Even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls for more research into the long-term effects of the chemical dispersants BP used in the Gulf, representatives of BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have reached out to local schools to “dispel myths” about dispersants and subsurface oil, according to recent reports in the Houma Courier and the Tri-Parish Times. (We first noticed the Tri-Parish Times piece via TreeHugger.)
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.” (The oil-floats argument is also what then-BP CEO Tony Hayward said when first confronted with evidence of underwater oil plumes this summer.)
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.
Scientists, as we’ve reported, have found thick layers of oily sediment on the Gulf sea floor. And more recently, researchers at Oregon State University found abnormally high levels of carcinogenic chemicals in water off the coast of Louisiana, Mother Jones noted.
We’ve asked both NOAA and BP for comment regarding the demonstrations. A BP spokeswoman told me she was working on putting together a response, but has not yet provided one. We’ve asked specifically what “myths” about dispersants the company was trying to dispel.
In any case, here’s how the company explained the outreach to the Tri-Parish Times:
"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."
According to BP representatives, it won't be the last demonstration.
"This is the first session of many going on," Charles Gaiennie, a BP representative said at Oaklawn's library last week. "We are starting here in Terrebonne Parish with eighth grade because they are the first of school age kids that have a defined science class. We wanted to reach out to schools that are near communities that have been directly impacted by the oil spill, so Terrebonne was a good choice. There's a lot of information that's out there isn't current or accurate."
During one demonstration, reported the Tri-Parish Times, a BP representative asked the students questions about the oil spill. Students who answered correctly received a BP hat or pen as a prize.