Guest Post: Government Response to Gulf Oil Spill Was “A Little Bit Like Custer Underestimating The Number Of Indians On The Other Side Of The Hill”

Washington’s Blog

Oil Spill Commission co-chair Bob Graham slammed the administration’s handling of the Gulf oil disaster, including its low-ball estimates of the size of the spill ( which was some 60 times too low):

It’s a little bit like Custer underestimating the number of Indians on the other side of the hill and paying a price for that ….

(Of course, since the Oil Spill Commission won’t have any subpoena power, that inquiry might be toothless.)

And the low-balling of oil spill impacts is continuing to this day.

For example, our tax dollars are being used to convince kids that Gulf seafood is safe, because oil “floats”, dispersants are harmless and wildlife is hearty:

A scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered with BP to answer eighth graders’ questions about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Gary Ott, science support coordinator with NOAA, demonstrated the basic science behind the oil spill and its cleanup for students using an aquarium filled with water as the Gulf of Mexico and cooking oil mixed with Hershey’s cocoa powder to represent BP’s spilled oil.

“Should you be afraid to eat shrimp?” Ott asked the library full of eighth graders. Some answered “Yes,” some said “No.”

But Ott assured them it was safe, and set out to explain why.


Other presentations at local schools are planned.


Using a pump at the bottom of the aquarium, Ott released the oil-cocoa mixture into the water, and students watched the oil globs rocket to the top and stay there in a slick.

“Oil floats. See, we’ve tested it,” Ott said.


A rubber ducky also went into the spill, representing oiled birds.


Of course, the oil doesn’t disappear when it’s dispersed, Ott acknowledged. It stays suspended in the water column for weeks where it can hurt some fish species. But it is broken down within weeks by hungry oil-eating microbes, he said. It’s a trade-off officials accept to keep huge slicks of oil from floating into wetlands and oiling birds, Ott said.

Ocean life in the real world, of course, is a tad more sensitive to pollution than a plastic rubber ducky.

And in the real world, as little as 2% of all oil which spills from deepwater wells ever makes it to the surface of the ocean (see this for detail), and the massive application of dispersants caused the remaining oil to sink under the surface. So the whole oil floats thing is ridiculous.

And scientists say that oil-eating microbes are not quickly breaking down the oil. Indeed, instead of oil-eating microbes breaking down the oil, they appear to have instead gorged themselves – according to the Los Angeles Times – on gases in the water.

And instead of just nourishing the good guys (oil-eating microbes), the oil and dispersants in the Gulf may be strengthening bacteria which are harmful to humans and seafood.

PhD toxicologist and oil spill expert Riki Ott has repeatedly raised this possibility. See this and this.

And as I have previously pointed out, scientists have found an oil-eating microbe in the Gulf which is in the same family as Vibrio and other nasty, disease-causing pathogens.

And as the New York Times noted in June:

Some bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico love eating oil as much as they like infecting humans.


Scientists have long known that the ultimate end of the crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the damaged BP PLC well will rest in the hands of marine bacteria, single-cell organisms that have been purging the seas of oil from natural seeps for millenia, having only recently added human folly to their cleanup resume. Without these bacteria, whose numbers surge in response to hydrocarbons, enough oil would leak each year to coat the world’s oceans in a fine film, molecules deep.

Beneath this awareness, however, sit vast reserves of uncertainty. Microbiologists are unsure which bacteria, feeding off the oil, are already growing exponentially in the Gulf. They are curious how long the bacterial growth will last once the oil’s hard remnants drift down into ocean sediment. And no one seems certain how the surge in microbial life will alter the intricate, disentangling web of the Gulf’s already weakened ecology.


“The question is: Will there be an inadvertent enhancement of the growth of these potential human pathogens?” said Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and an expert in marine microbial life. “It’s a question, and the answer is uncertain.”

So far, hard evidence is scant. Grimes recently examined an oiled water sample taken by the research ship Pelican. The oil, likely exposed to dispersant, was finely divided. Using gene-staining technology, Grimes discovered several microbes attached to the droplet. Now glowing blue, they had been gorging. At least one was a Vibrio.

“There’s no question bacteria, in general, increase following spills, and this includes Vibrios,” said Jim Oliver, a Vibrio specialist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Whether the pathogenic Vibrios “significantly increase is unsure, I would say, but they are coastal bacteria … so [they] could well increase either as a direct result of oil degradation or as a side effect of the added nutrient levels.”

