Posted by: leahbiery | May 3, 2010

“Quick, Hide the Mess!”

As I type this, somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. The colossal oil spill in our backyard will undoubtedly have devastating effects on nearby ecosystems and industries for years to come, but the scary part is that nobody seems to know how to stop the flow. It’s estimated that 7 to 9 million gallons of oil have already burst into our Gulf waters – just a couple million gallons away from surpassing the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in magnitude – and there is currently no end in sight. At this rate, we’ll witness the world’s largest oil spill in the next few days.

An aerial view of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

While we scratch our heads and try to figure out how to stop multiple oil leaks 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, we must simultaneously find a way to clean up the oil that is oozing rapidly from BP’s faulty lines.

There are a few ways to clean up an oil spill:

  • Leave the oil alone – let it dissipate naturally over a number of years. This isn’t an option in the landlocked Gulf, with its miles of coastline that would (and probably will) quickly become coated in crude oil, causing mass chaos for coastal humans and wildlife alike.
  • Contain the spill with booms and collect the oil using surface-skimming equipment. The oil spill in the Gulf is getting too large to use this method – and the windy weather this week has created waves too large for skimming vessels to work efficiently.
  • Burn the oil – probably our best option at this point, but there’s a huge amount of pollution involved and the smoke is thick and unpleasant. Some Gulf residents are already complaining of headaches and nausea.
  • Use chemical dispersants to break up the oil into small droplets that sink to the bottom of the ocean.

When I heard that the US has dropped 1/3 of the world’s supply of dispersants (100,000 gallons) into the Gulf over the past few days, all I could think about was one of my favorite movies as a kid: The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room. Just watch the first 2 1/2 minutes of this clip:

Using dispersants is like hiding the mess from Mom (or in this case, world citizens). Obviously BP and US Coast Guard officials never watched the film, or they would know that hiding the mess from Mom is not a sustainable solution – because when Mom finds out, she’s going to be furious, and Cleanup Round 2 will not be fun.

The dispersant method of cleaning up an oil spill appears to minimize coastal damage by relocating oil from the surface of the ocean to the bottom, but when Mom opens the closet door in a few years, the enormous mess will come spilling out. Sending oil to the bottom of the ocean damages sea grass beds and coral reefs, and the oil is inadvertently consumed by mussels and other filter feeders – many of which make up the bottom of the Gulf food chain. The chemicals in the oil (mixed with the mysterious top-secret chemicals in the dispersants) will accumulate up the food chain over time until high levels are found in species that humans like to consume.

The Gulf is one of the world’s top food-producing ecosystems. By using dispersants, we are poisoning marine organisms, ourselves, and our children. Let’s learn a lesson from the Berenstain Bears: clean the mess up correctly the first time, so you won’t have to do it again later.


  1. Maybe another country will be generous enough to donate their time, resources, and expertise to clean up the mess just like we do for everyone else.

  2. […] Also see: “Quick, Hide the Mess!” […]

  3. I wonder how many REAL experts in the containment and cleanup field are being consulted….How would you handle it, Bruce?

  4. Hi Rick,

    At Sanibel Sea School, we don’t know how to handle oil spills. We must rely on the real experts to figure out the best way to clean up this mess.

    What we do know is how important it is for us to learn from this mistake. It is essential to the future of this planet that we take action to make sure this never happens again. As a country, we need to shift to cleaner and less risky sources of energy. We can do this through the power of consumer choice.

    We also think it is crucial to think about the effects this disaster will have on the entire ocean, not just the shorelines that we see every day. Dispersants hide the oil spill from our immediate sight, but they do not clean it up. For this reason, we question the use of dispersants as a “clean up” method.

    Thanks for reading our blog!

  5. While this was a well written and thought provoking post, it leaves me more disquieted than ever as it does not appear that there is a short term “fix” for this mess. Long term it would appear that off shore drilling and reliance on fossil fuels need to be eliminated. But where does this leave us right now?

    • That’s a great question, Sylvia. I wish I knew the answer. A large part of the problem is we’re not sure how big the oil burst will get or where the oil will end up, which makes it difficult to take action. I share your frustration over not knowing what I can do to help right now, but I’ve been able to come up with a few suggestions:

      – We can begin to reduce our fossil fuel dependence today by cutting back on our individual energy use. Make small changes in your everyday life to minimize your personal fuel consumption. I’ve been biking to work instead of driving, even if it means waking up earlier.

      – Research which petroleum companies are most devoted to safety when it comes to their oil rigs, then purchase your gas there. This is difficult, and I am still working on it, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’ve also chosen to boycott BP and Amoco (owned by BP) in protest of their irresponsible drilling practices. If you choose to look into this topic, please share any of your findings with us.

      – Prepare yourself to volunteer with cleanup efforts if it becomes necessary in your area. I’m not sure if we’ll see any of the oil on Sanibel’s beaches (and I certainly hope not), but I’ve been reading about the processes and risks involved in crude oil cleanup just in case. If I am called upon to help clean this mess, I will understand what needs to be done and know how to keep myself safe.

      Here are some links to current cleanup efforts:
      Oil Cleanup

      I would love to hear some of your ideas!


  6. Sylvia,

    You are right, there is not a short-term solution for oil contamination of this level. We can try to minimize the environmental, social and economic impacts, but we have the potential to be in tough spot right now.

    The good news is that the Earth and oceans are very resilient and have the capability to eventually recover from impacts such as these.

    We can’t solve this problem quickly or easily.

    We need to learn from this and avoid it in the future.

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