People don't like messes, and there's a natural tendency to want to clean up spilled oil. But evidence has accumulated showing that so-called cleanups can do more harm than good.
As BP struggles with a stained public image, like Exxon in Alaska in 1989, executives will do anything to appear busy and to reduce the bad visuals of oily beaches and birds. They'll do anything, including some things they might ought not do.
What are they doing, besides ducking blame? Spraying "dispersants" which are toxic chemicals designed to disperse the oil into smaller masses. The only problem is that massive, unprecedented amounts of dispersants are being sprayed into Gulf waters, in a giant toxicology experiment.
More than 250,000 gallons of dispersant have been applied both by air and underwater at the Deepwater Horizon spill site, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed. What is the chemistry of oil dispersants? Interesting question, and we don't know the answer because the stuff is a trade secret. Probably some sort of toxic organic hydrocarbon, but exactly what is unknown.
Though considered by many experts as the lesser of two evils, the environmental impact of so much dispersant at one site remains “widely unknown,” Environmental Protection Agency officials admit. And the value of dispersants is questioned by some scientists. The stuff may be used mostly to hide the oil from public view by breaking it up into smaller globs.
Then there's the "cleanup" itself. Attempts to physically remove oil from beaches was widely criticized in the Exxon Valdez oil cleanup. Some studies indicate that cleanup did more harm than good.
An important observation that resulted from the Exxon Valdez oil spill was that natural cleaning processes, on both sheltered and exposed beaches, were in many cases very effective at degrading oil. It took longer for some sections of shoreline to recover from some of the invasive cleaning methods (hot water flushing in particular) than from the oiling itself.
According to one source, the Exxon Valdez "cleanup" was more than a big effort though. It was a big mistake, John Robinson, the chief scientist at the spill for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. "The aggressiveness of the cleanup in the end contributed to more damage than the oil did," he believes. Nine strips of beach were left untouched as an experiment, and those nine beaches look better today than the swept ones, where whatever was alive was cooked to death in superhot water.
Argh, the oil spill is bad enough, and adding a so-called "cleanup" may be adding additional harm. As they say: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.