05/13/2010 01:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rigging the Rigs

The media's recent publicizing of oil rigs' allure to fish creates a favorable environmental impression that the energy industry does not deserve. In the aftermath of the British Petroleum Gulf spill, a major television network along with the New York Times tried to balance the bad news by noting that Gulf of Mexico oil rigs act as artificial reefs that shelter healthy, bountiful fish populations.

These news organizations were guilty of a glaring omission. Abandoned oil rigs and platforms fit the media's idyllic description; active drilling facilities--not so much. Operational rigs routinely discharge pollutants into the sea, primarily in the form of drilling muds, cuttings, toxic fluids, deck drainage, and petroleum residues. The mud contains--among other nasty things--arsenic, lead, and mercury, ingredients that even in minute amounts can adversely impact fish. Should these fish end up on the dinner table, their bio-accumulated toxicity would pose a health threat to consumers.

Speaking of mercury (which is a particular menace to pregnant women), scientists have found that fish in the proximity of active rigs in the Gulf possess especially high concentrations of that toxic chemical compound. The media made no mention that mercury levels in sand adjacent to active Gulf rigs tend to be three times higher than at Environmental Protection Agency Superfund hazardous waste sites. It should thus come as no surprise that mercury levels of those fish in the vicinity of operative rigs are usually at least 25 times higher than the readings of their brethren elsewhere in the Gulf, and as such, make the rig fish unpalatable candidates for consumption.

Scientists have also concluded that chronic exposure to less than one part per billion of the trace hydro-carbons released into the water column in a rig's normal operation can disrupt filter feeding and cause genetic damage and fatalities in fish eggs. Furthermore, it should be noted that that the fish hanging out near the surface in the vicinity of active rigs are not the only ones in jeopardy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, marine organisms on the ocean floor around the platforms can be smothered by the cumulative buildup of discharged drill cuttings or succumb from direct contact with the toxicity of the waste materials.

To those enthralled with the idea of expanding fish habitat in the Gulf by utilizing rigs as artificial reefs, I would simply pose the following question. Why put fish through the punishing, sometimes fatal ordeal of ingesting toxic residues while they wait for the operational rigs to run their course? Just construct artificial reefs in the Gulf right off the bat, and with no rigs in sight!

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, due for release at the end of the summer.