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Marine Spill Clean-Ups Scrub the Guilt, Not the Coastline

Deep Water Horizon Spill, 2010/Wikipedia
Deep Water Horizon Spill, 2010/Wikipedia

Marine oil spill clean-up efforts are nothing more than elaborate media theatre that fail to achieve their advertised aims and may do more harm than good, Alberta-based oil industry critic Andrew Nikiforuk writes in a scathing indictment in Hakai Magazine, a B.C.-based publication focused on coastlines.

The “marine oil spill response today creates little more than an illusion of a clean-up,” he charges. “Scientists—outside the oil industry—call it ‘prime-time theatre’ or ‘response theatre’.”

None of the four conventional tactics for cleaning up oil spilled at sea—booms, skimmers, burning, or chemical dispersants—“has ever been effective in containing large spills,” Nikiforuk writes. The last, in fact, create a wider hazard for sea life by dispersing minutes particles of hydrocarbons, and their own secret chemical ingredients, throughout the water column. (Notwithstanding that reality, Nikiforuk revealed last week, Canada approved the use of the controversial dispersant Corexit for ocean spills.)

Among the evidence he musters is a 1996 study that followed brown pelicans “cleaned” after being fouled by oil in California and released. Most died, and Nikiforuk reports that the researchers “concluded that cleaning brown pelicans couldn’t restore them to good breeding health or ‘normal survivability.’”

After a tanker broke apart off Spain’s coast in 2002, “70 million litres of highly toxic bunker fuel coated more than 600 beaches with oil [and] killed some 300,000 seabirds,” he adds. “Although response teams diligently cleaned thousands of animals, most of the birds died within a week.”

Less than a quarter of the oil spilled during the blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico was estimated to have been recovered by all methods combined. Transport Canada, Nikiforuk says, “admits that it expects only 10 to 15% of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water.”

Until reforms give “communities most affected by a catastrophic spill the democratic right to say no to high-risk projects; publicly recognize that responding to a large oil spill is as haphazard as responding to a large earthquake and there is no real techno-fix; and recognize that industry won’t adopt more effective technologies that actually recover oil from the ocean until governments demand up front multi-billion-dollar bonds for compensation, expect more dramatic prime-time theatre on oiled ocean waters,” Nikiforuk concludes.

“But we shouldn’t for a moment believe we’re watching a clean-up. The only things being wiped clean are guilty consciences.”