Tuesday, May 25, 2010


May 24, 2010

BP Kept Using Toxic Chemical in Gulf After E.P.A. Deadline

The effort to stanch the vast oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was mired by setbacks on Monday as state and federal officials feuded with BPover its failure to meet deadlines and its refusal to stop spraying a chemical dispersant.

The oil company had indicated that it could stem the flow of oil on Tuesday by trying a procedure known as a top kill, in which heavy fluid would be pumped into the well. But on Monday morning the company’s chief operating officer said the procedure would be delayed until Wednesday.

At the same time, BP was locked in a tense standoff with the Environmental Protection Agency, which had ordered the company last week to find a “less toxic” chemical dispersant than the one it was using and to make the switch by Sunday evening. But BP continued spraying the chemical on Monday after informing the agency why it believed that the dispersant it has been using, called Corexit, was the safest available.

At a news conference Monday in Louisiana, state and federal officials continued to hammer BP over its response to the spill.

“BP in my mind no longer stands for British Petroleum — it stands for Beyond Patience,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “People have been waiting 34 days for British Petroleum to cap this well and stop the damage that’s happening across the Gulf of Mexico.”

“What we need to tell BP,” he added, “is excuses don’t count anymore. You caused this mess, now stop the damage and clean up the mess. It’s your responsibility.”

At a news conference on Monday afternoon, the E.P.A.’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said that she was “dissatisfied with BP’s response” to her agency’s order to switch to a “less toxic” dispersant. She said she had responded by ordering BP to take “immediate steps to scale back the use of dispersants,” saying that the amount being used could probably be reduced by 50 to 75 percent.

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded a month ago and began spewing oil a mile under surface, BP has applied about 700,000 gallons of the dispersants on the gulf’s surface and in experimental undersea applications directly on the leaking well head. That is the largest quantity of dispersant deployed to date to break up an oil spill in United States waters.

Ms. Jackson said that in theory, BP’s deployment of dispersant directly onto the leaking well head — a novel and experimental use of the chemicals — would reduce the amount of oil on the surface and lessen the need for application there.

Calling BP’s safety data on dispersants “insufficient,” she said that government scientists would conduct their own scientific tests to decide which type was best to use. Ms. Jackson said the amount of dispersant applied to control the oil was “approaching a world record.”

Rear Adm. Mary Landry of the Coast Guard said that while the government had pre-approved the use of dispersant, “no one anticipated that is would ever be used at this scale and this scope.”

She said the preferred method of treating oil on the ocean was to burn it or to soak it up with devices like absorbent booms and that dispersant applications should be a second line defense for when the weather was too severe to rely on those other techniques.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, praised the E.P.A.’s action, saying, “Just like many aspects of their spill response, BP gets an ‘F’ on its analysis of dispersants, and E.P.A. has rightly told it to redo its assignment and this time, show all its work.”

He added, “Despite the assertions made by BP that dispersants can be safely used, we know almost nothing about the potential harm from the long-term use of any of these chemicals on the marine environment in the Gulf of Mexico, and even less about their potential to enter the food chain and ultimately harm humans.”

At the morning news conference, Mr. Durbin was joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who were sent to the region Monday by President Obama in response to increasing criticism that the White House was not acting aggressively enough on the spill.

“BP is the responsible party, but we need the federal government to make sure they’re held accountable,” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican, said Monday.

Mr. Salazar insisted that the federal government was not “sitting on the sidelines and letting BP do what BP wants to do.” He pointed out that the government had deployed more than 1,000 vessels to the region and more than 20,000 workers, burned oil off the surface of the Gulf and deployed miles of protective boom to protect and clean up the shorelines.

“The federal government has mounted the largest response to fight this oil in all of the history of this country,” Mr. Salazar said. Speaking of BP, he reiterated the phrase that the government would “keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done.”

Ms. Napolitano said the government had formed a group of “the best scientists available within the federal government” to calculate new estimates of how much oil has been released into the gulf, suggesting that the government was not satisfied with BP’s estimates, which have attracted widespread criticism as too low. The group is expected to have its assessment ready by early next week.

Seeking to reassure all those whose livelihoods had been threatened by the spill, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, repeated that BP would be held responsible for damages. She also said the state would do a better job of processing claims in the future. “If you made $50,000 last year, and you can’t work this year,” she said, “BP is going to write you a check for $50,000.”

The top-kill method that BP had said it would try on Tuesday is one of several proposed methods of stanching the flow of at least 210,000 gallons of oil a day that has been threatening marine life and sensitive coastal areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. BP officials have emphasized that none of the methods have been tried before at the depth of this leak, and the company’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, noted the difficulties of working at such depths in explaining why the attempt was being delayed until Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in a letter over the weekend, the oil company defended its use of Corexit and took issue with the methods that the E.P.A. had used to estimate its toxicity.

Last Wednesday, the federal agency ordered BP to propose one or more alternative dispersants to regulators within 24 hours. Then it gave the company 72 hours after that deadline to stop using Corexit and make a switch. Officials and scientists from the E.P.A. and the oil company met Sunday night and were apparently unable to reach a compromise before the deadline passed.

“We are continuing to use Corexit while we’re still working with E.P.A. on alternatives,” said Mark Salt, a spokesman for the oil company, said by telephone from Texas on Monday.

While the Corexit products, made by Nalco of Naperville, Ill., are the time-tested old faithfuls of oil spill treatment, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, critics say that less toxic and more effective products are now available.

The purpose of the chemicals is to break up the oil into tiny droplets that drop under the water and can be more readily dispersed by ocean currents so that the oil does not have so great an effect on sea life.

Complicating the standoff between the company and regulators, there are many methods for estimating the toxicity of chemical oil dispersants and no single standard prevails.

The original E.P.A. order instructed BP “to identify a less toxic alternative” but also said that if BP were “unable to identify available alternative dispersant products,” it could instead provide the Coast Guard and the E.P.A. with a detailed description of the dispersants it had investigated and the reason it did not believe they met the required standards.

On Thursday night BP invoked that latter option. In a letter, it ticked off some of the alternative dispersants it had considered and outlined why it felt each was problematic, often because of other toxicity issues.

Last week, after receiving the initial E.P.A. order, BP contacted a number of dispersant manufacturers, including the U.S. Polychemical Corporation — which makes a product called Dispersit SPC 1000 — asking about product composition and how quickly the mix could be produced. In the end, BP did not place an order, an official at U.S. Polychemical said.

The Corexit dispersants were removed from a list of approved dispersants in Britain a decade ago because one type of test used in that country found them to be dangerous to animals like limpets near rocky shores.

Corexit dispersants are still approved for use in the United States and Canada, which rely on different types of testing.

Brian Knowlton contributed reporting from Washington, Campbell Robertson from Venice, La., and Daisuke Nakai from New York.

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