Oil, Dispersants, and Despair

A Filmmaker’s Thoughts from the Front Lines of the Oil Spill

Mike deGruy
Michael Hanrahan

This week marks the 100-day anniversary of the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. On April 20, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up off the coast of Louisiana for reasons that remain unknown. Killing 11 rig workers, the catastrophic explosion opened up the floodgates to a mind-boggling flow of oil that spewed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico until July 15.

Coming at the worst possible time of year for the fragile underwater ecosystems that call the Gulf home — not to mention the scores of Gulf-region communities that lean heavily on the fishing industry to make ends meet — the fallout from the disaster, as devastating as it has already been, is really only beginning to be understood.

<strong>SURVEYING THE SCENE:</strong> Santa Barbara-based underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy traveled to the Gulf of Mexico last month to witness firsthand — via planes, boats, and automobiles — the devastation of the BP oil spill.
Michael Hanrahan

For Santa Barbara-based filmmaker Mike deGruy, who is known the world over for making underwater movies for National Geographic, PBS, BBC, and the Discovery Channel — not to mention producing an impressive list of his own projects — the spill has struck both a professional and personal chord. For deGruy, a native of Mobile, Alabama, who first fell in love with the underwater world thanks to his upbringing on the Gulf Coast and who later pursued a PhD in marine biology before his unexpected detour into the world of underwater nature films, the story of the spill and the fallout it will have on the marine life in the Gulf has been foremost on his mind since that fateful April day.

Just back from an almost month-long tour of the Gulf region, not to mention a last-minute invite to take part in a U.S. government-sanctioned, high-powered powwow on the subject in D.C. in early June, deGruy sat down with The Independent last week to recount his experiences at the front lines of what is fast becoming the worst environmental disaster of our lifetime. Here is an adapted version of his talk with news reporter Ethan Stewart.

Tell me a little bit about your motivation for this trip. I grew up in Mobile. I know that area well. That’s why I dropped everything and flew out there. A lot of the friends I grew up with are impacted by or are involved in the cleanup, and others even work in the oil industry itself, so this is very close to my heart. These are the bodies of water that I grew up on — Mobile Bay, the Mississippi Delta, Dolphin Island, and so on.

Some of these places, the Mississippi Delta especially, are true gems of the world, and I’ve been around. I’ve seen lots of gems. You cannot underestimate how important these places are — these swamps and bayous and these swamp people and their subsistence existence. Probably 40 percent of [the seafood] we eat in this country is coming from there. And now, what has happened, is WHAM! At a flick of a switch, all that has been taken away from them. They have absolutely no income, and their lifestyle has completely changed virtually overnight. … This is a story that simply has to be told.

So you head back to Mobile and connect with old friends. Then what? Basically, I did a whistle-stop tour through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida and just drove through, meeting with different people and agencies, looking, talking, assessing, and getting out and under the water when I could. Then I moved on to the scientific community and spent a lot of time talking with scientists so that I could get a handle on what exactly they are doing … You know, what impact is all this oil and dispersant going to have?

<strong>SIGN OF THE TIMES:</strong> A tell-tale ring of oil traces the hull of the boat that Mike deGruy and fellow ocean filmmaker Michael Hanrahan took out into the Gulf to assess the situation both under and above the water.
Michael Hanrahan

How bad is it? That is to say, does the general public have any idea? Look, this is far worse than what we are hearing. All the mainstream news really gives us is the low-hanging fruit, the easiest stories, the obvious: birds covered in oil and turtles dying sort-of-stuff. This is certainly horrible, but you have to understand, this has been just an incredible gusher — somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 barrels a day were dumping into the Gulf for weeks on end, and in that were millions of gallons of dispersant.

When we watch the news, we are not hearing about what is happening in the water column — you only get a surface perspective. We are not hearing about the incredible volume of oil that is dispersed under the water, out of sight, and what impact that is having on the life in the Gulf, from the deepwater corals to the sargassum to the sturgeon to the shrimp and so on. These are the real long-term impacts and no one is talking about them.

You mentioned dispersants. What role is that stuff playing? The thinking was — and I’m not going to argue with it — is that if you put dispersant in the water and pump it into the leak, then the oil will break up; it doesn’t all hit the surface and then it won’t all make it to the shoreline. But the reality is that it is a dispersant — it doesn’t remove anything or make the oil go away. It might look better from above, but the oil is still somewhere in the water and it is still making it into the shorelines and the wetlands and causing serious destruction. Only now, it is actually harder to clean the stuff up. There is no real definition now between the oil and the water. It is just kind of a murky area with oil droplets everywhere sticking all over you and the fish. It is just nasty, nasty stuff.

Nasty? It is banned outright in the U.K., but it is being squirted in huge volumes into the Gulf. I honestly think it is criminal what we are doing with dispersants … It is completely untested as to what it does when used on this scale … Nobody has a clue really as to what impact all this dispersant will have on the environment — it is like one big science experiment. I saw it in action underwater. It is everywhere and in every part of the water column whereas, without it, the oil would only be up on the surface.

Now, the oil and the dispersant is going to make its way into these major nursery grounds throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico. These marshes and eel grass and different tidal wetlands that fill with eggs and juveniles every year and provide the foundation for whole populations are going to get hit with this stuff … Worst case scenario is they all die. If that happens, even for only one year, what does that mean? Nobody knows, but it sure isn’t going to be pretty.

What about access? Much has been made about BP preventing the media from reporting on things the oil company doesn’t want them to. Did you experience anything like that? First off, you need to understand that [BP officials] are minimizing things. They are being fined for every barrel of oil that spills, so it behooves them — that is why they are using dispersant — to keep things out of sight, out of mind. That being said, for me at least, the story I want to tell has to start at the wellhead and then follow the oil out from there. To date, nobody has really had access to the actual site of the disaster … So one of my first jobs was to approach BP — I think I contacted them for the first time in the days immediately after the spill — and gain their trust and get access. BP is the one you have to go through.

Right now they hold the lock and key to that door down there. I don’t understand how you can allow a foreign national company to come in and dictate policy like this and keep people from telling the true story of what’s happening, but that is how it is working and you just have to deal with it.

How did that work out for you? I have to be careful in what exactly I say about it, but through some connections I was able — after a bit of back-and-forth — to get a sit-down with a big mucky-muck BP executive; he is basically their number-three guy. I had like a 45-minute meeting with him and tried to convince him to let me tell the story, an unbiased story about the incredibly difficult task they were up against. I mean, I have worked in the underwater realm for a long time, and I know firsthand how hard it is to do some of the things they have accomplished since the spill.

Believe me, some of the deepwater operations they have attained with underwater robotics have been amazing … And, you know, I have no interest in slapping anyone around. They actually made me put that in writing … So to answer your question, I worked very, very hard to gain access to the inner workings of BP and the wellhead, but just last week I got what I consider to be my final answer from them and they said no.

Based on what you experienced, was there one area in particular that you think will suffer the worst from the fallout? This is peak fishing season right now, so the suffering has already begun. There are many, many, many communities down there that are completely dependent on the seafood industry — shrimp, crab, oysters, crawfish. This spill happened at the worst possible time for these species whether you fish out of Louisiana or Alabama or northern Florida … But I would say Louisiana stands to lose the most, especially from the wildlife standpoint. Not just because it was closest to the spill, but because it is such a complicated coastline with bays and marshes and bayous, and the biodiversity and nursery grounds it provides for so many species. Louisiana stands to lose the most and, unfortunately, probably will.

Hyperbole or truth: This is the worst natural disaster of our lifetime? I think, without question, this is the largest environmental disaster of my lifetime. I mean, if it gets worse than this, then you are talking about lots of people dying … Unfortunately, the cap finally being put in place — and thank God it is — isn’t the beginning of the end of this thing. It is really only the end of the beginning. Now, the real work begins. Probably, if we make the right decisions, the Gulf is going to be all right in the long run. I truly believe that. The ocean has an incredible ability — sooner or later — to heal itself. But what is sooner or later? Who knows? Is it going to be 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years? I don’t know, but it certainly isn’t going to be next year and it might not even be in our lifetime.


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