Update 5/25: We've updated this post to emphasize that the effects of the dispersants aren't clear.
In a conference call with journalists on Monday, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said the federal government is asking BP to "significantly scale back" its use of dispersants on the Gulf oil spill. Jackson said the agency was "not satisfied" with the company's response, in which BP argued that despite an EPA order to select and switch to a less toxic dispersant, Corexit was the best option available. (Using dispersants is always a tradeoff, and Corexit has long been on the list of products previously approved for use on oil spills.)
BP has continued to apply Corexit to the Gulf, according to The New York Times. The forms of Corexit used by BP, as we've reported, are banned for use on oil spills in the U.K. and have been linked to a slew of human health problems following their use on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
In its response to the EPA's directive, BP noted that it found an alternative to Corexit that was "equally effective" and had "fewer acute toxicity effects," but raised questions about how long the chemicals in this dispersant would remain in the environment.
"BP's response to our directive was insufficient," said Jackson. "BP seemed more interested in defending their initial decision [to use Corexit] than analyzing other options." (Read BP's full response.)
The EPA said today that rather than relying on BP's word, it would test these dispersants independently--including Corexit. In the meantime, it is asking BP to continue looking for better alternatives.
The use of Corexit in the Gulf is the largest application of dispersant in the history of the United States, and according to Jackson, it is fast approaching a world record. Though the EPA administrator expressed displeasure, the agency's acceptance of BP's actions are likely to fuel continued criticism of the federal government's dependence on BP to provide basic scientific analysis, to execute attempts to stop the spill and to release data and videos to the public.
Meanwhile, some frightening reports of illness have already begun emerging from the Gulf. From WDSU-TV in New Orleans:
One fisherman said he felt like he was going to die over the weekend.
"I've been coughing up stuff," Gary Burris said. "Your lungs fill up."
Burris, a longtime fisherman who has worked across the Gulf Coast, said he woke up Sunday night feeling drugged and disoriented.
"It was like sniffing gasoline or something, and my ears are still popping," Burris said. "I'm coughing up stuff. I feel real weak, tingling feelings."
Marine toxicologist Riki Ott said the chemicals used by BP can wreak havoc on a person's body and even lead to death.
That certainly sounds scary, though it's worth keeping in mind that the TV report doesn't really show that dispersants are causing the illnesses.