Speakeasy Science

Spills, Science and Semantics

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.

Comments

  1. #1 NJS
    June 15, 2010

    As someone concerned about the goings-on in the Gulf of Mexico, I agree that the government should be more forthright with information. In the absence of an authoritative source, many people will take information from wherever they can get it. That can be a dangerous way to operate.

    As a scientist, I realize that terminology is tricky. It’s hard to maintain absolute semantic integrity when a word may not have the same meaning to laypeople as it does to a specialist. Touchy public relations increase the stakes. If a group with a predetermined agenda gets a hold of a report that is not precisely worded, it is much easier to spin it to fit that agenda.

    NOAA is in a tough spot.

  2. #2 Deborah Blum
    June 15, 2010

    I don’t really mean to pick on NOAA and I do agree that it’s a tricky balancing act. It’s really a problem created by BP’s very nice manipulation of the plume-no-plume issue. Could wish that one of my favorite agencies hadn’t fallen into this particular trap. But I think once we get a little farther into this, the agency is probably going to be in a great position to offer some very clean assessments of what’s going on. And I hope they offer those assessments loudly and clearly.

  3. #3 brook
    June 16, 2010

    Maybe you could tell them that instead of responding to anything BP says (which we know has been spun finer than the best merino) they could talk to some science educators to come up with better ways to describe what’s going on for us layfolk.

    They may get flak from scientists for simplifying things but it’s like folks who complain about Barney (or his current obnoxious kids’ character equivalent), Barney was developed for three year olds. If you have a better understanding of how the world works of course you’re going to run screaming from the room.

    We don’t have a TV so I get my information from radio and print. I make up pictures in my head; sometimes they’re accurate, sometimes not. After reading your post I realized that a volcanic plume was exactly what I was imagining. I tried to refine my mental image and noticed Boy Other One messing around with water and food coloring (see what you can get away w/as a parent if you don’t have TV?) and I realized that’s probably more along the lines of what’s happening in the Gulf. Then I wondered if I added enough salt and chilled it etc if I could get a better picture of what’s happening.

    As you said NOAA (and all govt agencies dealing with this disaster) needs to come up with a statement along the lines “It’s up to the lawyers to determine when a plume is a plume. We’re telling you about the science of too much oil in the Gulf.”

  4. #4 David Wescott
    June 16, 2010

    as a PR flack, I have to say I agree with your assessment – quibbling over semantics only harms their credibility. A message point like “scientists call it one thing, BP calls it another – regardless, it’s there and we have to address this effectively and immediately” would really have done the trick.

    I’m curious to know who you think is the credible voice on everything spill-related right now.

  5. #5 Casey
    June 16, 2010

    You’re right, the semantics thing is a trap. I think everytime an agency worries about the exact wording of the issue, they tend to lose sight of the greater “It’s terrible no matter what words you use” idea that really needs to stay present in the minds of everyone if we want to reduce the damage and enhance the restoration work. Every organization that has a real interest in this should be looking for a way to move things in the right direction as the result of a catastrophe, I mean if Republicans used 9.11 to start 2 wars, we should be able to leverage this into SOMETHING worth mentioning.

  6. #6 Deborah Blum
    June 16, 2010

    There are a tangle of agencies involved responding to the Gulf spill and a multitude of scientists. I’ve thought that it might have been helpful to have one science spokesman to pull these strands of information together into something coherent. I know the National Academy of Sciences is sending a cadre of researchers down to the Gulf this week, one group looking at water contamination issues, one group looking at human health issues. It’ll be interesting to hear their assessment.

  7. #7 Julie Hunter
    June 17, 2010

    I promised you an update so here it is. We visited the Dauphin Island Estuarium today at the far east end of the island. No oil at this end of the island but western shores not so lucky especially as one heads toward the western shores of Alabama and beginning of the Florida panhandle where big globs are washing up. The ecosystem here is so interconnected and interdependent with all the fresh water in the nearby river system above Mobile Bay and it’s all completely under threat. Booms are strung through the rivers and bays and around crabbing and shrimping areas. But the crabbers and the shrimpers themselves are not here. Bait and tackle shops failing fast.

    Very exciting two days ago when Obama was here, but the locals, while not blaming Obama, are very negative about Washington and its ability to help. And nobody is too happy with BP’s response time around claims. The locals don’t have any specific ideas of what would work to fix this mess but they don’t like any of the government’s ideas either No pleasing people here who are pretty bitter about the run of luck they’ve had in the past ten years and were just finally recovering from Katrina and Rita and Ivan. And now this.

    Army vehicles, Coast guard vehicles and helicopters, Sea Tow boats, clean up crews, guys all over the island in reflective vests driving golf carts, Jeeps and walking the beaches. The response looks a little random on the surface but at least there seems to be lots of buzz and a lot of help of various sorts. While the tourist and fishing industries are failing, there’s a whole new industry and creation of jobs going on around the management of this disaster. My sister’s brother in law just got a job after being out of work for a year. And Circle K and the local grocery are booming with business generated by all the workers.

    Some people continuing to swim and fish along the shoreline. The smell of oil is occasionally on the breeze. The beach crews go out in groups of three and look for oil and if there isn’t any, they just kind of amble down the beach and back to their shady tents. There is a lot of criticism about using out of state workers and also their perceived restrictive work hours that have them sitting a lot more than cleaning.

    I just don’t know if anybody really knows what they’re doing until the oil leak is actually stopped. I don’t sense any hysteria at all. Just quiet resignation that catastrophe is at hand.

  8. #8 Deborah Blum
    June 17, 2010

    This quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

    “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for the want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for the want of care about a horseshoe nail.”

    That’s what I’ve been thinking about with this spill, all the careless, cost-cutting measures that brought us to this seeping disaster that you describe.

    Because – and here I am sympathetic to the Obama administration – we don’t know how to fix these things. If we did, it would have been done. And – here I am less sympathetic this administration and God knows the previous one – because we don’t know how to fix these things, the smartest thing we can do is take every precaution.

    And when we will learn that one I haven’t a clue. And neither, I suspect, did Mr. Franklin.

  9. #9 Dennis
    June 20, 2010

    When all said and done, it seems to layman and scientist alike: it’s all one big coverup from by BP, and the govt, so to hide the incompetence, corruption and stupidity that’s been done. No entity should be very proud in the way the spill was handled from day 1.

  10. #10 CW
    June 21, 2010

    I wouldn’t describe events leading up to this disaster as merely “careless”. Negligent, irresponsible, cavalier, corrupt, wanton, some combination of those wrapped around a core of reprehensibly greedy maybe, but nothing so polite and forgiving as merely “careless”.

  11. #11 yogi-one
    June 30, 2010

    “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
    Albert Einstein

    Still waiting for life to evolve an intelligent species…

  12. #12 Chris Winter
    June 30, 2010

    I just read this post today — a bit late — so I hope you’ll forgive me for rehashing the semantic issue, but to me “plume” would never suggest violent motion. I think of the plume of smoke from a cigarette, or the plumage of birds.

    “Cloud,” however, can imply the result of an explosion. Ash cloud, pyroclastic cloud, mushroom cloud.

    I suppose the folks at NOAA were under stress from dealing with many angry people in the Gulf, so their reluctance to use the word “plume” is somewhat understandable. Perhaps it’s like the reaction of the French foreign minister a few years back: “That is not a bomb; it is a device which is exploding!”

    Even so, it’s puzzling.

  13. #13 JLowe
    June 30, 2010

    I think I know where the NOAA folks are coming from, though I don’t know why they’re being so cagey about the topic. I can’t speak for oil spills, but in the case of groundwater contamination at hazardous waste sites, “plume” defines a continuous distribution of contamination emanating from a source area (such as a disposal pit or a landfill).

    Often, our understanding of the distribution of contamination or the relationship between the source and groundwater contamination at a hazardous waste site is imperfect. Potentially responsible parties (the “polluters” to folks other than regulators, lawyers and consultants) contest using the word “plume” when referring to groundwater contamination, unless there’s an overwhelming weight of evidence.

    It is curious why NOAA is being so legalistic, unless perhaps the Federal government is at risk of being a party to future natural resource damage claims.

  14. #14 fx15 zayiflama hapi
    July 15, 2010

    very nice just read this post today — a bit late — so I hope you’ll forgive me for rehashing the semantic issue, but to me “plume” would never suggest violent motion. I think of the plume of smoke from a cigarette, or the plumage of birds.

    “Cloud,” however, can imply the result of an explosion. Ash cloud, pyroclastic cloud, mushroom cloud.

    I suppose the folks at NOAA were under stress from dealing with many angry people in the Gulf, so their reluctance to use the word “plume” is somewhat understandable. Perhaps it’s like the reaction of the French foreign minister a few years back: “That is not a bomb; it is a device which is exploding!”

    Even so, it’s puzzling.

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