The Toxic Gulf

The uncalculated aftermath of the deepwater horizon oil spill

| posted on July 18, 2012

Blue Mountain Beach A-frame on the Florida Panhandle—Sturdivant's home break. The photograph was taken by Sturdivant on a swell that he felt was too toxic to surf. Photo: Sturdivant

Despite suffering burns on his skin, blurry vision, and respiratory complications, Mike Sturdivant continued surfing near his home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It wasn’t until the second week of July, when he began coughing up blood, that he stopped surfing along the Gulf Coast altogether. “It became obvious to me that the symptoms I was experiencing were related to the stuff in the water,” said Sturdivant, who serves as Chairman of the Surfrider Foundation’s Emerald Coast chapter. “It was hard for me—that you could lose your beach just like that. You might lose access to it. And you might have to watch waves roll in that are clean and beautiful but toxic.”

For almost a year thereafter, the few occasions that Sturdivant entered the water were spent conducting research. Along with James Kirby, a coastal geologist at the University of South Florida, he focused on sorting through the misinformation on the potential health risks posed by the spill.

Their most essential tool was a high-powered UV light that Kirby says he first used to detect engine leaks while serving in the Coast Guard in 1971. When the specially calibrated light is shone on oil, it glows a bright yellow, making it easy to identify. They aren’t cheap, however, retailing for $3,350 from the New Hampshire-based company, ARA Vertek.

When Kirby first brought one of the high-powered lights to the Gulf Coast beaches at night, he described seeing an entire beach “glow orange, literally, from the dune line to the water line.” He believed that the orange coloration under the UV light was a result of the oil mixing with Corexit, the chemical dispersant used to clean up the oil spill. It took almost two years of work, during which Surfrider sent 71 samples from the beaches for testing. The results verified that the material that glowed orange was, in fact, tar product from crude oil mixed with Corexit dispersant.

Perhaps the most alarming trend found in their research was that toxicity levels in the samples remained consistently high after more than a year of testing, rather than slowly declining as expected. In April 2012, Kirby released his own report, citing a 2011 study by the US Naval Research Laboratory, which concluded that “microbial populations are susceptible to toxicity from the use of COREXIT EC9500A when applied at prescribed concentrations.” In short, the chemicals used to clean up the spill were killing the bacteria that would have biodegraded the oil naturally in just two or three months. As a result, two years later, there are still toxic levels of tar product on Gulf Coast beaches.

Many of these beaches have already been deemed clean according to the standards set forth in the National Contingency Plan, which specifies that a beach is clean if a sampling area of 1 square meter has less than 1 percent of oil visible on the surface.

A Surfrider crew collecting samples for testing. Photo: Sturdivant

A tar ball under the UV lighting. Photo: Sturdivant

Sturdivant sees the lax standards as a way of sidestepping the responsibility to ensure that the coast is clean. They presented their initial findings more than a year ago to the Unified Command—the organizational structure that responded to the disaster, which is comprised of the Coast Guard, EPA, NOAA, BP, each affected state’s Department of Environmental Protection, and other impacted groups. Yet nothing changed with regard to government policy. In his view, “The entire [cleanup] operation has been geared around making things invisible. And that’s why they’re using the dispersant. It’s not because it will help speed up the degradation of the oil. It’s because it makes it invisible.”

Yet by incorporating the use of high-powered UV lights, the contamination is now visible. While the Florida Department of Health previously denied that wet skin facilitates greater absorption of these chemicals, James Kirby’s report finds that “wet skin contact with tar product created from weathered dispersed crude oil results in immediate absorption into the skin,” which he discovered by using the UV lights. Moreover, according to the study, Corexit dispersant is believed to speed up the rate at which absorption occurs.

Although Kirby’s study makes important new connections on the health risks posed by the spill, he is unsure whether it will promote any real change due to fear of the consequences. He recalled handing his UV light over to a family who came out of their home one night as he was conducting research along the beach. “They shined the light on their toes and they were all orange. They all went, ‘Oh gross.’ And that’s the point—if you knew you were going to be exposed to this stuff from going to the beach, why would you?”

