BP is sticking with its dispersant choice
By Jonathan Tilove
BP has told the Environmental Protection Agency that it cannot find a safe, effective and available dispersant to use instead of Corexit, and will continue to use that chemical application to help break up the growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP was responding to an EPA directive Thursday that gave BP 24 hours to identify a less toxic alternative to Corexit — and 72 hours to start using it — or provide the Coast Guard and EPA with a “detailed description of the alternative dispersants investigated, and the reason they believe those products did not meet the required standards.”
BP spokesman Scott Dean said Friday that BP had replied with a letter “that outlines our findings that none of the alternative products on the EPA’s National Contingency Plan Product Schedule list meets all three criteria specified in yesterday’s directive for availability, toxicity and effectiveness.”
Dean noted that “Corexit is an EPA pre-approved, effective, low-toxicity dispersant that is readily available, and we continue to use it.”
He did not directly address widely broadcast news reports that more than 100,000 gallons of an alternative dispersant chemical call Sea-Brat 4 was stockpiled near Houston and available for application.
EPA issued its directive amid complaints from some environmentalists and members of Congress that, as Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., put it, “BP had chosen one of the most toxic and least effective chemicals that were approved for use.”
On Friday, Markey, who chairs the Energy Committee’s Subcommittee on the Energy and the Environment, held a briefing of the effect on the ocean of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, now in its second month and still gushing, at which experts questioned the wisdom of using any dispersant at all.
To date, BP has used a little more than 670,000 gallons of Corexit, an unprecedented application and for a duration and at depths also without precedent.
“We don’t know what the effect of dispersants applied a mile underwater is; there’s been no laboratory testing of that at all, or the effect of what it does when it combines with oil a mile underwater,” said Sylvia Earle, the explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I would say, until we know more about the fate of the dispersants, I’d tell BP or anybody else who’s involved with this, whether it’s EPA or whatever, ‘Stop, just stop, don’t do it.’ ”
A second panelist at Markey’s briefing, Carl Safina, president and co-founder of Blue Ocean Institute, a New York-based conservation organization, was even more unsparing in his criticism of the use of a dispersant strategy, which he said had more to do with PR than good science.
“It’s not at all clear to me why we are dispersing the oil at all,” Safina said. “It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy. It’s just to get it away from the cameras on the shoreline.
“It takes something that we can see that we could at least partly deal with and dissolves it so we can’t see it and can’t deal with it.”
The scientists said that we have quite literally a surface understanding of what a spill of this magnitude may have on ocean life, with most attention and understanding devoted to what is visible atop the ocean, when it soils birds or marine life that we can see, or when it fouls a wetland or beach.
But its most profound and long-lasting effects, they said, may be on ocean life in the deep waters of the Gulf, which, Earle said, at its lower depths remain, to a remarkable degree, a “mystery.”
“With a huge oil spill this involves difficult trade-off decisions on what species to protect at the expense of others,” said Carys Mitchelmore, an associate professor with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who said that one problem with breaking down the oil is that it makes it easier for many organisms to ingest.
“What is frightening about this spill isn’t just what we know but what we don’t know,” Markey said.
Markey said that he was sending a letter Friday to BP, Transocean and Halliburton asking that they fund independent, scientific research into the spill. Transocean is the contractor that owned and ran the drilling rig that burned and sank after the well blew on April 20, killing 11 workers. Halliburton is the company that did the cementing job that was supposed to close off the well,
“We need independent scientists to step in where BP has stepped away from telling the truth,” Markey said. “When will BP allow our best and brightest minds to work with them to stop this disaster?”
“BP’s been lying to us,” said Markey, beginning with the size of the spill, which they have estimated at some 5,000 barrels a day but which Markey said independent scientists indicate must be “at least 50,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.”