EPA and BP Lock Horns on BP’s Use of Dispersants on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

EPA and BP Lock Horns on BP’s Use of Dispersants on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

EPA Adminstrator Lisa P. Jackson checks new oil absorbant technique.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson is serious about cleaning up the oil and pollutants which have entered the environment due to the tragic explosion of Deepwater Horizon oil drillingrig on April 22, 2010.

Since becoming the first African-American EPA administrator confirmed by the Senate, her experience in solving environmental problems is being well-tested by the explosion which has spouted an estimated 126 million to 218 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 197 days.
Contention between BP and the EPA developed early in the process of the Gulf of Mexico clean-up. The argument centered on the use of the chemical dispersant, Corexit. A chemical dispersant is a surfactant; surfactants act like dishwashing soap on greasy dishes, breaking the grease into small drops so the dishes can be cleaned

How dispersant is released with remote robots underwater.

Surfactants are used on an oil spill to break up the layer of oil sitting on the water’s surface into small sized drops so the oil will disperse through the water column. If the surface oil layer is dispersed into the water, winds and currents cannot wash the thick and tarry surface oil onto the coast. The recent storm has demonstrated how waves move the oil on to the shore and into the wetlands (the marshes which are the most sensitive ecosystems on the coast).

A dispersant was only used because of the high risk to the Gulf of Mexico’s coast from the thick layer of oil on the surface of the Gulf. Making a decision using risk assessment is often a part of the EPA’s work. Risk assessment means having to make a trade-off between two less than perfect choices. In this case using a dispersant versus letting the thick layer of oil stay on the surface of the water is the less damaging of the two choices.

EPA’s main concerns with BP are the lack of cooperation with EPA’s directives to find a less toxic dispersant and for BP to dramatically cut the amount of dispersant used.

BP has been arguing that their data shows that Corexit is safe to use and continued its use. Because of the refusal on the part of BP Oil to cooperate, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson initiated a program of transparency for communications between her agency and BP. Copies of letters between EPA, BP and the DHS (Department of Home Security) as well as data and dispersant information including Corexit are available at the EPA’s website.

On May 20, 2010, the EPA directed BP to use 75% less dispersant. On May 26, EPA Administrator Jackson joined with the (former) Federal On-the-Scene coordinator Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry directing BP to reduce their use of dispersants on the oil by 75% from the highest amount (peak usage) that had already been used in the Gulf of Mexico. During the month of June, BP reduced by 68% from peak usage the dispersant used and the EPA is still urging more reduction.

Because BP did not reach the 75% reduction, EPA Paul Anastas, EPA Assistant Administrator, made clear that the EPA stands by its directive to use the least amount of dispersant necessary. Mr. Anastas cautioned that use of the dispersants should be confined to near the wellhead and that it is illegal to use dispersants within three miles of the shoreline and the wetlands.

On August 2, 2010 the EPA announced the results of their Phase I and Phase II dispersants testing in which both the invertebrate, the Mysid shrimp (Ameicanmysis bahia) and the small fish, the inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) were used because they are both sensitive species found in the Gulf of Mexico. Eight dispersant products and Louisiana Sweet Crude Oil were used in the tests to determine which dispersant product is less toxic.

The results of testing by the EPA demonstrated that Corexit 9550A“is generally no more or less toxic than the other available alternatives.”

The BP catastrophe is a great challenge with no quick and easy answers. When a reporter asked about getting faster results from the clean-up, Coast Guard Admiral Allen responded, “I have never said this is going well. We’re throwing everything at it that we’ve got. I’ve said time and time again that nothing good happens when oil is on the water.”