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has been scrupulous in its appropriation of the $20-billion fund set up by BP to compensate affected individuals and businesses for their financial losses. “They definitely made you jump through some hoops to get money,” said Tim Carr, Owner of Fluid Surf Shop in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, who was compensated for his losses but wouldn’t disclose the amount. “We even got investigated by BP randomly, just to makes sure we were a legitimate store.”

Independent researchers like James Kirby and organizations like Surfrider aren’t expecting compensation for the thousands of dollars spent on equipment and lab testing in their studies. Instead, they hope their work might lead to a revision of the National Contingency Plan, which specifies how to respond to future oil spills. Discontinuing the use of chemicals such as Corexit and more stringent screening processes for determining whether a beach is clean or toxic seem like minimally decent compensation for their work.

Today Sturdivant is back in the water, using his body to discern whether it’s safe to surf near his home. He no longer spends time sitting on the beach due to the high levels of contamination, but wouldn’t think of leaving the Gulf Coast. “I’m choosing to live in a place that’s beautiful and where I can go surfing by walking down the street,” he said. “We make those decisions about what’s important in life and set up our lives around what we love.”

A section of beach on the Florida Panhandle under regular lights. Photo: Sturdivant

The same section under UV lighting. Photo: Sturdivant

Sturdivant says this tarball was discarded by Unified Command as it was not a product of the Deepwater Horizon spill. But subsequent tests by Surfrider yielded that it was a perfect match to the footprint of oil from the spill. Photo: Sturdivant

  • 1000 Fathoms

    The legacy we leave is here for all of us to see

  • Ben

    I guess British Petroleum is some company based in Constantenople…

    I wait, neither of those exist… Only the former was revived so that the US government could shift blame to the UK. BP is just as much a US company as it is a UK company.

    Careless reporting on that fact…

  • Gustavo Conceição

    We all complain whe it happens but we keep using cars and buying oleo made products.. we gotta change..

  • Charlie

    @ben – no one cares who the culprit of the spill is, those of us who love the sea want only a clean and healthy environment. I won’t buy gas from BP…and sadly, I won’t eat gulf seafood. Doesn’t matter to me if BP is a British company, an American company or a company from the moon.

  • Timothy Shay

    We need to test Hawaiian water for radioactive toxins, NOAA isn’t being straight up about ocean dangers and GE and the oil industry have purchased marine science labs from UH, to Florida. Surf industry take note, your athletes long term health depends on you fielding the ball, government isn’t candid or trustworthy.

  • Bill

    BP is an international company that has it’s international headquarters in London.
    That “BP” no longer technically stands for British Petroleum is an issue of semantics the likes of “KFC” no longer standing for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Troll on brother, troll on.

  • E. Alland

    Instead of being viewed as a Natural Preserve — the Gulf is labeled a Petroleum Reserve… I got sick twice surfing — coughing up foam for weeks, and it’s taken over a year for my lungs to be normal. It broke my heart, but I left the country….I refuse to be poisoned and I needed to find a safe clean place for my sons and their future families. Stink-eye to BP and every single lying official…. I will never forget and I will never forgive.

  • James

    “British Petroleum” While this is article is marginally less anti British than the ones at the time, that made me stop buying your magazine, I suggest you research what BP stands for before you publish another article on the subject. On a related topic the rig was operated by an American company and the failed concrete was installed by an American company.
    As long as America sticks to it’s obsession with crude oil products then these disasters will become more common as companies are forced to explore deeper and more dangerous sources.
    Just something I had to get off my chest and I agree not being able to surf through other peoples stupidity and corruption would be terrible. I also agree that the clean up seems to have been wholly inadequate.

  • Yanks

    @James……….If it wasn’t for Americas obsession for crude oil products the British would be speaking German today.

