BP: Dispersing Oil or Criticism?

Toxic chemicals helped the oil giant save face, but their health and environmental impacts are unknown

Terry J. Allen

Globs of oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico wash ashore on June 26, in Orange Beach, Ala.

BP was slow to staunch the hem­or­rhage of oil from the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon blowout, but it wast­ed no time apply­ing vast quan­ti­ties of the chem­i­cal dis­per­sant Corex­it. By mid-July, BP had released almost 2 mil­lion gal­lons of the chem­i­cal into the Gulf ecosystem.

BP and Corex­it man­u­fac­tur­er Nal­co claim the chem­i­cal reduced dam­age from the spill, and was as harm­less as dish soap.

But dis­per­sants do not lessen the amount of oil in the envi­ron­ment. Rather, they break oil into tiny drops that have dif­fer­ent, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly few­er, tox­ic prop­er­ties. After more than three months, the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion lingers: Did Corex­it do more harm than good?

Aside from ques­tions about their safe­ty and effi­ca­cy, dis­per­sants have proven use­ful, crit­ics charge. By break­ing down the oil, Corex­it has made it less vis­i­ble, dis­guised the full envi­ron­men­tal impact of the spill and helped BP lim­it its legal and finan­cial liability.

In addi­tion to sur­face appli­ca­tion, BP inject­ed 700,000 gal­lons of Corex­it a mile deep at the blown-out well head. This untest­ed exper­i­ment caused oil to become sus­pend­ed in great plumes before it reached the sur­face, fur­ther obscur­ing the quan­ti­ty of leaked oil. An added bonus for BP is that marine life killed by the plumes dies out-of-sight, sink­ing to the ocean floor rather than dying on cam­era in oil-coat­ed misery.

Indeed, inves­ti­ga­tors now admit they don’t know where most of the 200 mil­lion-plus gal­lons of spilled oil has gone. But much of it, they assume, formed oil-plus-dis­per­sant droplets that are being incor­po­rat­ed into sea life in unpre­dictable ways. 

BP has used two dis­per­sant for­mu­la­tions in the gulf – Corex­it 9500 and 9527. The old­er for­mu­la, Corex­it 9527 – which con­tains 2‑butoxy ethanol, a com­pound asso­ci­at­ed with headaches, vom­it­ing and repro­duc­tive prob­lems at high dos­es – is more toxic.

BP used lim­it­ed” quan­ti­ties of the more dan­ger­ous for­mu­la to fill the gap until his com­pa­ny could ramp up pro­duc­tion of the improved” for­mu­la, Nal­co spokesman Char­lie Pajor told In These Times. But Pajor refused to quan­ti­fy the amount applied. 

In mid-May, Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency head Lisa Jack­son said she didn’t know for sure how much of each for­mu­la­tion was deployed, but she under­stood that use had been rough­ly 50/50.” At that point, BP had applied at least 400,000 gal­lons of Corexit.

Despite decades of use, there is a pauci­ty of good inde­pen­dent data on Corexit’s short- and long-term effects. But there is evi­dence that the inter­ac­tion of dis­per­sants with oil cre­ates a tox­ic syn­er­gy worse than any of the ingre­di­ents alone.

A 1999 report on Corex­it 9500 for the Alas­ka Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion Divi­sion of Spill Pre­ven­tion and Response found that under some con­di­tions: Fol­low­ing dis­per­sant use … the tox­i­c­i­ty of the result­ing oil residue (on an oil mass basis) may be increased.”

Con­cerned about tox­i­c­i­ty, the Unit­ed King­dom has banned Corex­it for off­shore use in the North Sea. 

The EPA response has been scat­tered. On May 13, fac­ing charges that safer alter­na­tives to Corex­it were avail­able, Jack­son said BP was free to pick among any of the 18 agency-approved dis­per­sants. Then in a May 20 direc­tive, the EPA announced it requires BP to iden­ti­fy a less tox­ic alternative.”

The com­pa­ny balked, and the EPA caved. The agency admit­ted it could not read­i­ly find a safer alter­na­tive since data in the Nation­al Con­tin­gency Plan Prod­uct Sched­ule was pro­vid­ed by the com­pa­nies them­selves, and had been crit­i­cized as unreliable.

The EPA was reluc­tant to chal­lenge BP. If you’re going to tie our hands, then we don’t own this spill,” BP Vice Pres­i­dent David Rainey warned.

In a cor­ner, Jack­son told BP to estab­lish an over­all goal of reduc­ing dis­per­sant appli­ca­tion by 75 per­cent from the max­i­mum dai­ly amount.” That word­ing allowed BP to use the day of high­est dis­per­sal – 70,000 gal­lons – as the bench­mark. Jack­son was then able to accu­rate­ly (but mis­lead­ing­ly) claim that BP had reduced dis­per­sant use by 68 per­cent. In fact, the aver­age dai­ly use had only gone down slight­ly, from 24,700 gal­lons before the direc­tive to 22,600 after it.

[Dis­per­sants] make the oil more sol­u­ble in water, so it won’t just sit on the sur­face,” Jack­ie Savitz, senior sci­en­tist with Oceana told CNN. Whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you’re a fish or a seabird.” 

Or a BP exec­u­tive try­ing to mit­i­gate fines and pay­outs based on the quan­ti­ty spilled and the dam­age done.

The bot­tom line,” says Hugh Kauf­man, an engi­neer in the field of haz­ardous waste and emer­gency response who has worked at the EPA for four decades, is that the EPA and gov­ern­ment reac­tion doc­u­ments the fact that dis­per­sants were used to pro­tect the eco­nom­ic health of BP at the expense of the envi­ron­men­tal health of the Gulf.”

Ter­ry J. Allen is a vet­er­an inves­tiga­tive reporter/​editor who has cov­ered local and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and health and sci­ence issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Sci­en­tist . She has been an edi­tor at Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her por­traits of peo­ple sit­ting in some of the 1900 cars lined up out­side a New­port, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Ter­ry can be con­tact­ed at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
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