BP’s Oil-Dispersant Use Veers Into Uncharted Science

Orange colored chemical dispersant
Orange colored chemical dispersant is seen in the water as it is used to help with the massive oil spill in Breton and Chandeleur sounds off the coast of Louisiana. Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

BP Plc’s effort to curb damage from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is venturing into uncharted scientific territory as the company sprays more dispersant than has ever been used in the U.S.

BP is using airplanes to spray the detergent-like chemicals on oil reaching the ocean’s surface from its Macondo well after an April 20 blast aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, which sank two days later. BP has also used dispersants almost a mile under the water close to the leak, a method not tried before.

“People are concerned about the dispersants, but it’s important to understand that what we are trying to do is deal with a pretty large situation,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an interview yesterday. The EPA is trying to assess whether applying the chemicals underwater makes “a bad situation better,” she said.

Areas closed to fishing by the National Marine Fisheries Service because of oil expanded yesterday to include about 7 percent of the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana added to territory where oyster harvesting is prohibited. The federal closure also was extended south of the spill site and eastward toward Florida.

“Due to the shifting currents and winds, rapid changes in the location and extent of the spill are occurring,” the federal fisheries service said in a bulletin. Alterations in the no-fishing zone may be announced daily at noon New York time, it said.

74,000-Barrel Leak

The well has leaked at least 74,000 barrels of oil, or 3.1 million gallons, threatening the coast from Louisiana to Florida. The spill total is based on Joint Incident Command’s initial leak-rate estimates of 1,000 barrels a day and the 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate since April 28.

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the country’s largest fishing grounds. Louisiana provides almost a third of the seafood in the lower 48 states, with values exceeding $2.85 billion a year, according to Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, a Republican, said the state has told the EPA it is concerned about the impact of subsea dispersants on fisheries.

The chemicals are an environmental tradeoff, James Jones, a deputy assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention in the EPA, told a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee in Washington yesterday.

Reviewing Results

The EPA and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration will review results of London-based BP’s third test of subsea dispersant applications, completed yesterday, to determine whether the practice can continue.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, asked why chemical dispersants used to break up oil as it flows from the well weren’t tested prior to the incident.

“It stuns me to think we know we’ll need to utilize dispersants in the event of a spill and yet we haven’t put in place the testing necessary,” Murkowski said at a Senate energy committee hearing yesterday. “We probably lost days here. It’s more than just a little bit frustrating.”

Senators examining the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion challenged Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, on spill preparations and the performance of a blowout preventer, a valve assembly intended to stanch the flow of oil in an emergency. BP had assumed the device would close, an executive said this week.

‘Flailing Around’

“What I see is a company not prepared to address the worst-case scenario but a company that is flailing around trying whatever they think of next,” Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the hearing.

Executives from BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd., and well contractors Halliburton Co. and Cameron International Corp. were invited to testify at a House subcommittee hearing at 10 a.m. New York time today.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service are also holding the second day of hearings in Louisiana on the rig explosion and subsequent oil spill.

The dispersant chemicals are described by their manufacturer, Nalco Holding Co., of Naperville, Illinois, as similar to household soaps and detergents. The chemicals scrub the oil from the water, breaking the crude into small clumps that microbes will eventually be able to digest.

The dispersant, known as Corexit, contains 2-butoxyethanol, according to a data sheet from the company. That’s a clear, colorless liquid that smells like ether, and can cause irritation of the nose and eyes, headaches, and vomiting, if inhaled in large volumes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

‘No Choice’

The chemicals will cause environmental damage, said Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, speaking at the Senate subcommittee hearing. While using the dispersing agents may be less damaging than allowing the oil to go untreated, the public may not realize the tradeoff being made, he said.

“We have no choice,” Cardin said. “We’ve got to prevent the oil from coming to the surface and getting into the currents or getting onto the beaches and destroying wildlife.”

A trade organization representing shrimpers said the agents could be harmful.

“The widespread use of dispersants on the surface of the water and deep in the Gulf of Mexico near the spill is an unprecedented and risky response that may be more damaging than the oil itself,” John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said in a May 10 statement.

Exxon Valdez

The open Gulf has fewer juvenile fish and shrimp vulnerable to oiling than do the coastal marshes, NOAA spill trajectory forecaster Charlie Henry said last week. Using dispersant in the open ocean also lowers the amount of oil that could foul whales, sea turtles, and sea birds, he said.

Teams responding to oil slicks have used dispersants in the past, including on Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

BP sprayed the most dispersant ever used on a single slick in the U.S. within a week of the Macondo leak beginning, Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, a Cortland, New York-based oil spill consultant who has worked for BP, said April 30. At the time, the company had applied about 98,000 gallons of the chemicals.

Since then, planes have dropped a further 274,000 gallons of dispersant, the Joint Information Center said yesterday.

“We’re basically shifting the oil when dispersants are being used to a short-term potential threat offshore, to protect against a long-term threat near shore that we think is much more important in the balance,” Henry at the NOAA said. “All we can do is minimize the impact to the environment.”

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