  • http://facebook Silversparrow

    For me, the main issue is the cleanup was more than inadequate and the fact that the US Gov’t left the cleanup to the same culprits was totally stupid! There were such wonderful ways to cleanup and REMOVE a large portion of the oil from the water but, oh my, that would have cost $$$$$, so, lets contaminate the Gulf using chemicals! Everyone that could have corrected this issue should be ashamed of themselves! All that oil is still lying at the bottom of the Gulf and will be for many years to come! Thank you US Government and BP oil for the devastation!!

  • Dave Rauschkolb

    I too stopped surfing my beloved Gulf of Mexico for more than a year after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Mike Sturdivant and James Rip Kirby are both friends to all for their tireless work and research to document this poisoning of our Gulf and white sandy beaches.

    I founded Hands Across The Sand to bring organizations and individuals together to send a powerful message to leaders that expanding oil drilling in our oceans is a dirty, dangerous endeavor. We must compel our local and national lawmakers to steer a clear path towards clean energy sources and decrease our dependence on dirty, dangerous fuels. Every oil spill endangers the coastal tourism industries, ravages the sea life and seafood industry and impacts the lives of every person in its path for generations after.

    On February 13, 2010 over 10,000 Floridians joined hands and created human lines in the sand to stop oil drilling in Florida’s waters on virtually every beach in the State. The Legislation was tabled the next month. This simple, powerful act took place 2 months before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

    2010,2 months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster Hands Across The Sand took place again on June 25th 2010 with over 1000 events held in all 50 States and in 43 countries outside the US.

    Hands Across The Sand is held annually to bring awareness about the dangers inherent in securing and burning dirty fuels and to champion a new era of Clean Energy for a sustainable planet for our children and theirs.

    If we learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster it is this: There is no such thing as cleaning up an oil spill.

    We are all complicit in the slow death we are inflicting on our oceans and earth. We must join hands and weave a thread of balance and wisdom for our planet. We have done our damage, we now have the power to undo and together, build a clean energy path that sustains us all. There is no more important issue we must focus on as humans.

    Join hands with us on August 4 all over the world!

  • sam

    BP has changed it’s name numerous times since its inception. It began in Iran when 2 British geologists discovered oil there and made some corrupt deal to take all the oil they could dig up. Great Britain lived off this oil as their sole source of income until Iran woke up and took it back. But get this ~ When Iran did that, BP didn’t just say “Yeah, you’re right, that was a dirty deal and this is your oil afterall.”


    “It was Mosaddegh’s desire, supported by a unanimous vote of the democratically elected parliament of Iran, to nationalize what was then the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They carried out the nationalization.

    The British and their partners in the United States fiercely resisted this. And when they were unable to prevent it from happening, they organized the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953. So that overthrow not only produced the end of the Mosaddegh government, but the end of democracy in Iran, and that set off all these other following consequences.

    “it was to protect the interests of the oil company we now know as BP that the CIA and the British Secret Service joined together to overthrow the democratic government in Iran and produce all the consequences we’ve seen in Iran over the last half-century.”

    It makes complete sense to think of BP as a British company, since until only a few years ago, it was owned 51% by the British government. Further, the hatred that the middle east has for America can be traced back to BP. : .

    The US was lied to by the British govt on behalf of their cash cow BP to get the help it needed to overthrow Mossaddegh “Not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire,” wrote Christopher Montague Woodhouse, a senior British intelligence agent involved in the campaign, “I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry.” .

  • Kyle

    I live on the Gulf Coast. I now and will continue to eat all the shrimp, trout, red fish , flounder, dolphin, snapper, tuna, grouper, etc out of the gulf that I always have. I will also continue to surf in the waters of the gulf as I always have. I will continue to support BP and the offshore oil industry. This is my way of living and nothing well ever change it. If I die living this way, I died happy.

  • tara breeze

    i have suffered from skin, blurry vision, and respiratory complications since the spill and my dog is also suffering from at least two of the three ailments. we are moving to the mountains where the water is clean…we will miss our beautiful beaches!