Why Is the EPA Letting BP Use Dirty Dispersants?

The oil firm's poor safety record led to the spill. Now it's spraying chemicals into the Gulf that could make the crisis worse.

| Wed May 19, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

This week, lawmakers are grilling BP executives and government officials about the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But they should be asking tougher questions about the recovery effort, too. BP's critics say the company is spraying hundreds of thousands of gallons of harmful chemical dispersants into the Gulf when less toxic options are available. Which raises the question: Why is the Obama administration allowing a company whose poor safety record led to the spill make crucial decisions on the chemicals used for the clean-up?

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Dispersants are compounds used to break down oil into smaller globs so that it sinks and biodegrades more quickly. The two primary dispersants being used in the Gulf are Corexit 9500 and Corexit(R) EC9527A—compounds created by an Illinois-based company called Nalco. According to the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, the unified command office set up to deal with the spill, approximately 600,000 gallons of dispersant had been deployed by Sunday, most of it sprayed over the spill site from the air. Last weekend, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave BP the green light to apply dispersants directly at the source of the spill—the first time this method has been used.  BP has stockpiled a third of the world's supply of dispersants; Corexit comprises the vast majority of this supply.

But environmental experts have warned that Corexit could add to the ecological disaster in the Gulf rather than alleviate it. Oil companies designed the dispersants to reduce the amount of oil hitting land. That may spare BP the PR nightmare of oil-coated birds washing up on Louisiana’s shorelines. However, as scientists such as marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott point out, BP's chosen dispersants will simply push the problem underwater. The chemicals, says Ott, have "the potential to cause intergenerational harm" to marine life.  Corexit has been banned in the United Kingdom due to environmental concerns.

"[Oil companies] want to make the visible part of the oil spill disappear—for political reasons, for limiting liability to the spillers," says Richard Charter, government relations consultant for Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.  "If we were looking at food chain impacts and biomagnification in the marine ecosystem, we probably never would have invented Corexit."

There are more effective alternatives available, though not in as large a volume as Corexit. One, called Dispersit, outperformed Corexit in EPA tests, dispersing 100 percent of South Louisiana crude oil, the type spilling into the Gulf. The two Corexit compounds only managed to disperse 55 and 63 percent of the oil, respectively. Dispersit is also far less toxic, according to the EPA's data. The manufacturer, U.S. Polychemical Corp., says it could produce 60,000 gallons of Dispersit per day if the EPA approves it for use in the Gulf. "They say they're going as fast as they can," says U.S. Polychemical president Bruce Gebhardt. "I keep waiting for my phone to ring." He adds, "Nalco has always been the largest player on the block, and Corexit has always been what's been stocked."

So why is BP sticking with Corexit? The answer may be Nalco's close relationship with major oil firms—including BP, as Greenwire reported last week. In 1994, Nalco and Exxon's chemical division, Exxon Chemical Company, formed a joint venture focusing on oil and gas products like the dispersants in use in the Gulf. Nalco bought out Exxon's share in 2001, but retained its strong oil industry ties. One Nalco board member, Daniel Sanders, and a vice president, Steve Taylor, both came from Exxon. Another Nalco board member, Rodney Chase, worked for BP for 38 years. In an interview, Nalco spokesman Charles Pajor says that former oil industry officials are "not by any means a majority" of the company’s corporate leadership. Nevertheless, cleanup effort has been good business for Nalco: the company has reported that it expects to sell $40 million worth of dispersants by the end of this week. Pajor says it's BP's decision to invest so heavily in one chemical. "It's a matter of them making a choice of what they've had experience using in the past and feel that it works for them," he says.

Although the EPA evaluates dispersants, it hasn't weighed in on which chemical would be best for the clean-up job in the Gulf. The agency’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, told reporters last week that the agency is responsible for approving dispersants, but BP can use whichever one it wants. She added that  "logistics and stockpiles and the ability for the responsible party to pull the materials together" were likely a factor in the oil firm's decision to rely on Corexit.

Appearing before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Jackson acknowledged the environmental concerns surrounding dispersants, but said she has been "hesitant to take it out of the tool kit all together." The agency, she said, is "working with BP and others to get less toxic dispersants to the site as quickly as possible," and is "still looking into" why Corexit was banned in the UK. The EPA will review its policies for evaluating dispersants, she said, adding, "I'm amazed by how little science there is on the issue."  Asked after the hearing whether the agency would push BP to switch to less harmful products, Jackson said that the agency is "not taking that off the table."

But some lawmakers say the EPA should already have taken a stronger stance on the matter, given BP's glaring safety failures and the inadequacy of its containment efforts.  Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter on Monday to Jackson listing eleven questions on the EPA's role in overseeing dispersants, including why BP got to choose the chemicals for the cleanup and why less toxic options weren't selected. Dispersant use, wrote Markey, "requires careful oversight."  

"Given the allegations that have come out recently about BP's decision-making process it is disturbing that BP is being given a lot of leeway at this point in the game," said Jacqueline Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at Oceana, a marine advocacy group. "At this point I think it would be appropriate for the government to start taking control."

On a daily basis, the Obama administration has been vigorously noting its spill-related actions, eager to thwart any criticism that it has not handled this crisis well. But it has allowed BP almost complete latitude in this crucial endeavor. As the disaster continues to unfold, there's no telling yet just how big a mistake that could be.

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