Going from bad to worse, British Petroleum dumped hundreds-of-thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants to offset a mushrooming oil spill begun April 20 when its oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, estimates have varied regarding the amount of crude oil spewing from the broken well-head, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. BP officials only yesterday released a video to the U.S. Senate confirming the extent of the primordial ooze, estimated at over 5,000 barrels or 200,000 gallons a day. So far, BP’s efforts to cap the busted well have failed, though they claim new containment efforts using a tube extraction method have slowed the original flow. New video footage shows a far larger spew than BP’s original estimates, raising even greater fears about an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions.
Federal officials now have growing concerns about BP’s use of highly toxic chemical dispersants, promising, with the best of intentions, to pollute the Gulf waters more than the organic sludge oozing from the well’s broken pipes. While BP originally estimated a leak of 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons a day, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration place the figure at 5,000 barrels a day. Private estimates have ranged up to five times the NOAA estimates, attesting to the urgency of slowing down the leak. “It was always made clear that this was a ballpark estimate,” said BP’s chief spokesman Andrew Gowers. Of immediate concern is BP’s use of Corexit 9500A and Corexit 9527A, already applying 600,000 gallons to the surface and 55,000 gallons underwater. Alarmed by BP’s actions, the Environmental Protection Agency demanded changes to chemical dispersants.
What the EPA wants to avert is BP destroying the Gulf’s fragile marine ecosystem by dumping millions of gallons of toxic chemicals. “Dispersants have never been used in this volume before,” said an unnamed EPA official, concerned about BP worsening the ecological disaster. There’s too little info on the short- and long-term hazardous effects of chemical dispersants. “This is a large amount of dispersants being used, larger than have ever been used, on a pipe that continues to leak oil and that BP is still trying to cap,” concerned that the effects of chemical dispersants could be far worse than the gooey mess on marshlands and beaches from the actual underwater oil leak. “We’ll only use approved products, any dispersant that will be used going forward will be subject to government review and approval,” BP spokesman Robert Rinehart wrote in a recent e-mail.
Government approval of existing chemicals can’t possibly assure environmental safety. No approved product offers guarantees of environmental safety, since the government has no data on the effect of quantities used in the current oil spill. Since the oil disaster hit April 20, President Barack Obama has been sensitive to the criticism encountered by the Bush administration for its feckless response to 2005 Hurricane Katrina. If BP causes a worst ecological disaster by dumping toxic chemicals into the Gulf, the Obama administration will take the heat. EPA officials don’t trust BP to do the right thing, especially since no one knows the adverse effects of chemical dispersants. No one knows for sure what’s worse: The effect of crude oil in the ocean or on the marine environment or toxic effects of chemical dispersants. EPA officials don’t want to make a bad situation worse.
Unable yet to cap the well, BP officials are scrambling to fix a disaster of epic proportions. “Coexit was readily available in quantities required by the spill response plan which was pre-approved by the government for use in spill response,” said BP spokesman Steve Rinehart, wanting to go full-steam ahead with plans to continue releasing hundreds-of-thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Gulf. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) questioned BP’s approach, raising concerns about Coexit’s toxicity. Markey demanded that EPA director Lisa Jackson urgently examine BP’s continued plan to use of Coexit, when the chemical has been banned in the U.K. for over 10 years. Markey sees a very real possibility of BP’s solution causing more harm to the environment than the damaged underwater well. So far, BP’s response to the crisis has been its own disaster.
EPA officials are right to question the advisability of dumping hundreds-of-thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico. “The effect of the 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 told the EPA for taking swift.action. BP’s response to its oil rig disaster demonstrates as lack of emergency plans to manage what’s become the worst environmental crisis in U.S. history. Reassurances about accepting responsibility and paying the freight doesn’t undo catastrophic damage to U.S. costal waters. Hastily dumping untold volumes of toxic chemicals into the Gulf could have far worse environmental consequences. U.S. authorities must demand better safeguards before allowing more offshore drilling. More empty promises and quick-fixes from BP do nothing to fix the problem.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.