No Petrol, No Problem?


By Matt Walker
Photos by Mike Sturdivant

“That was a bad day for me. I was in tears. And it was kind of a bring it home moment because it was my beach.”

Emerald Coast Surfrider Co-Chair Mike Sturdivant is describing the moment he walked on his Florida Panhandle beach and came face-to-face with his first dead sea turtle. That was barely two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank, igniting the Gulf Coast’s worst oil spill ever. He says you don’t see much wildlife on the sand these days. (He says you don’t see much in the water, either.) But you still do see humans. Kids splashing. In the case of last week’s head-high swell, folks surfing. Even in places where the sheen showed just a few days before. But it’s not the oil that’s scaring Mike — it’s what you can’t see, skim or collect. Namely, the dispersants BP sprayed at the spill site in hopes of breaking it up.

Called Corexit 9500, the chemicals involved include neurotoxins and carcinogens. Stuff that causes organ damage and even reproductive side effects. Used in the Exxon Valdez disaster, some link the short lifespan of cleanup workers (an average of 51 years) to its toxic effects. Yet, as of July 1, BP had dumped more than 2 million gallons of it. Meanwhile, coastal towns and federal officials keep saying that as long as there’s no petrol, there’s no problem. And so the kids keep splashing. The surfers keep surfing. And Mike Sturdivant? He keeps wondering: what’s gonna happen two decades from now, when the visible effects are gone? “Everyone’s so worried about the oil on the beach,” he says. “But I think it’s the unseen stuff that’s gonna get us.”

We talked with Mike about his ongoing effort to get the truth — and get it out there.

SURFING Magazine: A month ago the Department of Environmental Protection had stopped testing for dispersants. Have they started again now?
Mike Sturdivant: There was a gap of about a month where the DEP wasn’t testing at all anywhere — much less in Florida — and we strongly wanted them to do that. Since, then they’ve started again, though very sporadically. But what they’re testing for may or may not yield any results. They’re looking for an ethanol and an alcohol — substances that dissipate very quickly. And we’ve been talking to independent laboratories who told us you’d probably never see dispersants testing for those substances. So we were hoping the DEP would do a different form of testing. I worry they may be using new tests to show false positives. Just to say, “We tested for dispersants and none were present.”

Kind of a PR scam.
Right. I’m not a chemist. So I don’t know for certain. But our county was using bacteria testing as a false negative. They kept saying, “The water is clean,” when in fact, they were only testing for bacteria.

When we talked a few weeks ago, a girl had cornea burns. There were skin burns. What’s the latest?
Well, I think a lot of people have just backed off and are not going in the water — though the swell last week was so good a lot of people just jumped back in. But I haven’t heard of any other extreme cases. Mostly just respiratory stuff. Burning eyes. That sort of thing. But the possible consequences of the dispersants are so much more severe, and they’re also long-term. Affecting livers, kidneys, causing cancer — you don’t see that sort of thing later in the day.

Much less reproductive issues.
Exactly. For me, for my son, it’s already decided. He won’t be back in the water this summer. He’s 8 and that’s really unfortunate because he was gonna bust out his big surfing move this year. He’s finally paddling on his own, catching waves, was gonna have the best summer ever. But I just can’t take that risk for him.

So what do you do about keeping folks safe?
Well, we tried to partner with the county to do tests, but they backed out. I think we’re back to initiating our own testing. But $400 to $500 per test will add up quick, so we’re trying to figure out the best method before we spend the money. The problem with the whole spill in general is we’re developing systems as we go along, and it’s excruciatingly slow. And it’s especially frustrating when you see BP spending $500 each day for a newspaper ad saying, “We’ll make this right,” when they could be doing something good for the community. It’s maddening. But the dispersants are supposed to attach themselves to oil, so anywhere the oil is distributed there should be dispersants.

What if you can’t see any oil? That seems the sketchiest part. Where is the invisible barrier?
And how much is too much? Can you get in for just a little while? Today we have a six-foot swell rolling in and it sure would be nice to go surfing. But we just don’t know. And I don’t want to necessarily tell everybody their arm’s gonna fall off if they go in. But at the same time people are asking if it’s clean, and I can’t honestly tell them that it is. But hopefully the water’s okay. Hopefully, folks won’t be hurt. I do know this: there’s already enough oil out there to make for some serious dead zones, so I think we’re gonna get the worst red tide ever. And long term, we have even more serious consequences. And they’re all under the radar.

Gulf Coast waters on a hot summer day — dangerously irresistible.
Gulf Coast waters on a hot summer day — dangerously irresistible.
In the use of oil dispersants, is the cure worse than the disease?
In the use of oil dispersants, is the cure worse than the disease?
A solid swell last week proved too tempting for many Gulf surfers to pass up.
A solid swell last week proved too tempting for many Gulf surfers to pass up.
Fun — but worth cancer?
Fun — but worth cancer?

Almost all Exxon Valdez cleanup workers are now dead. CNN investigates dispersants:

“Corexit is expontentially more dangerous than other dispersants that are out there.”

For more on dispersants and their effects, Click here and here.

To sign a petition asking BP to stop using them, click here. And to track fresh incidents of oil, use the SkyTruth Spill Tracker.