Humans have a crippling oil addiction that extinguishes far more lives than any drug.
The oil dilemma we face is not a one-dimensional problem. Media outlets and legislation fixate on lowering emissions and diminishing our global carbon footprint by consuming less oil, but MPG and efficiency can’t tell the whole story. Continued reliance on a fleeting resource like crude oil means developing new (and often riskier) ways to obtain and distribute the precious black gold. Massive pipelines are built underground to ship oil from its source to destinations around the globe. While these pipelines may offer the most efficient distribution method for oil companies, their repeated negative impact has far-reaching implications.
The 2016 Alabama Oil Spill
The Colonial Pipeline, a massive line that runs from Houston to New York and carries 1.3 million barrels of gasoline each day to the east coast, recently spilled more than 250,000 gallons in rural Shelby County, Alabama. The Colonial Pipeline Company shut the line down within 20 minutes of the leak’s discovery, but not soon enough to stop the damage.
The story has gone largely uncovered by our national media; Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal both ran stories about the spill’s implication on gas prices and the oil industry’s ability to recover quickly.
For as long as we’ve been spilling oil, we’ve been attacking the aftermath with chemicals and other mostly-futile technology, but what if the answer to cleaning up our mess was right in front of us all along? What if cannabis (once again) holds the answer to a significant human problem?
Enter hemp, and the bioremediation it can facilitate — if we let it.
What is Bioremediation?
Certain plants, like industrially-grown hemp, contain microbes that can break down petroleum hydrocarbons — a major molecular ingredient in crude oil. The microbes then feed on the oil, metabolizing it to sustain themselves and grow.
Hemp, Inc., a Las Vegas-based company that specializes in industrial hemp cultivation and manufacturing, knew the potential impact harmful chemical dispersants would have and offered a natural solution. Because hemp has been illegal in the United States for nearly 80 years, Hemp Inc. used another fiber called kenaf to demonstrate their safer alternative to the dispersants. Kenaf comes from the inner core fiber of hibiscus plants; it’s remarkably similar to hemp fibers.
“We took roughly 2,000 pounds of it (kenaf) down to the Gulf in Louisiana. We couldn’t get through all the political red tape to demonstrate our product so we made a pile of it on the beach. It was totally amazing to watch all the birds and other small animals that were completely covered in oil walk in and through the pile of kenaf and how easily it removed the oil from them. It was like they instinctively knew that this mound of kenaf would help save their lives,” said David Schmitt, COO of Hemp, Inc.
Currently, Hemp Inc. manufactures two products that aid in the cleanup of oil spills and other environmental pollutants. Both Spill-Be-Gone and SpillSuck are produced from kenaf, but the company claims it will switch the formula to industrial cannabis hemp once the law allows for it.
The U.S. Navy conducted research on the absorbency of natural fibers like kenaf in 1999, concluding in their study, “Kenaf core particles and powder are one of the most absorbent natural materials on earth.”
When the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had a blowout in its well, the resulting explosion ended 11 human lives and countless animal lives by spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil (210M gal) into the Gulf of Mexico. The leak took three months to cap, endangering virtually any and all wildlife that inhabited the marine space or the beaches that it touched. The United States government allowed BP to utilize chemical dispersants to prevent the toxic oil from reaching land or other connected bodies of water. Once they got the necessary approval to destroy the apparently US-owned ocean, BP obtained a third of the world’s supply of Corexit 9500 and 9527.
What is Corexit?
Corexit is a harmful chemical used to break up oil slicks that sit on top of the water. Sprayed onto the ocean surface by airplane, Corexit emulsifies the oil into minuscule droplets that sink to the seafloor, out of view from the pesky news helicopters that weren’t there in the first place.
From there, the oil just stays there — forever! While the oil deposits rest comfortably in their new ocean floor property, the marine wildlife which once inhabited the surrounding space are forced to the surface to seek oxygen and food, where they are met with a thick layer of Corexit. The toxic chemical has a synergistic effect when applied to oil, creating an even more toxic agent. A 2012 study in Environmental Pollution Journal conducted by researchers from Georgia Tech and Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes stated that Corexit had increased the toxicity of the spilled BP oil by up to 52 times. Corexit is banned for use in 18 countries, including the UK.
An excerpt from a fascinating David Kirby story in Take Part on Corexit and the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon paints a deeply disturbing picture:
BP says that Corexit is harmless to marine life, while the Environmental Protection Agency has waffled, saying both that “long term effects [of dispersants]on aquatic life are unknown” and that data “do not indicate any significant effects on aquatic life. Moreover, decreased size of the oil droplets is a good indication that, so far, the dispersant is effective.”
