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BP Getting Daily Exemptions to Directive Limiting Surface Dispersant

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A U.S. Air Force chemical dispersing C-130 aircraft drops an oil dispersing chemical into the Gulf of Mexico on May 5, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

Ever since the EPA and the Coast Guard directed BP to significantly reduce dispersant use and, in particular, to “eliminate the surface application” of dispersants, BP has written in to request exemptions almost every day.

The requests for exemptions to the directive, which was issued on May 26, are all posted online.  Exemptions for surface dispersants were requested for every day last month except June 20, 21 and 27. The requests were “routinely approved, nearly always without modification,” noted Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who has been watching the subject closely. (Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones also posted on this.)

But the exemptions, which must be approved by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator, are intended to be rare. Here’s the text of the directive, emphasis added:

Surface Application. BP shall eliminate the surface application of dispersants. In rare cases when there may have to be an exemption, BP must make a request in writing to the FOSC providing justification which will include the volume, weather conditions, mechanical or means for removal that were considered and the reason they were not used, and other relevant information to justify the use of surface application. The FOSC must approve the request and volume of dispersant prior to initiating surface application.

When I asked the EPA whether the use of these exemptions were in keeping with what it said should be “rare cases,” the agency gave me the following response: “EPA took these steps to ensure that BP prioritized skimming and burning and relied on surface application only as a last resort. That prioritization has happened.”

The EPA also said that the goal of the directive was to “ramp down dispersant use from peak usage, and dispersant use has dropped by nearly 70 percent.” (As we’ve pointed out, it has dropped by around 70 percent from the peak, but average daily use has dropped only around 9 percent since the directive.)

To be clear, there are days when exemptions were requested and approved, and the dispersants weren't used after all. (See where this notation has been handwritten onto one of the letters. Daily dispersant use numbers are available on the Unified Command's website.) But as far as we can tell, it seems that whenever BP has asked for an exemption, it has always gotten sign-off from the Federal On-Scene Coordinator. 

And then one final point -- an unsolved mystery for me:

Until around June 7, the exemption letters were written and signed by BP’s COO, Doug Suttles. But after June 10, the letters stop coming from BP; instead, they’re from Unified Command -- a response group that includes BP, Transocean, Halliburton and federal agencies.

Even the language changes, from this June 3 letter:

Accordingly, in accordance with the Directive, BP respectfully requests an exemption to apply EC9500A in volumes not to exceed 2,000 gallons for a period not to exceed 12 hours.

To this, from a June 10 letter:

Accordingly, in accordance with the Directive, Houma Unified Command respectfully requests an exemption to apply EC9500A in volumes on oil slicks located today…

I’ve called Unified Command several times to inquire about this, but have yet to receive a response. But this instance seems to be another way in which the lines between BP and government seem confusingly blurred.

In a related example, BP has told me repeatedly that its log of injury and illnesses is actually Unified Command’s, but in its latest version, the document is emblazoned with a BP logo on nearly every page.

The directive regarding surface spraying of dispersants specifically states that “BP must make a request in writing” to get these exemptions. Are BP and Unified Command now synonymous? We’ll update with a response from Unified Command if it returns our calls as promised.

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