Gulf spill cleanup dispersant more toxic to coral than oil — study

By Katherine Ling | 04/10/2015 01:08 PM EDT

The chemical dispersant used to break down the oil spilled in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico is more toxic to coral than the oil, according to a study released on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the disaster.

The accident marked the first time that a dispersant was used below the ocean surface during an oil spill in addition to the traditional surface use. Almost 2 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit 9500A — with slightly less than half released underwater — was used to emulsify the around 5 million barrels of crude oil that poured out due to the rig explosion.

When exposed to the chemical dispersant, three species of cold-water coral showed "more severe health declines" at lower concentrations than the same species exposed to a mixture of oil and dispersant and to just oil, according to findings by scientists from Temple University and Pennsylvania State University. The oil-dispersant mixture was also more toxic than just oil, the team found.


Its study was published online in the journal Deep-Sea Research II.

The scientists became interested in the experiment after observing post-spill that several damaged Gulf coral populations were coated with a dark-colored wool-like slime that was found to contain oil from the spill and residues from the dispersants.

"We wanted to know if the damages that had been witnessed could have been caused by the oil, the dispersant itself, or a combination of both," Danielle DeLeo, a Temple doctoral student who was the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

"We know that the corals in the Gulf were exposed to all of these different combinations, so we have been trying to determine the toxicity of the oil and the dispersants, and see what their impact would be on the corals," she said.

The corals may have a higher tolerance for the oil because they have adapted to natural seeps of oil over time in their environment, the team noted. The study also said that despite the results, "it is unclear whether short-term exposures to oil and dispersant have long-term effects," that the matter would require further study, and that long-term oil exposure could have significant sub-lethal impacts.

"Applying the dispersants at depth was a grand experiment being conducted in real-time," Erik Cordes, an associate professor of biology at Temple, said in a statement. He has been studying Gulf of Mexico coral communities for more than a decade.

He added: "It was a desire to immediately do something about the oil coming out of the well, but they really didn’t know what was going to happen as a result."

The team concluded that to improve future oil spill response efforts, "alternative methods of oil cleanup are needed and caution should be used when applying oil dispersants at depth, as it may induce further stress and damage to deep-sea ecosystems."

The study was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent agency BP PLC funded at $500 million for 10 years in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that explores the impacts of oil spills and dispersants on local ecosystems, as well as developing improved spill mitigation, oil and gas detection, and other technologies.

Another recent study from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, found that the Corexit 9500A dispersant can damage respiratory cells of humans and animals. But a study by U.S. EPA in 2010 found the dispersant-oil combination isn’t worse for shrimp, fish and other sea creatures than oil alone already is.

EPA announced a proposal to update regulations for the use of dispersants earlier this year. The plan would provide a new, well-tested and peer-reviewed laboratory method for gauging the effectiveness of products in different environments and an aquatic toxicity threshold to ensure qualifying products offer "greater performance at less environmental impact" (Greenwire, Jan. 13).