Journalism in the Public Interest

In Gulf Spill, BP Using Dispersants Banned in U.K.

The two types of dispersants BP is spraying in the Gulf of Mexico are banned for use on oil spills in the U.K. As EPA-approved products, BP has been using them in greater quantities than dispersants have ever been used in the history of U.S. oil spills.

BP is using two products from a line of dispersants called Corexit, which EPA data appear to show is more toxic and less effective on South Louisiana crude than other available dispersants, according to Greenwire.

We learned about the U.K. ban from a mention on The New York Times' website. (The reference was cut from later versions of the article, so we can't link to the Times, but we found the piece elsewhere.) The Times flagged a letter that Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, sent to the EPA on Monday. The letter pointed out that both the Corexit products currently being used in the Gulf were removed from a list of approved treatments for oil spills in the U.K. more than a decade ago. (Here's the letter.) 

As we've reported, Corexit was also used after the Exxon Valdez disaster and was later linked with human health problems including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. One of the two Corexit products also contains a compound that, in high doses, is associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems.

Given that the dispersants are EPA-approved, the choice of which ones to use was left to BP, which had stockpiled large amounts of Corexit and is now ordering more. 

BP has defended its choice to use Corexit. A BP spokesman called the product "pretty effective," and said it had been "rigorously tested." It is not testing other dispersants, he said, because it's focusing on stopping the spill. Mani Ramesh, the chief technology officer for Nalco, which makes Corexit, disputed claims that the product is harmful to the environment, telling Reuters that Corexit's active ingredient is "an emulsifier also found in ice cream."

Dispersants like Corexit break up oil into droplets that linger longer in the water instead of collecting at the surface. The choice to use them is inherently an environmental tradeoff. Their use in the Gulf spill has limited the instances--and images--of oil-covered seabirds, but has kept the effects of the spill mostly underwater. Scientists have discovered giant plumes of dispersed oil in the deep waters of the Gulf, though the EPA has said "there is no information currently available" to link the dispersants to those deep-sea plumes. The plumes are now fast approaching the Gulf loop current, which could spread the oil into the Atlantic Ocean.

In a hearing this afternoon, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that the EPA is working with BP to get less toxic dispersants to the site as quickly as possible, according to Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones.

The EPA, while recognizing that long-term effects on the environment are unknown, has said that the federal government will regularly analyze the effect of dispersants, and that it will discontinue the application of dispersants underwater "if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits."

Thomas O'Grady

May 18, 2010, 7:39 p.m.

just thinking…..

Has anyone brought up the possibility of the crude oil-dispersant mix being pulled up into the vortex of hurricanes, and being thrown far and wide into the upper atmosphere, and for those same chemicals to rain down upon us, upon the earth’s animals and plants?

Another example of the oil industry dictating to EPA.  Incompetence of EPA management is intolerable.

Why must people continually do this?? You gripe because an accident happened. Insist that you fix and clean immediately,(which is not bad) But, then you criticize and scrutinize every remedy plan used. This has never happened before at the depths they are working at. The things they are doing have never been applied in this depth. If you think you can do a better job of fixing the leaks or cleaning up the mess than all of the engineers that are working tirelessly to get a handle on the situation as quickly as possible, why are you sitting there on your butt reading about what’s not working??? I am sure BP and the others that are working on this problem would appreciate any new ideas from where ever they come from. If you can’t be part of the solution either in helping with containment ideas, clean-up ideas, or helping wildlife through such times quit your griping. Dad always said “If your not going to part of the solution, you ARE part of the problem”. Bad things are going to happen in this life and and you must deal with them in the best way you can come up with. And, in a situation like this, if you ain’t helping drive the car, sit down, SHUT THE HELL UP, and hold on.

Thomas O'Grady

May 19, 2010, 10:23 a.m.

To newswatcher:
Thinking, speaking, and objecting to the actions of other people IS WORK. Instead of shouting at me to “SHUT THE HELL UP,” you may want to think about this little gem of a story:

A young woman, distraught about running up $25,000 in credit card debt, lending it to a con-artist who had convinced her that his family was in grave need of the small, continuous donations which she gave to him, decided that she had displeased her parents so terribly that the only solution for her wrongdoing was to kill herself.  She lived on one of the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in Chicago, opened the window and climbed out, head first.  Except the window closed on her foot.  It opened from the top, into the apartment and the force of her weight on the window was basically crushing her ankle.  But she was alive.