But many scientists, such as Dr. William Sawyer, a Louisiana toxicologist, argue that Corexit can be deadly to people and sea creatures alike. “Corexit components are also known as deodorized kerosene,” Sawyer said in a written statement for the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, a legal consortium representing environmental groups and individuals affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. “With respect to marine toxicity and potential human health risks, studies of kerosene exposures strongly indicate potential health risks to volunteers, workers, sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles and all species which need to surface for air exchanges, as well as birds and all other mammals.” When Corexit mixes with and breaks down crude, it makes the oil far more “bioavailable” to plants and animals, critics allege, because it is more easily absorbed in its emulsified state.
Marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott told Al Jazeera in 2014, “The dispersants used in BP’s draconian experiment contain solvents, such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber. It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known.”
Following the Deepwater Horizon incident and subsequent attempt at a cleanup effort, many concerned activists and researchers wondered why there wasn’t more dead marine wildlife washing up on shore. Between the immense oil concentration of the Gulf in that area and the unprecedented amount of Corexit sprayed the surface water, there should have been far more carcasses than what was observed on the beach. Something fishy was going on.
While the U.S. Government made claims that 75% of the oil had been cleaned up and the rest would be handled by “mother nature,” fishermen out on the Gulf were providing a contradicting narrative. An anonymous fisherman who had to take a contracted cleanup job with BP after all the fish mysteriously disappeared from the area told Mother Nature Network’s Karl Burkart that while out near the site of the now-sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, he witnessed a “near-apocalyptic” scene of countless floating bodies. The shocked fisherman saw thousands of birds, fish, dolphins, and whales — “as far as the eye can see,” he recalled. The amount of dead animals wasn’t really surprising when you think of the trauma inflicted on their natural habitat in such a short amount of time. The truly shocking part was how BP tried to cover up their existence.
The BP Oil Spill Cover-Up
There were reports of massive carcass fields forming after being carried by ocean currents. BP was reportedly collecting the deceased carcasses from these spots before they could reach the beaches or public view. While they claim it was for public health reasons, many activists believe they had ulterior motives. BP, and any entity found responsible for an environmental disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill, are held monetarily responsible for every single lost life, meaning there is a specific dollar amount placed on each human or animal killed as a direct result of the leak. The anonymous fisherman also reported that BP and its affiliates were transporting the carcasses to a secret location watched by armed security for disposal. His report was later confirmed by a separate Gulf cleanup worker.
Dr. Ott was the subject of another interview by Huffington Post’s Jerry Cope, where she described some of the alleged cover-up. Here is an excerpt:
JC: There has been a great deal of discussion about the disappearance of the animals and the life in the ocean which seem to have vanished since this incident has occurred. What do you know about this?
RO: Well I have been down in the Gulf since May 3rd. It’s pretty consistent what I have heard. First I heard from the offshore workers and the boat captains that were coming in and they would see windrows of dead things piled up on the barrier islands; turtles and birds and dolphins… whales…
RO: And whales. There would be stories from boat captains of offshore, we started calling death gyres, where the rips all the different currents sweep the oceans surface, that would be the collection points for hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles and birds and even whales floating. So we got four different times latitudes/longitude coordinates where (this was happening) but by the time we got to these lat/longs which is always a couple of days later there was nothing there. There was boom put around these areas to collect the animals and we know this happened at Exxon Valdez too. The rips are where the dead things collect. We also know from Exxon Valdez that only 1% in our case of the carcasses that floated off to sea actually made landfall in the Gulf of Alaska. I don’t believe there have been any carcass drift studies down here that would give us some indication that when something does wash up on the beach what percentage it is of the whole. But we know that offshore there was an attempt by BP and the government to keep the animals from coming onshore in great numbers. The excuse was this was a health problem — we don’t want to create a health hazard. That would only be a good excuse if they kept tallies of all the numbers because all the numbers – all the animals – are evidence for federal court. We the people own these animals and they become evidence for damages to charge for BP. In Exxon Valdez the carcasses were kept under triple lock and key security until the natural resource damage assessment study was completed and that was 2 1/2 years after the spill. Then all the animals were burned but not until then.
So people offshore were reporting this first and then carcasses started making it onshore. Then I started hearing from people in Alabama a lot and the western half of Florida – a little bit in Mississippi – but mostly what was going on then there was an attempt to keep people off the beaches, cameras off the beaches.
If the oil companies and U.S. Government are so concerned with cost-cutting in the aftermath of a catastrophic spill, hemp fiber bioremediation seems like a no-brainer solution. However, as is usually the case, political bureaucracy and the almighty dollar are placed ahead of public health and animal welfare. As marijuana prohibition slowly but surely disappears, it will be interesting to see if common sense prevails; hemp should once again be treated like the treasured resource it always was.
We’ve made improvements as a species towards a more eco-friendly future (see: electric cars, solar panels, McDonald’s bags made from previously used McDonald’s bags, etc.), but we still prioritize money over environmental impact. Until that greed-fueled mindset ceases to be the prevailing philosophy, we won’t see real change.
Cover Image Courtesy of the LA Times