She's truly one of the ocean's best friends. Sylvia Earle's career--and it's an epic one-- has been all about protecting and exploring the sea she loves so deeply. Earle served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was Time's very first Hero for the Planet, and was handed the exalted TED Prize in 2009. In our conversation she explains in detail what the Gulf oil spill has meant for the ocean's delicate ecology, tells why she can no longer eat fish, and recounts waking up on a boat in the Gulf surrounded by hundreds bus-sized whale sharks.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: As the oil was still spewing out of this ruptured well head below the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, you were testifying to Congress. What did you tell them?
Sylvia Earle: I expressed a number of concerns. One of the most obvious things to me was the use of dispersants on such a grand scale, and injecting them right at the well head. A lot of experts were doing their utmost to focus on stopping the spilling of oil, of course, but I was seriously concerned not only about the broadcast spreading of these toxic dispersants at the surface, but more significantly, what they were doing 5,000 feet underwater.
We have no idea what the actual impact of adding those toxic materials at that depth in combination with oil would be. But what occurs to me that if it were known that anybody happened to be pouring toxic substances (especially at that volume, nearly two million gallons) into the Gulf of Mexico, there would be an uproar. This is pollution on a grand scale. But because it was used in a way to try to reduce the impact of the oil, it seemed to be acceptable.
But just because the oil was broken into small pieces doesn't mean that the oil went away. Quite the contrary. It did exactly what the name suggests, it dispersed it, sent it flying into millions of small droplets throughout the water column. Especially the dispersants that were applied in the deep are likely to have that effect, so that the oil, in the process of ascending to the surface, would be broken up into small pieces and never get there.
So by not letting the oil get to the surface, the problem was relocated from British Petroleum and those who were more focused on the coastline and gave it back to the ocean. So it became the ocean's problem. But that means that it's everybody's problem because the ocean is so important, not just as a source of oil or fish or shrimp or whatever. It's a system that maintains the integrity of what keeps all of us alive, not just the fish.
The real trick would be not to spread dispersants and oil all over the place, but to see if there's some way that you can collect all of the oil, get it out of the ocean. It really doesn't belong either at the surface, on the beach, in the marsh, and it certainly doesn't belong in the water column.
So that was one of the things that I did mention most importantly, but I also pointed out that it's 5,000 feet down. It's a mile. What's the big deal about getting down to a mile underwater, to have an independent look at what is there?
The fact is, it is a big deal [for the US]. This country basically has the Alvin submersible that's up in Woods Hole; it's capable of going to 5,000 feet. Russia has two subs. China has one. Japan has one. France has one. But this country doesn't have a national capacity to do that. That is not acceptable.
We ought to have in the garage at the EPA, at the Coast Guard, at NOAA, as well as at independent institutions, the kind of technology to go under the sea that we now have in great supply to go high in the sky. We're really limited when it comes to understanding what's happening as little as a mile under the surface.
We've seriously lagged behind. There are remotely operated systems in the industry itself. The oil industry has access to images that, in due course, we were allowed to see coming from 5,000 feet down around the oil spill. They were made possible because of these remotely operated systems that operate on a cable that goes back to the surface. They're independent companies that service the oil and gas industry that supply them. But, the Coast Guard doesn't have them, NOAA doesn't have them. It's frustrating that you have to rely on the industry itself to get a look at something that we ought to have an independent review of.
More than that, we should know what the Gulf was like before the drilling began. We don't have anything like a good survey to show what the sea floor was like before the well head was put in, or what the impact of drilling might have been.
It would be great just to have some idea of what is going on, but we had a very restricted, limited view. That was another thing that I mentioned and said before Congress. We need transparency. We need access to the straight story, not just these limited tidbits we're allowed to see as members of the public.
TreeHugger: Did that dispersant, Corexit, actually do any good? Did it serve a purpose or was it really just meant to mask the appearance of all the oil rising to the surface?
Earle: The dispersant was intended to keep the oil from getting to the marshes and the beach. Also, presumably, to minimize the amount of oil that reached the surface in the first place or, if it is on the surface, to cause it to sink by breaking it up into small pieces or to get it exposed to microbes.
The trouble is that we really don't have good studies to show what the effect of these dispersants, and Corexit in particular, have on more than just a small number of laboratory animals. Not on the kinds of creatures who actually live in the Gulf of Mexico.
There are on the order of 15,000 kinds of organism that have been inventoried. There are, no doubt, many more than haven't been accounted for that normally occur in the Gulf of Mexico that make the system a healthy place, that create the Gulf of Mexico that we know and love.
What's been demonstrated is that the combined effect of the dispersant and oil have a greater impact than either one alone. The dispersant breaks down the waxy coating of the natural defense that many organisms have, and allows the toxic oil to penetrate more fully. So, without the dispersant, the oil is less damaging than with the dispersant.
The instructions on the Corexit containers warn to avoid contact with skin, avoid inhaling it, and to avoid getting it in your eyes. The creatures in the sea have no choice; they're being exposed to a bath of this stuff. So if a turtle blinks, it gets Corexit in its eyes and in the tender area under its arms. Or think of the small creatures that are just constantly exposed to the water itself, like jellies. They have no escape--they can't even blink. It's painful just thinking about it. You cry for them.