Feds Order Dispersant Scale-Back But Admit Minimal Impact

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), May 25, 2010

The U.S. government on Monday ordered BP to cut its use of chemical dispersants by 50% to 75%, but stopped short of forcing the oil company to use a less toxic alternative to break up oil gushing from a broken pipe in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson's announcement means that BP may continue using Corexit, which is among the most toxic of chemicals pre-approved by the government for use in oil spills. Democratic lawmakers had questioned the chemical and said that other dispersants were milder.

"As of today our data demonstrate that subsea dispersant application is having an effect on the oil at the source of the leak and thus far has no measurable ecological impact," Jackson told reporters in a phone briefing. "We should use no more dispersant than is necessary, particularly at the surface."

The EPA had more than a week ago authorized Corexit, but last week changed course amid pressure from Capitol Hill and ordered BP to identify a less toxic alternative or explain why it could not. BP on Saturday insisted that Corexit was the best option. On Monday, Jackson said that she was "not satisfied" with BP and said that the EPA would conduct its own tests while calling on BP to "continue searching" for better options. She did not force BP to stop using Corexit.

Democratic lawmakers have been questioning Corexit, which is among the most toxic to certain organisms and the least effective of all dispersants approved by the agency for oil spills, according to EPA tests. Last week, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D, N.Y.) suggested that BP picked the chemical because of corporate ties to Nalco Holding, the chemical's maker. Nalco director Rodney Chase is a former BP executive.

The company didn't immediately respond to the allegations. In a statement, Nalco said on Monday that the company was "pleased" that the government said Corexit "has achieved positive results" with "little environmental impact."

Federal officials have defended their approach to dispersants, citing the difficulty of predicting that chemical dispersants would be needed to break up oil gushing from a damaged pipe a mile blow the sea.

"Nobody ever anticipated it would need to be used at this scale and scope," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

The U.S. government's decision-making--first authorizing and then holding up the use of Corexit, before allowing the dispersant to be used at a smaller scale--is fueling criticism that federal officials should have reached a decision about use of chemical dispersants to combat oil spills before a crisis hit the Gulf of Mexico.

"The heat of an oil spill event is not the time to make decisions by sound bite," said Thomas Campbell, a partner at the law firm Pillsbury, who served as general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in 1989. "To in the passion of the moment make a decision with no new data is ridiculous."

He said that agencies including the EPA, NOAA and the Coast Guard meet periodically to evaluate the use of dispersants in an oil spill, and that "the EPA has a clear voice on that decision making."

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