So then she decided that she really didn’t want to die, dangling there, with her ankle caught in the window. She began to yell and bang on the window of the apartment below her.  Eventually that person heard the banging and went to his window to see what was going on.  There he stood, face to face with this woman, then immediately called 911 and the building’s security guards.

A building security guard arrived at the woman’s apartment first and opened the window to pull her back in. He was trying to be part of the solution, right now! He didn’t realize that a human being, even a young woman who weighed about 125 pounds, is quite a bit more heavy than he was capable of holding onto.  So she fell, forty-four stories to her death.

Thinking about the future results of what we are about to do right now, is one of the attributes that human beings have the capacity to do.

It hardly seems like “nothing” to think about the possible consequences of oil and a toxic chemical raining down on the plants that we’re going to be eating in about a year.

I admire your “Do something! Don’t just sit there!” attitude.  But please, also, try to understand that EVERYONE wants a good solution to this problem, plus we all want the solution to be as non-damaging as possible.

To Newswatcher:
My comments were or outrage and reaction to the fact that EPA had experience with these toxic dispersants during the EXXON oil spill in Alaska and also knowledge they were banned in the UK.  I call that INCOMPETENCE!  We deserve better.

Todays ProPublica articles give more reason outrage.  “As we’ve pointed out, the two dispersants BP chose to apply to the oil spill are from a line of dispersants called Corexit, and both were banned from use on oil spills in the U.K. more than a decade ago. The Corexit products had failed a U.K. toxicity test. The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret because according to the EPA, “the manufacturer has chosen to keep this information proprietary,” and the agency is “obligated by law to protect this information.”

Given that the Corexit dispersants were on the EPA’s list of pre-approved products, they were fair game for BP to choose, even though they seem to be more toxic and less effective on south Louisiana crude than other dispersants on the list.

A version of Corexit, as we first reported last month, was used after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and was later linked with human health problems, including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. One of the two Corexit dispersants BP is using in the Gulf also contains a compound that, at high doses, is associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems.

With at least 655,000 gallons of the chemicals already in the Gulf, it is the largest application of dispersants in the history of U.S. oil spills, according to the EPA.

What’s more, the EPA and the Coast Guard had allowed BP to spray the Corexit dispersants underwater, near the source of the spill–a method that has never been used and is not the recommended application of the Corexit products, according to the EPA’s website. Independent scientists recently discovered giant plumes of dispersed oil forming in the deep waters of the Gulf and told The New York Times they suspected the undersea application of dispersants were a possible cause. (A handy FAQ from the EPA says there’s “no information currently available” connecting dispersants to the giant plumes.)”

Thomas O'Grady

May 20, 2010, 5:17 p.m.

to Zoe Kelman,
I thank you for your interest in this crisis.

I believe there’s a reason why the chemical dispersant COREXIT was approved.

It’s approved by the state, where the rig is licensed.  Therefore, the oil companies need only convince the Louisiana legislature that “it’s good for the economy” and they approve it.

The reason that the EPA didn’t “approve or ban” the substance is, well, because they probably didn’t look at it.

The EPA statement was “the ingredients are ‘proprietary’ ingredients, and the company ‘declined’ to provide specifics.”

Well, I know that you can separate a liquid into it’s various individual components, using a centrifuge.  You can pull the various ingredients off of the centrifuge through valves on the side and test each one.

You can identify any substance by converting it into a gas and analyzing it with a mass spectrometer and a gas chromatograph.

THEN one can determine whether that individual substance is carcinogenic or otherwise injurious to the nervous systems of animals, which includes human beings.

The reason I was making my comment was this:

There are probably known ways of cleaning the “watered-down” oil-dispersant from the bodies of animals, just be sure you’re wearing protective gloves and a respirator.

I just leaped forward, thinking about the hurricane season.  I wonder whether or not a hurricane will draw up the crude oil-dispersant molecules into the atmosphere, and then, whether the oil-disersant mix will actually “burn off” or whether it simply remains in the atmosphere as a gas mixture, along with the water; and then if it will eventually fall upon the earth with each rain, falling on people, plants, farms, animals, fresh water supplies, etc.?

I mean, it may be more or less harmless, and easily washed off of the bodies of animals.  And of course you aren’t going to be drinking any water containing the stuff.

But what if the stuff is just in the atmosphere, raining down, everywhere?

That was my question.

Thanks again for your interest.

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