But one former Danville resident, perched fortuitously at a forefront of biological research and observation in the gulf, will have a front-row seat to whatever the aftermath of the monster turns out to be.
Monty Graham knew what he wanted to do with his life when he was 6 years old.
He was living in New Hampshire at the time, and got to visit the prominent New England Aquarium in Boston.
“I visited New England Aquarium once and was hooked. Never wavered,” Graham wrote.
Graham was born in Lexington and spent more than 10 years of his life in Danville. He graduated from Danville High School and spent two years at Centre College before transferring to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He later taught biology at Danville High School for the better part of a year in the late 80s.
Graham went on to earn a master’s in marine science and a doctorate in biology with an emphasis on oceanography.
Today, Graham is a biological oceanographer specializing in plankton at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the coast of Alabama. Plankton and the even tinier zooplankton sit at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain in a very important position.
“The reason we’re interested in these small guys is because they’re the most abundant life in the ocean,” Graham said. “What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers.”
Graham has worked at the Sea Lab for about six years, studying oxygen levels in the water, measuring attributes of plankton and zooplankton, and gaining a scientific understanding of the natural ebb and flow of life in the Gulf of Mexico from season to season.
This spring, decades after his formative childhood moment at the aquarium, Graham experienced another formative moment, one he believes will shape much of the rest of his career — the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
After the rig sank in late April, oil and methane began leaking at extreme rates from a pipe on the floor of the ocean, eventually becoming one of the largest oil spills in human history. The spill dwarfs the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and by some estimates beats the 1980 Ixtoc and 1991 Gulf War oil spills as well.
“People are just clawing their way through a mess right now to figure out what’s happening,” Graham said. “Something of this magnitude is not going to happen again. It better not happen again.”
The problems caused by the spill are manifold, but one unique issue now plaguing the Gulf is BP’s use of largely unstudied chemical dispersants to minimize the amount of oil reaching the shore, Graham said.
The dispersants used by BP are preauthorized for the handling of oil spills, but they’re usually used to handle spills of 100 barrels or less, Graham said. According to media reports, more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants have been applied to oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon site.
“They’re using them in quantities that have never been imagined,” Graham said.
The specific line of dispersants used by BP — Corexit — is banned in the United Kingdom but was approved for use in the Gulf of Mexico by the Environmental Protection Agency. Corexit dispersants are more toxic and less effective than other dispersants, according to the EPA.
Oil dispersants trap oil and hold it in globules in the water instead of allowing it to rise to the surface, where it can evaporate. By keeping the oil away from the surface and therefore away from the shore, BP is minimizing its costs of cleaning up oil that reaches the shore, Graham said.
But BP’s use of dispersants on top of the water and below the surface has effectively trapped the oil throughout the water column, preventing it from rising to the surface, where lighter toxic compounds in the oil can evaporate off, he said.