Posted by: Doc Bruce | May 12, 2010

How Do We Clean Up Ocean Oil?

What can we do to prevent or minimize the devastating effects of what may well be the world’s largest oil contamination in history?  I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

I do know that we should stop calling it an oil ‘spill’.  Over 200,000 gallons of oil are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico each day. The size of the surface oil slick has tripled in the past few days; it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.  Broken pipes are spewing 8,300 gallons of oil in to the Gulf each hour – 138 gallons per minute.  This is hardly a spill.

Our mediation seems to be limited to two strategies. The first is using booms and adsorbent pads to isolate and soak up the oil on the surface so that it can be safely disposed of.  The second method is to use dispersants to make the oil ‘go away’.

The problem with dispersants is that oil and water don’t mix.  Dispersants are used to break up the molecules of oil so they no longer float on the top of the water.  Instead, the smaller oil globules are free to be distributed throughout the water column, poisoning creatures that live up in the water and eventually settlling on to the bottom of the sea where they destroy marine life on the bottom.  Instead of eliminating the toxicity, they spread it out.

We have quit using dispersants in marinas for true oil spills – where a little gasoline or oil ‘spills’ out of a tank when it is being filled – because we find that by allowing the petroleum products to eventually settle to the bottom we create a much worse, toxic dead zone.  The dispersant ‘clean-up’ strategy consistently causes more harm than good over time.

It seems logical to me that if we can’t use dispersants in marinas because we know it magnifies the environmental damage caused by small accidental spills, we should not use them on much larger oil slicks.

It is not clear why we are pouring hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico when a series of pipes is gushing 8,000 gallons of oil an hour 5000 feet below the surface.  The only logical reason I can find is that we are comfortable killing the millions of plants and animals that support our life on these Gulf shores as long as we don’t have to look at or think about the oil anymore.

We are content with taking it out on the little guys at the bottom of the food chain – the microscopic organisms that support all the other living things in the Gulf of Mexico – and our planet.  We can’t see them, so it doesn’t matter if we poison them, as long as it means less oil on our beaches.

Imagine that you spilled a strong radioactive dust in your home.  Using dispersants is like sweeping it under the rug instead of vacuuming it up. The dust is out of sight, out of mind. You can’t see the radioactive dust, so you go on about your activities, not too terribly bothered by the whole little unpleasant incident.  Never mind that the harmful effects of the dust under that rug are just as powerful as ever, emanating deathly radioactivity.  What we can’t see won’t hurt us – right?

If we can make the sight of the oil go away, beneath the calming surface of the sea, everything will be all right.  There will be less oily birds to look at and clean up after.  We can get back to our normal lives.  If we are the stewards of this planet, and our main concern is the shoreline, who are the stewards of the ocean?  Is it right to protect only what we can see?

Deep in my existence, it is clear that this cataclysmic environmental assault by an international corporation on our public ocean resources should not be chalked up as just another case of profit over public interest.  An unavoidable and unforeseeable ‘accident’ to advance our society.  We should not let it be so.

This should be a loud, ringing and final clarion call.  It is past time we sat by and let our leaders allow us to continue down the fossil fuel lane to environmental hell.  It is time for us to break the fossil fuel addiction.

Maybe you choose to not believe that the atmosphere is changing because we burn fossil fuels.  Maybe you choose to pretend that atmospheric change is not rapidly warming the planet.  Maybe you don’t know that increased carbon dioxide is changing the acidity of the oceans.  Will you choose to pretend that what we have done to the Gulf of Mexico has no real significance?  If so, I wonder whether you will still be able to pretend that in two months?

If John F. Kennedy could launch a ten-year campaign to put a man on the moon with little more technology than a slide rule, we can do the equivalent for the environment.

It is time for the leader of our country to tell us we must use alternative energy.  It is time for the leaders of our Sanctuary Island of Sanibel to tell us that we must use alternative energy.  It is time for us to be unhappy and uneasy and use our regrets to launch our community and nation forward to a sustainable future.

I don’t know how to clean up the mess, but I will work as hard as I can to help.

I mostly want to make sure we avoid it in the future.

Leaders, it’s time to lead; we are ready to follow.


  1. Very disturbing and thought provoking. Excellent post. I have linked to it on my Facebook page for everyone to see. Thank you.

    • Thanks Sylvia. Very challenging times.

  2. I can’t believe we’d put the dispersants on knowing that eventually contaminants find its way to the ocean floor. The ramifications could be catastrophic. I’m concerned that there isn’t another plan already in place . This is too toxic for the food chain. I’m disgusted with the lack of leadership in this horrible mess. Somebody with brains needs to be on it!

    • Jo, I agree there appears to be woeful lack of planning on all sides of this activity.

      Not fail-safe failure planning, and not planning how we will attack a large-scale blow-out event when one happens. It could be that we do not have the information, but that void certainly makes it look like no one was planning environmental risk management very well.

      The one thing that we must keep in mind is that with time, the Gulf of Mexico will recover from this assault. Eventually bacteria will break down the hydrocarbons and the marine and terrestrial environments will recover.

      The real question that must be forefront in our mind is how many times can we continue to assault our global natural support systems before we trigger changes that are detrimental to their luxurious accommodations to which we have become accustom.

  3. Doc, This is April (teacher from PACE). I love attending our fields trips. I also have been having a lot of conversations with our girls about this issue. I was surprised that most of them did not even know that this was occurring in our Gulf. Your post really means a lot to me. I have been looking for a local Surfrider Foundation chapter but have had no luck. If you know of anything I can do to help, I would love to volunteer my time.

  4. Well said Bruce. Please keep us all updated.

  5. We are very interested in switching to a better source of energy! How about that big bright sun that we have not figured out how to destroy yet?

  6. Bruce & Family,
    Thanks for all you do there on Sanibel- we miss the community and enjoy reading whats happening through your emails. I remember when your family came to town and there was some trepidation as whether this “school” approach would work. Looking back, I believe the answer is yes, it works- my son still talks about getting out with you guys and learning of the sea and its inhabitants. Its hard for us as a family here in Alaska to think about what could happen to our beloved Islands if this oil slick continues to grow.
    We are fighting the fight with oil companies here as well and by the tace of God and the people here, we are aale to stave off any drilling on refuge lands on the interior of Alaska.

    Take Care,
    Rb,Liz & the boys

  7. Bruce et al,
    Very well put and I couldn’t agree more. I am retiring from CCC at the end of next week and plan to spend more time and energy on my volun tary organizations like North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light which works towards education, advocacy, and outreach about climate change through the faith based communities. I think this is one area that has been overlooked in support for the political will to make change on these issues. If we can convince the religous groups that we need to care for the Creation and not destroy it, perhaps we can make headway.
    as ever, penny

  8. An interesting perspective on the BP oil spill as it pertains to Sanibel Island:

  9. Thank You! Knowledge is powerful and I appreciate your contribution to the mix. I hope someone comes up with something quick or I know my heart is going to break when this mess arrives in Sanibel.

    Have any preliminary plans been put into action?

Leave a Reply to kate cordsen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: