Recently, I wrote a cranky little post about NOAA’s behavior regarding the Gulf of Mexico. The agency’s approach seemed to me to be timid and deferential at a time when I wanted a strong voice and and steady sense of purpose.
What had set me off was the agency’s reluctance to use the word “plume” in describing the underwater mists of oil drifting away from the BP disaster site. Why not, I asked, call a plume a plume?
To my surprise, I almost immediately got a call from NOAA. For some reason, people at the agency didn’t agree with my analyses. I thought they were being wusses. They thought they were being precise: “The way people are using the word plume, it sounds like an ash cloud from a volcano.” The drifting oil wasn’t as concentrated, as explosive in motion, as continuous as that volcanic image might convey.
But beyond that, the people at the agency were starting to wonder if they could both be scientifically precise and satisfy an increasingly ticked-off and vengeful citizenry. Since I was so critical, what did I – the peeved author herself – recommend?
She recommended that the government stop being so damn stingy with information. Speaking as someone who has spent hours trying to figure out the chemistry of dispersants, the toxicology of crude oil, the synergistic effect of dispersants and oil, whether clean up chemicals help create underwater “plumes” – with almost no help from government documents – part of my exasperation comes from lack of clear information from official sources.
It was almost two months before the EPA released the list of chemicals used in Corexit, BP’s favorite dispersant, and that was just a list. There was no context or explanation of why this particular formulation was reportedly so much more poisonous than any of the others. Literally, people were begging for explanations via Twitter. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for government toxicologist to have provided a solid analysis? Wouldn’t that have built some good will?
I do respect NOAA’s wish for accuracy and integrity of description. But it also bothers me when this semantics debate leads the agency to sound so much like BP in this regard. It’s a position that rings curiously like BP’s Don Suttles when he said on the Today show that it “may be down to how you define what a plume is here.”
I actually believe that the shared reluctance of BP and NOAA on this terminology is just an unfortunate coincidence. I also believe that it would be great if our public officials had less of tin ear about these nuances. But the real problem is that the more time BP spends arguing about whether it’s a plume or not, the less time it has to spend talking about the millions of gallons a day problem.
So let’s not play into that trap. How about if we all agree that there is so much oil gushing into the water – the newest estimate is up to 60,000 barrels a day (some 2.5 million gallons),12 times BP’s original estimate – that we really shouldn’t quibble about a relatively innocuous description like plume.
After all, “unprecedented environmental disaster” – as President Obama just called it – is probably the most accurate term of all.