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Two Million Gallons Later, BP's Dispersant Exemptions Are (Finally) Questioned

BP got many exemptions and spread two million gallons of dispersants in the Gulf. So why are we surprised that the oil is "disappearing"? And why were so many exemptions granted?

It’s been two weeks since BP last applied dispersant in the Gulf, and everymajornewspaper seems to have a piece on how BP received exemptions to apply dispersant on the surface nearly every day.

The latest tide of dispersant stories comes after Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a strongly worded letter [PDF] to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the spill response, noting that despite the EPA-Coast Guard directive requiring BP to “eliminate the surface application of dispersants” except in “rare cases [PDF] when there may have to be an exemption,” the exemptions were routine, and requesting them became little more than a formality. This is evidenced by the fact that the Coast Guard approved the use of dispersants 74 times over 54 days, the letter pointed out.

“These exemptions are in no way a ‘rare’ occurrence, and have allowed surface application of dispersant to occur virtually every day since the Directive was issued,” Rep. Markey wrote. “It appears to me that the May 26, 2010, Directive has become more of a meaningless paperwork exercise than an attempt to abide by the Directive to eliminate surface application of chemical dispersants.”

Rep. Markey had been asking these questions far earlier into the spill. On June 24, he also sent a letter asking why BP was exceeding dispersant directives with permission from the Coast Guard.

We’d also pointed out—while the oil was still spewing at full force—that the exemptions were requested and granted almost daily, and that average daily dispersant use—subsea and surface—had declined by only 9 percent about a month after the directive was first issued.

When I asked the EPA if BP’s use of dispersant exemptions was what the agency considered "rare," I received 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.”

But as it turns out, some within the agency weren’t satisfied with the way BP was getting around the directive. Here’s The Washington Post:

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson conceded that there had been "frustration in the field" from EPA officials about the waivers. But Jackson said it was partly alleviated June 22, nearly a month after the order was issued, when Coast Guard officials began giving the EPA a greater role in the discussions over whether to approve dispersant use.

Markey’s letter also raises the same point:

EPA raised concerns to the USCG about the frequency and incompleteness of these exemption requests, calling the approval process "pro-forma, and not as rigorous as the EPA desires."

I've asked the EPA why the agency's previous answer to me hadn't been straightforward; it had concerns about the overuse of dispersant exemptions, but when I asked if BP's requests were 'rare' enough, EPA told me that the intent of the directive had been met.

Adm. Allen, who's in charge of the spill response, told the Post: "You can quibble on the semantics related to 'rare.' I like to focus on the effects we achieved."

Given that much of the coverage is awash with these stories about how oil on the surface is disappearing and hard to find, it’s probably also worth saying that 1) that’s not true everywhere, and 2) where it is true, it makes sense since BP applied about two million gallons of dispersants to, well, break down oil on the surface and disperse it throughout the water column. Rolling Stone does a good job of explaining how BP essentially undermined the effectiveness of its skimming operations with these dispersants:

In the first weeks, BP discovered that dispersants did indeed help break up the oil slicks and drive the oil down into the water. But the chemicals also had another, more disturbing effect: They made the skimmers less effective. The best technology – known as an oleophilic, or oil-attracting, skimmer – uses mops or other absorbent materials to blot the oil out of the water. "Normally, the oleophilic skimmers should have been the backbone of our operation," says Mark Ploen, BP's offshore operations section chief at the command center. "But with all the dispersants being used, we found that less oil was sticking to the skimmers, and they were far less effective."

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