Chemical dispersants come under fireMay 18th, 2010 | By Chad West | Category: Top Story
Chad M. West
With the failure of the first containment dome to stem the flow of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and a second device on the way down, BP is left with few options. But the dispersant chemicals that have become a staple in the effort to contain the spill have recently come under public scrutiny.
Instead of coagulating or sinking the oil, dispersants act like dish soap, separating it from the water. The chemicals break the slick into particles small enough for microorganisms to digest. But some of the ingredients in the secret formulas of Corexit 9527 and 9500, the two oil dispersants being used in the Gulf, are toxic. Despite these hazards, Environmental Protection Agency officials insist the chemicals are safe.
“Their use is a tradeoff decision, based on a belief that if used properly, they would result in less environmental impact,” said Jane Lubchenco, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Using dispersants, she said, prevents oil from reaching shorelines by treating large swaths of ocean with chemicals sprayed from air planes. Although toxic, the dispersant agents can be 10 to 100 times less poisonous than oil.
Skeptics and environmentalists concerned with long-term affects of the chemicals aren’t happy with that answer. Louisiana State Sen. A.G. Crowe, whose district includes St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, has written a letter to State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell asking him to file suit against British Petroleum to stop using Corexit in favor of a safer alternative.
“I am well aware and deeply concerned that requesting this action could slow down the clean-up process,” Crowe wrote. “However, the health and welfare of our citizens working in the proximity of this chemical should be our most important priority.”
Caldwell has not yet responded.
Environmental impacts of these popular oil-fighting agents are largely a mystery. Although many contain substances toxic in large quantities, officials say data collected from past dispersant uses has not shown significant danger to aquatic life. However, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged that such large-scale use is unprecedented.
Testing is underway. EPA and Wildlife and Fisheries agents collected samples of shrimp, oysters and other seafood before the oil slick extended into the state’s fisheries and will compare them to samples taken when the oil is cleaned and booms are removed.
Scientists have also collected water samples from 1,500 feet underwater to determine whether injecting the chemicals directly into the well is more dangerous to sea life than spraying it on the surface. Jackson said logistical problems prevented sampling from the well, where the chemicals have been applied in three separate tests.
According to Jackson, crews are using Corexit because it is readily available and easily accessible. Any substance on the EPA’s list of approved dispersant products can be used without further consent, she said. About 500,000 gallons of Corexit are ready to be sprayed into the Gulf and another 800,000 gallons are on order.
Corexit products have been the preferred dispersants in the Gulf spill, but because of the unknown effects of heavy long-term use, government agencies have been bombarded with suggestions for replacements. According to Dave Westerholm, director of the NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the agency has assembled a team to investigate new leads. However, the lengthy testing process means new products not already approved won’t be immediately available to replace Corexit.
For now, dispersants remain a big gun in the fight against the Gulf oil slick. Despite the oil and the chemicals drifting around offshore, authorities insist seafood from untouched waters is safe.
“I had seafood yesterday in New Orleans,” Jackson said Wednesday. “If it’s coming from a place where NOAA or the state have not banned it, so it’s not being illegally caught, I would eat it and I would enjoy it.”
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