Environmental Protection Agency tells BP to try other chemicals to disperse oil in Gulf spill

By Matthew Daly, AP
Thursday, May 20, 2010

EPA demands a less toxic dispersant in Gulf spill

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency directed BP PLC on Thursday to use a less toxic form of chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of several steps the government took to crack down on the oil giant.

The moves come amid a growing sense of frustration with the company’s failure to stop the spill and allow independent reviews of its work.

The Obama administration asked BP to make public all detailed information about the Gulf spill — including all measurements of the growing leak. A live video feed that shows oil gushing from the blown-out well was put online.

The video shows a large plume of oil and gas still spewing next to the tube that’s carrying some of it to the surface.

Several members of Congress had pushed BP to make the video available to the public. It was posted Thursday on the website of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The EPA began posting data about underwater dispersants on its website.

The developments followed growing criticism that BP is drastically underestimating the size of the leak — and that government agencies aren’t doing enough to pressure the company to be transparent and allow independent reviews.

“I think now we’re beginning to understand that we cannot trust BP,” said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who pushed for the video release and the EPA directive on dispersants. “BP has lost all credibility.”

Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said the government — not BP — should be directing the response to the oil spill, including attempts to cap the gushing well.

“The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene and BP cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage or controlling the data from their spill. The public deserves sound science, not sound bites from BP’s CEO,” Schweiger said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said BP is responsible for the cleanup and will be paying the bill, but said the response is overseen by a host of federal agencies.

Asked who was in charge of the leak, Gibbs said, “BP, with our oversight.”

In a notice to BP, the EPA said that while it initially approved chemical dispersants currently being used, their longterm effects remain unknown. One of the chief agents being used, called Corexit 9500, is identified as a “moderate” human health hazard that can cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation with prolonged exposure, according to safety data documents.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, members of Congress and environmental groups have raised questions about the dispersants, which shoot chemicals thousands of feet beneath the sea. The chemicals break apart the oil and keep it from reaching the surface.

The EPA appeared to share those concerns Thursday.

“Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use,” the agency said in a statement.

Under the order, BP has 24 hours to identify at least one approved dispersant product that is effective, available in large quantities and meets specified toxicity limits. BP must begin using only the approved alternative within 72 hours of submitting its list of alternatives to the EPA and getting EPA approval.

Gibbs said he was not aware of any test results or other data that caused EPA to seek a different dispersant.

“Our feeling and EPA’s feeling is, given the extent to which we have to continue to use them, to use the least toxic of them makes the most sense,” he said.

A spokesman for BP said the company is only using established dispersant products that are preapproved for use in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the criteria for selecting Corexit was the manufacturer’s ability to supply large volumes needed for the massive spill, said BP spokesman Mark Salt. Corexit “is very effective in causing oil to form into small isolated droplets that remain suspended until they are either eaten by naturally occurring microbes, evaporate or are picked up or dissolved,” he said.

A spokesman Illinois-based Nalco Co., which makes Corexit, said the company was gratified that the EPA acknowledged that use of its dispersants has been effective and has not caused significant harm to the marine environment.

“We welcome the test of any alternative use technologies to mitigate the environmental impact of the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico,” the company said in a statement.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the dispersant “the lesser of two environmental outcomes no one wants to have to deal with,” but said officials need better answers about what other products are available.

In a separate letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, Jackson and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said it is “critical that all actions be conducted in a transparent manner, with all data and information related to the spill readily available” to the U.S. government and the American people.

The letter asks for a website address to be provided to the government within 24 hours with detailed information about the leak, including air and water quality samples, trajectories of underwater plumes and locations of dispersants. It was not clear whether the administration could enforce its request.

Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

On the Net:

House “spill cam”: www.globalwarming.house.gov/

EPA spill site: www.epa.gov/bpspill

(This version CORRECTS name of House committee.).)

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