the Gulf. Because you've essentially injected these small particles of oil much deeper into the food chain and no on really knows what the effects of that will be. And many of the scientists I've talked to are deeply concerned about that.

But it's going to play out in the coming months and years, not in, you know, the next week or two.

HANSEN: What suggestions would you give to the Environmental Protection Agency to better monitor and regulate the use of dispersants in the Gulf?

GOODELL: Well, I think that, you know, the way we regulate toxic substances in America right now is a travesty. And in fact there's legislation moving through Congress right now to try to remedy that. We haven't updated the toxic substances regulations in 30 years in America.

So, I think that the first thing is looking at these dispersants much more closely so that the EPA is prepared when something like this happens to have a much better understanding of the effects of these dispersants.

And then second of all, to set some more clear guidelines about the usage of them and the quantity that is allowed to be dumped into a situation like this. 'Cause that's really the big issue here is the amount, the 1.8 million gallons that was used more or less indiscriminately.

HANSEN: Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. He wrote an article for this past week's issue about BP's use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. He joined us from the studios of WGY in Albany, New York. Thanks a lot.

GOODELL: Thank you for having me.

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