BP ordered to stop using toxic dispersant in Gulf oil clean-up

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed BP officials late Wednesday that the company has 24 hours to choose a less toxic form of chemical dispersants to break up its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reported today.

“According to government sources familiar with the decision, [BP] must apply the new form of dispersants within 72 hours of submitting the list of alternatives,” Eilperin writes.

“The move is significant, because it suggests federal officials are now concerned that the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants could pose a significant threat to the Gulf of Mexico’s marine life. BP has been using two forms of dispersants, Corexit 9500A and Corexit 9527A, and so far has applied 600,000 gallons on the surface and 55,000 underwater,” Eilperin added.

Congressman Edward J. Markey, Democrat-Massachusetts, commended the EPA for ordering BP to use less toxic dispersant chemicals in the company’s cleanup efforts in the Gulf.

“EPA’s announcement comes just three days after Representative Markey sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that raised questions about the potential toxicity of the trademarked formulation, called Corexit, that BP had selected for use, and whether the chemical could be contributing to new reports of large undersea ‘plumes’ of oil suspended thousands of feet below the water’s surface,” Markey said in a news statement.

“I commend the Obama administration for acting swiftly to address my concerns that the dispersant BP chose to use is more toxic than other available formulations,” said Markey, who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the Energy and Commerce Committee. “The effect of long-term use of dispersants on the marine ecosystem has not been extensively studied, and we need to act with the utmost of caution.”

Markey’s May 17, 2010 letter, which can be found here, noted that some formulations of Corexit, the substances being used in the Gulf of Mexico, were banned in Britain more than a decade ago due to their tested harmful effects to sea life.

The letter also asks about the effects of water temperature and pressure on the chemicals, as they are currently and for the first time being used at 5,000 feet where the temperature is near freezing and the pressure of the water is extremely high. Markey also asked EPA whether these chemicals could accumulate in marine life over time, and what human health impacts could result from eating Gulf seafood.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle testified to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday about the potential danger of using Corexit. (Sylvia Earle to U.S. Congress: Cheap oil is costing the Earth)

Not only is the flow of millions of gallons of oil an issue in the Gulf, Earle told the Committee, but also the thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants that make the ocean look a little better on the surface–where most people are–but make circumstances a lot worse under the surface, where most of the life in the ocean actually is.

“The instructions for humans using Corexit, the dispersant approved by the EPA to make the ocean look better warn that it is an eye and skin irritant, is harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed, and may cause injury to red blood cells, kidney or the liver. People are warned not to take Corexit internally, but the fish, turtles, copepods and jellies have no choice. They are awash in a lethal brew of oil and butoxyethanol.”

Earle called for a halt on the subsurface use of dispersants, while limiting surface use to strategic sites where other methods cannot safeguard critically important coastal habitats.

Posted by David Braun


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn