Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Caution
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. They also call for extraordinary caution. In the current oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, EPA is engaging in both. There is no doubt that the Gulf tragedy is among the worst, if not the worst, environmental disaster in U.S. history. While we cannot erase the terrible impacts of this catastrophe, we must do everything in our power to prevent them from reaching their full potential.
The Gulf Coast is one of the most fertile in the world. The potential devastation to this economically and environmentally precious ecosystem is tremendous.
What has happened? Aggressive actions have been taken to keep oil away from the Gulf’s irreplaceable estuaries. Skimming, burning, and booming were employed and dispersants were applied to keep toxic oil away from the shore. No one wanted to use dispersants; they were applied as an effort of last resort. That is why extraordinary cautions have been taken every step of the way: constant monitoring for dissolved oxygen levels, toxicity tests on the small organism the rotifer, and the determination of particle size to determine if the dispersant was working as intended. The testing day-in and day-out is a manifestation of our recognition that even in cases where you truly believe a particular trade-off is necessary, you never act with the arrogant assumption that your actions are correct. Instead, you must constantly question, verify, and validate your actions with monitoring, analysis, and use of the best available science and data.
What are the results? The data so far show that the dispersants tested are similar to one another and fall into the “slightly-toxic” or “practically nontoxic” categories and do not persist in the environment. The data also show that the oil-dispersant mixtures are no more toxic to aquatic species than oil is alone. Dispersants make oil break down more rapidly in the environment and therefore decrease the oil’s ability to cause a wide range of well-known physical and chemical hazards. Does that mean all questions are answered? No. That is precisely why aggressive monitoring, testing, and questioning continue. Releasing dispersants into the ocean is an extraordinary action and it is clear that extraordinary prudence is required.
The term 'scientific integrity' is often used to describe an essential pillar of our work. It reflects our understanding that sound science is an irreplaceable necessity in ensuring the integrity of our actions and our decisions. In the absence of scientific vigilance, the integrity of our actions is questionable. The work of EPA scientists—both in the tragedy we currently face, and in upholding the Agency’s central mission—is an on-going tribute to the pursuit of environmental protection with integrity, honesty, and humility.
Paul T. Anastas
Office of Research and Development