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Airdate: Jul 07, 2010
Scientist: Terry Hazen

To Disperse or Not

To Disperse or Not
Treating an oil spill with dispersants and detergents may be more damaging than the spill itself.

JM: In the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we're left wondering which detergents and dispersants have been most effective in the cleanup effort. Well, the answer may be none at all. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Terry Hazen is a microbiologist and head of the Ecology Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

TH: "So we've seen some dramatic effects from some other major oil spills. In the areas where they didn't do anything it was recovered after 5 years, but the areas where they used detergents, 20 and 30 years later, it still had not recovered because of the toxic effects of the detergents."

JM: But faced with the largest oil spill in history, if chemical dispersants aren't the answer, then what might be the better course of action?

TH "So, the best thing to do would be to get up all the undiluted material that you can possibly get up, and you can do that by boom containment, by sorbents of different types, and by skimming. So, anything like that, that will get up the oil, soak it up, and then, basically, we can remove it and either treat it somewhere else or use it as fuel. So, get up as much of that undiluted material as you can, and then, give serious consideration to not doing anything further."

JM: Oil-eating bacteria and nutrients naturally present in the ocean may be our best ally in cleaning up oil spills. And because these microorganisms are native to the ocean, Hazen cautions against adding more of them, which throws off the natural balance, and may cause further damage to the environment.

You can hear our complete interview with Terry Hazen at

Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.