The Toxic Gulf

The uncalculated aftermath of the deepwater horizon oil spill

Blue Mountain Beach A-frame on the Florida Panhandle—Sturdivant's home break. The photograph was taken by Sturdivant on a swell that he felt was too toxic to surf. Photo: Sturdivant

Despite suffering burns on his skin, blurry vision, and respiratory complications, Mike Sturdivant continued surfing near his home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It wasn't until the second week of July, when he began coughing up blood, that he stopped surfing along the Gulf Coast altogether. "It became obvious to me that the symptoms I was experiencing were related to the stuff in the water," said Sturdivant, who serves as Chairman of the Surfrider Foundation's Emerald Coast chapter. "It was hard for me—that you could lose your beach just like that. You might lose access to it. And you might have to watch waves roll in that are clean and beautiful but toxic."

For almost a year thereafter, the few occasions that Sturdivant entered the water were spent conducting research. Along with James Kirby, a coastal geologist at the University of South Florida, he focused on sorting through the misinformation on the potential health risks posed by the spill.

Their most essential tool was a high-powered UV light that Kirby says he first used to detect engine leaks while serving in the Coast Guard in 1971. When the specially calibrated light is shone on oil, it glows a bright yellow, making it easy to identify. They aren't cheap, however, retailing for $3,350 from the New Hampshire-based company, ARA Vertek.

When Kirby first brought one of the high-powered lights to the Gulf Coast beaches at night, he described seeing an entire beach "glow orange, literally, from the dune line to the water line." He believed that the orange coloration under the UV light was a result of the oil mixing with Corexit, the chemical dispersant used to clean up the oil spill. It took almost two years of work, during which Surfrider sent 71 samples from the beaches for testing. The results verified that the material that glowed orange was, in fact, tar product from crude oil mixed with Corexit dispersant.

Perhaps the most alarming trend found in their research was that toxicity levels in the samples remained consistently high after more than a year of testing, rather than slowly declining as expected. In April 2012, Kirby released his own report, citing a 2011 study by the US Naval Research Laboratory, which concluded that "microbial populations are susceptible to toxicity from the use of COREXIT EC9500A when applied at prescribed concentrations." In short, the chemicals used to clean up the spill were killing the bacteria that would have biodegraded the oil naturally in just two or three months. As a result, two years later, there are still toxic levels of tar product on Gulf Coast beaches.

Many of these beaches have already been deemed clean according to the standards set forth in the National Contingency Plan, which specifies that a beach is clean if a sampling area of 1 square meter has less than 1 percent of oil visible on the surface.

A Surfrider crew collecting samples for testing. Photo: Sturdivant
A tar ball under the UV lighting. Photo: Sturdivant

Sturdivant sees the lax standards as a way of sidestepping the responsibility to ensure that the coast is clean. They presented their initial findings more than a year ago to the Unified Command—the organizational structure that responded to the disaster, which is comprised of the Coast Guard, EPA, NOAA, BP, each affected state's Department of Environmental Protection, and other impacted groups. Yet nothing changed with regard to government policy. In his view, "The entire [cleanup] operation has been geared around making things invisible. And that's why they're using the dispersant. It's not because it will help speed up the degradation of the oil. It's because it makes it invisible."

Yet by incorporating the use of high-powered UV lights, the contamination is now visible. While the Florida Department of Health previously denied that wet skin facilitates greater absorption of these chemicals, James Kirby's report finds that "wet skin contact with tar product created from weathered dispersed crude oil results in immediate absorption into the skin," which he discovered by using the UV lights. Moreover, according to the study, Corexit dispersant is believed to speed up the rate at which absorption occurs.

Although Kirby's study makes important new connections on the health risks posed by the spill, he is unsure whether it will promote any real change due to fear of the consequences. He recalled handing his UV light over to a family who came out of their home one night as he was conducting research along the beach. "They shined the light on their toes and they were all orange. They all went, 'Oh gross.' And that's the point—if you knew you were going to be exposed to this stuff from going to the beach, why would you?"

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has been scrupulous in its appropriation of the $20-billion fund set up by BP to compensate affected individuals and businesses for their financial losses. "They definitely made you jump through some hoops to get money," said Tim Carr, Owner of Fluid Surf Shop in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, who was compensated for his losses but wouldn't disclose the amount. "We even got investigated by BP randomly, just to makes sure we were a legitimate store."

Independent researchers like James Kirby and organizations like Surfrider aren't expecting compensation for the thousands of dollars spent on equipment and lab testing in their studies. Instead, they hope their work might lead to a revision of the National Contingency Plan, which specifies how to respond to future oil spills. Discontinuing the use of chemicals such as Corexit and more stringent screening processes for determining whether a beach is clean or toxic seem like minimally decent compensation for their work.

Today Sturdivant is back in the water, using his body to discern whether it's safe to surf near his home. He no longer spends time sitting on the beach due to the high levels of contamination, but wouldn't think of leaving the Gulf Coast. "I'm choosing to live in a place that's beautiful and where I can go surfing by walking down the street," he said. "We make those decisions about what's important in life and set up our lives around what we love."

A section of beach on the Florida Panhandle under regular lights. Photo: Sturdivant
The same section under UV lighting. Photo: Sturdivant
Sturdivant says this tarball was discarded by Unified Command as it was not a product of the Deepwater Horizon spill. But subsequent tests by Surfrider yielded that it was a perfect match to the footprint of oil from the spill. Photo: Sturdivant