The ingredients are there for heightened concern, Oliver added. The carcasses of bacteria feeding off the oil will increase overall nutrient levels as sweltering summer temperatures hit their peak. While there are natural controls, like bacterial viruses and protozoa, that can check Vibrio growth, those can be overwhelmed, studies have shown. And because of the cleanup, more people could be coming into direct contact with the bacteria.

“I think that combination could lead to very serious public health concerns,” Oliver said.

The Times also notes that some species of Vibrio can contaminate seafood , especially oysters.

As Florida Oil Spill Law reports:

The National Science Foundation awarded a rapid response grant to research this very topic, From the NSF website on June 21, 2010:

How are the oysters faring with the oil spill? The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a rapid response grant to scientists Crystal Johnson, Gary King and Ed Laws of Louisiana State University (LSU) to find out.

The researchers will look at how the abundance and virulence of naturally-occurring bacteria called Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus, often found in oyster beds, may change in response to the spill.

The findings will provide insights into vibrios’ ability to “consume” oil, and will allow the biologists to uncover antibiotic compounds in certain species of phytoplankton that live in association with vibrios.

Adaptation to the spilled oil may result in an increase in some types of vibrios,” says Johnson. “We believe that vibrios will change in response to the stress of direct exposure to oil and/or to indirect effects of interactions with other species affected by oil.”

Vibrios… may even help break down the components of the oil.

“Little is known about how microbes–in the water, along coasts, and associated with other species–are affected by the spill,” says Phillip Taylor, acting director of NSF’s Ocean Sciences Division.

“Through this NSF rapid response grant, these scientists will be able to track the oil’s effects on marine species living in the Gulf, and by extension, the possible threat to human health.” …

Oil-induced changes in phytoplankton community composition and their associated bacterial communities are related to changes in vibrio abundance,” he says. Some species of phytoplankton in Louisiana and Mississippi coastal waters may excrete antibiotics that inhibit the growth of vibrios, according to Laws.

(the Florida Oil Spill Law article also documents the terrible disease that Vibrio can cause in humans.)

Indeed, there are many other reports of health problems among Gulf residents. See this, this and this.

Moreover, as the Tampa Tribune notes, the oil and dispersants are still there:

Most of the oil and dispersant are still below the surface and have the potential to cause long-term damage the eco-system, according to University of South Florida researcher John Paul who is included in a documentary debuting Tuesday night in the National Geographic Channel.


They discovered plumes of dispersed oil at the bottom of an undersea canyon about 40 miles off the Florida Panhandle.

It was found to be toxic to microscopic sea organisms, causing mutations to their DNA.

If this plankton at the base of the marine food chain is contaminated, it could affect the whole ecosystem of the Gulf.


“The problem with mutant DNA is that it can be passed on and we don’t how this will affect fish or other marine life,” he says, adding that the effects could last for decades.

In addition, more and more evidence points to the continued application of dispersant in the Gulf. See this, this, this and this.

The government and BP continue to act like General Custer … and the Gulf will pay a heavy price for their negligence.

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. libhomo

    I am so sick of government and media being totally beholden to British Petroleum and their lies. The “watchdogs” are such pathetic lapdogs.

  2. kievite

    Question: I am hearing this “below the surface” for a long time. How this is possible if oil density is less the density of water.

    From my high school physics class my understanding is that most oil should be close to the surfice and disperced below only by wave action unless it has other density (very heavy oil close to tar) or if it is mixed with sand. That also means that tar generally should sink after the destruction of lighter fraction in oil plum.

    1. scraping_by

      Digging through Fundamentals of the Petroleum Industry by Robert O. Anderson, I find the crude oil is not one substance, but many hydrocarbons, each with its own specific gravity. The light gasoline liquids and heavy tar solids are more dense than water, and would therefore sink or float, depending on how strong the local current. While most crudes are lighter than water, from 79 to 95 per cent comparable density, some are heavier right out of the ground.

      And this doesn’t even answer questions about whether dispersants broke the floating hydrocarbons into lighter molecules, allowing them to evaporate, or clumped them together so that it sank. All we know is that it took it off the surface.

      The science that BP and the Obama administration depends on isn’t based on observation. The observations are coming in, and they’re not looking good.

  3. C

    I would be totally convinced that eating stuff from the gulf were safe if Obama and the CEO of BP would each drink an 8oz glass of crude followed by an 8oz chaser of Corexit daily for a week.

    You have to love this sort of statement: “The two dispersants used during the oil spill, Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500, contain many ingredients “found in common household products.” from Let’s see, I have Clorox, ammonia, Draino, DeCon and a few other choice “household products” around, none of which I want in my food.

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