Sen. Nelson files legislation that would regulate dispersants

08/02/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Since oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico in April, BP has pumped one-point-eight million gallons of chemical oil dispersants. They stopped in late July, but effects of the dispersant Corexit remain one of the big questions of the disaster. Today the federal government announced that dispersants, when mixed with oil, are no more toxic than oil itself. But skepticism remains.

Dr. Paul Anastas is a researcher with the Environmental Protection Agency. He had some not-so-terrible news about the mysterious chemical oil dispersant BP dumped into the Gulf for months on end.

"The dispersant oil mixtures are generally no more toxic to the test species than oil alone. They would generally be categorized in the moderate range."

What he means by “generally” remains unclear, but Anastas said the EPA tested eight different dispersant products. He also said the agency has been rigorously monitoring the Gulf Coast to see if dispersants have traveled beyond the wellhead, and so far there’s no evidence of this. This is contrary to reports that dispersant binds with oil travels with it. Anastas said using the dispersants was probably the best option.

"We see that dispersants are working to keep oil off our precious shorelines and away from sensitive coastal ecosystems. We also see that dispersants are less toxic than the oil being released into the Gulf. We see further that the dispersant plus oil mixtures have roughly the same toxicity as the oil itself.

But not everyone agrees. Over the weekend Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey equated BP’s dispersant use to carpet-bombing. And Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is cosponsoring a bill with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg that would severely restrict application of the chemical. A similar bill passed in the House last week. Sen. Nelson:

"So I am filing a bill today with Sen. Lautenburg, of New Jersey, to require certain standards be made on the dispersants, and that there be the immediate public disclosure of any of those dispersants that would be used in the future."

Speaking to a crowded room full of reporters in his Tampa office today, Sen. Nelson chided the Coast Guard for letting BP apply Corexit despite an EPA directional demanding they stop. In a conference call yesterday, Admiral Thad Allen defended the more than seventy exemptions the Coast Guard granted BP that allowed them to unload more dispersants. Allen said he is working very closely with EPA head Lisa Jackson.

"On the 22nd of June, I actually convened a meeting. We put one additional step in to make sure that EPA had total visibility of how this was going on. We put EPA into the clearance process down at the Unified Command, so they would have total visibility of it. But, in the end, there are going to be times where our field commanders are going to have to make a decision based on the best information that's available."

Nelson also had some words for the EPA’s regulation of the dispersant and oil industries.

"EPA allowing the oil industry and the dispersant industry to do their own safety checks. This is like the fox guarding the hen house."

The dispersant has caused many of the millions of gallons of oil that have hemorrhaged from the well to break down into specks not visible to the naked eye. At least two enormous oil plumes have formed beneath the water’s surface. The environmental effects of the plumes, which scientists call subsurface hydrocarbons, are still unclear. Nelson said such copious application of dispersants compounded the BP disaster.

"If the oil would have risen all to the surface, we would have had a much better chance of scooping it up as they done with the skimmers. We would have known where the oil was, and that over time you would have had sun oxidizing the oil on the surface. But with all the chemicals dispersing it, it's not just on the surface of the Gulf, it's throughout the water column. And that water column is a huge water column. It's a mile deep."

Speaking at the same news conference, University of South Florida physical oceanographer Robert Weisburg said that while time will tell what the best course of action was, cleaning up an oil slick would probably have proven easier.

"That's not my area of expertise, but at least my gut reaction would be: Yeah, we might be better off without using dispersants."

He said the unknowns associated with subsurface hydrocarbons include their impact at all levels of the gulf food chain and how much of it is out there. Another is where the plumes are headed. But he did say that part of what’s keeping oil away from Tampa Bay – at least for now – is the expanse of continental shelf extending westward into the Gulf.

"The reason why Pensacola, Florida was the first of the Florida regions to be oiled, in fact, they got oiled before Mississippi got oiled, is because of the De Soto Canyon brings deep water right to the vicinity of Pensacola. It's only about 30 miles off shore. Whereas when you go west from there, into the Mississippi sound, the shelf gets rather wide, and you go east towards Cape San Blas, it gets wide. And here in the West Florida shore, it's very wide."

When oil first began gushing in April, Weisberg had speculated that the oil might get caught up in the loop current, which would have carried it through the Straits of Florida and up the East Coast. An eddy broke off preventing this. But Weisberg said that event was an anomaly and policy makers still need to consider the current when considering their policy on gulf drilling.

"We just had the worst environmental disaster we can think of, with regard to oil drilling off shore. And no significant oil made it up the East Coast, when everybody was saying, oh, that might be a serious problem. I sure hope going forward in the future that we don't dismiss the connection between Eastern Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast United States, provided by the loop current, when we consider future activities on the outer continental shelf."

Weisberg and a team of researchers are heading out into the Gulf again next week to find out more about the oil plumes. Tomorrow night, Congresswoman Kathy Castor will join Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at a town hall 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3 in St. Petersburg regarding the oil disaster.

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Nelson takes lead

This is really excellent coverage. Earlier today I watched Senator Nelso on MSNBC comparing the EPA downplaying the effects of dispersants to the EPA stance on the dangerous air in NYC post 9/11.