BP and NOAA — Dispellers of Myths, Educators of School Children?

It is truly a perverse world we are living in when BP, with the help of our government, is allowed to present itself as a truth teller and a dispeller of myths.  But it gets downright obscene, when our government joins forces with BP (or anyone) to help them take their propagandizing efforts into the classrooms of our children.


BP, the company that polluted state, national and international waters with nearly 5 million barrels of toxic crude oil and gas as well as 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants and created an ecological disaster, has teamed up with NOAA ( the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – our federal government and dollars at work) for an outreach program into local Louisiana schools.  A program that includes an interactive demonstration on the Gulf oil spill clean up and an incentivized (free hat or pen for a correct answer) question and answer period.

According to BP :

“The primary purpose [of the demonstration] is to inform and educate students on the methods used to clean up the oil in the Gulf and the wetlands and marshes,” Janella Newsome, BP media liaison said in a press release. “It’s also to dispel myths about dispersants, subsurface oil and seafood safety. [snip] “This is the first session of many going on,” Charles Gaiennie, a BP representative said …”There’s a lot of information that’s out there isn’t current or accurate.” ~~ Jenna Farmer, BP educates Terrebonne students on oil spill, Tri-Parish Times)

Hmm. In order to educate, one must be informed.  In order to dispel myths, one must be credible — that is, competent in the subject matter and honest in the presentation of the facts.

If education were really the goal of this endeavor, then any number of independent marine scientists and biologists would seem better suited to the task of credibly and honestly presenting the known facts of this environmental disaster to the American people and their school age children.  But our federal government or BP?


I mean really, BP?  The same BP that erroneously claimed only 1,000 barrels of oil a day (a mere fraction of the reality) was leaking.

Initially, BP claimed that 1,000 barrels oil per day were leaking from the well, an estimate the administration adopted. But, according to the [National Oil Spill Commission] report (“The Amount and Fate of the Oil”), “Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate.  Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation. –Kate Sheppard, “Not an Incidental Public Relations Problem”, Mother Jones

So BP made up the 1,000 barrels a day figure and wasn’t willing to give it up.

When the administration revised its estimate to 5,000 barrels per day a week after the spill, it again provided the public with dubious information. The report indicates that the number was basically made up. The figure came from a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had no experience making this kind of estimate, used “imprecise” methodology, and did not rely on established or peer-reviewed methods. From the report:<[snip] Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist’s estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government’s official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010. ~~ Kate Sheppard, “Not an Incidental Public Relations Problem”, Mother Jones

Wow.  Our government knew BP was lying.  Knew that the figure BP was using was way too low, but not wanting to accept the much higher estimates from other scientists, our own government just went ahead and replaced one made up number with another made up number. So much for our government being a credible source on the subject of the oil spill.

But wait, that was the early days of the spill.  Did our government and BP learn from their early mistakes and bend over backwards to give more credible and timely information?

The government repeatedly underestimated how much oil was flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and how much was left after the well was capped in July, leading to a loss of faith in the government’s ability to handle the spill and a continuing breach between the federal authorities and state and local officials, the [National Oil Spill] commission staff members found in a series of four reports issued Wednesday…. “the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem. ~~ John Broder, Oil Spill Reports Fault Obama Administration, NY Times.com

Got that, even the National Oil Spill Commission concluded that our government was either incompetent or untruthful. I’d say they were clearly both. Our governments efforts were politicized and mismanaged.

The reports also say that about two weeks after the BP rig exploded, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked the White House for permission to make public its worst-case models for the accident. The White House Office of Management and Budget initially denied the request, according to government officials interviewed by the commission’s staff members. ~~ John Broder, Oil Spill Reports Fault Obama Administration, NY Times.com

And our government provided information to the American people that was distorted and unsupported.

…  Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, declared on Aug. 4: “I think it’s also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone.”But the commission staff members said the government’s own data did not support such sweeping conclusions, which were later scaled back ~~ John Broder, Oil Spill Reports Fault Obama Administration, NY Times.com

Hmmm.  Okay, our government wasn’t so credible in early August.  But what about now.  It’s October.  How are these educational demonstrations to school children being conducted?  And what are they teaching them?

BP and NOAA appear to be doing demonstrations for local schools using a 10-gallon fish tank full of water, some cooking oil, and some dishwashing detergent to simulate the properties of oil and the effects of dispersants.The Houma Courier quoted NOAA science support coordinator Gary Ott as telling the children,Oil floats. See, we’ve tested it.” …According to the two reports, Ott had the children try to use eyedroppers to suck up the oil, simulating the inefficiency of skimmers. He had them use paper towels to simulate absorbent booms.  And then he applied dishwashing detergent to the floating oil to break it down — simulating dispersants. Though he acknowledged the dispersed oil doesn’t disappear and could hurt some fish species, Ott told the children that the chemicals were broken down within weeks by microbes, the Courier reported. He also assured the children that Gulf seafood was safe to eat.… a BP representative asked the students questions about the oil spill.  Students who answered correctly received a BP hat or pen as a prize. ~~ Marian Wang, In School Outreach, BP and NOAA ‘Dispel Myths’ About Dispersants, Subsurface Oil, The ProPublica Blog

Gee, that sure sounds like a fun demonstration.  Who wouldn’t want to win a BP hat or pen.  And it’s hard to beat the good news, just a few more weeks and the Gulf will be back to normal.  But wait, wasn’t the ‘oil floats’ and  ‘oil rises in water’ claims debunked back in June when the oil plumes were first discover?

Just for the heck of it, maybe we should see what the scientist who are actually studying the ocean and the spill have to say about subsurface oil, microbes, dispersants, and safe seafood.

[Ian] MacDonald  [of Florida State University] was one of a panel of scientists who testified before the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. “In my scientific opinion,” he said, “the bulk of [the BP oil] was dispersed in surface layers, from which about one-third evaporated and 10 percent was removed by burning or skimming. An additional 10 percent was chemically dispersed.“The remaining fraction—over 50 percent of the total discharge—is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation. Much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments.” And the bad news, MacDonald added, is that “there is scant evidence for bacterial degradation of this material prior to burial.” –Janet Raloff, BP Oil: Gulf Sediment at Risk, Oceanographer Claims, USNews.com

Ah, so only some oil floats.  Some oil becomes suspended in the water.  And some oil sinks to the sea floor.  But what about those hungry microbes?  Do they magically eat the oil that is left behind?

“Animals that feed or burrow into deep-sea sediments are not adapted to oil,” he [MacDonald] notes. …So the existence of oil-loving bugs somewhere in the Gulf does not necessarily mean that they’ll migrate to chow down on BP’s oil if it lands long distances from their home ecosystem. And, MacDonald adds, the deeper that oil becomes buried, the less oxygen that’s available for the microbes that ordinarily break hydrocarbons down. Another problem with buried oil: “Any storm event tends to resuspend them,” MacDonald says, something that appears to explain fresh oilings of Florida beaches after turbulent weather. ~~ Janet Raloff, BP Oil: Gulf Sediment at Risk, Oceanographer Claims, USNews.com

Gosh.  That doesn’t sound quite as positive or simple as the cooking oil and dish soap demonstration BP and NOAA are giving the school children.  But maybe the oil and dispersant that is left behind isn’t as toxic.

…an initial analysis of the August data continues to show abnormally high levels of PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], similar to the 40-fold increase discovered earlier in the summer, said Kim Anderson, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. [snip]There are a range of health effects associated with PAHs,” said Anderson. “They are toxic by several different modes of action. We’re now using a technique that looks at the fraction of PAHs that are bioavailable – that have the potential to move into the food chain.”Anderson and her team are collecting samples from both the water and air along about 400 miles of the Gulf coastline.[snip]OPAHs [oxygen-containing derivatives of PAHs] are of great concern along the Gulf Coast because they are more mobile, persistent in the environment and likely bioavailable.The use of chemical dispersants during the oil spill coupled with the ultraviolet exposure in the Gulf may have increased the formation of OPAHs beyond expected levels. ~~OSU researchers find heightened levels of known carcinogens in Gulf, Oregon State University

Well that bioavailable bit doesn’t sound good. But maybe the concern about PAHs and OPAHs getting into the food chain is over blown.

…a recent piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted, “Although vertebrate marine life can clear PAHs from their system, these chemicals accumulate for years in invertebrates.” This of course raises concerns about the long-term safety of seafood—specifically, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other invertebrates. ~~ Kate Sheppard, Scientist Finds High Levels of Carcinogens in Gulf, Mother Jones

So according to the scientist, the oil is mostly still in the gulf, only some of the oil floats, the microbes don’t eat all the oil because they don’t live  every where the oil is, and the oil that remains is delivering toxins into our food chain.

What a strikingly different set of facts the scientist are presenting.   And I’ll bet none of them would win a hat or pen from BP and NOAA for their answers.

Could it be that the biggest myth out there is the one that presents BP and NOAA as truth tellers?


On a related note, President Obama to Appear on “Mythbusters”.

Apparently, in an effort to ignite interest in math and science, President Obama is going to be on Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” on Dec. 8th, 2010.  The episode will deal with the Siege of Syracuse, circa 214 B.C. and whether the Greek scientist Archimedes really set fire to an invading Roman fleet using only mirrors and the reflected rays of the sun.

That myth was already busted by the show back in 2006, but strangely it is of such a pressing nature that our President wants to address it again.  Too bad the President doesn’t find the myths of BP’s Gulf oil spill as worthy of his attention.




Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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