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Documents indicate heavy use of dispersants in gulf oil spill

By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A01

While the BP well was still gushing, the Obama administration issued an order that limited the spreading of controversial dispersant chemicals on the Gulf of Mexico's surface. Their use, officials said, should be restricted to "rare cases."

But in reality, federal documents show, the use of dispersants wasn't rare at all.

Despite the order -- and concerns about the environmental effects of the dispersants -- the Coast Guard granted requests to use them 74 times over 54 days, and to use them on the surface and deep underwater at the well site. The Coast Guard approved every request submitted by BP or local Coast Guard commanders in Houma, La., although in some cases it reduced the amount of the chemicals they could use, according to an analysis of the documents prepared by the office of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

The documents indicate that "these exemptions are in no way a 'rare' occurrence, and have allowed surface application of the dispersant to occur virtually every day since the directive was issued," Markey wrote in a letter dated Aug. 1 to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the government's point man on the spill. Markey chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Some of them dealt with separate dispersant applications on the same day. Markey said it appeared that the order "has become more of a meaningless paperwork exercise" than a real attempt to curb use of the dispersants.

In an interview Saturday, Allen defended the decisions to grant the waivers, saying that overall use of dispersants declined sharply after that May 26 order to limit their use. The total use of dispersants underwater and on the surface declined about 72 percent from its peak, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Allen said that on some days the amount of oil on the surface justified a "tactical" decision, by on-scene Coast Guard commanders, to spray some dispersants.

"There's a dynamic tension that goes on when you're managing an incident that has no precedent," Allen said. "You establish general rules and guidelines, but knowing that the people on scene have the information" means trusting them to make decisions, he said.

In the end, Allen said: "You can quibble on the semantics related to 'rare.' I like to focus on the effects we achieved" by dispersing the oil. Officials have said that, in the days since the gusher was stopped, thick sheets of oil have nearly disappeared from the gulf's surface.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson conceded that there had been "frustration in the field" from EPA officials about the waivers. But Jackson said it was partly alleviated June 22, nearly a month after the order was issued, when Coast Guard officials began giving the EPA a greater role in the discussions over whether to approve dispersant use.

"EPA may not have concurred with every single waiver," Jackson said. But, she said, the Coast Guard had the ultimate say: "The final decision-making rests with the federal on-scene coordinator. That's where the judgment, the ultimate decision-making ability, had to lie."

The dispersants -- variants of a Nalco product called Corexit -- break up the oil, acting like a detergent on kitchen grease. They are intended to keep the oil from reaching shore in large sheets and to make it easier for microbes to consume the oil underwater.

Charles M. Pajor, a Nalco spokesman, said that the amount of dispersant the company recommends depends on the acreage sprayed and the amount of oil spilled, with variations for oil quality, degree of weathering, temperature and thickness. Typically, two to 10 gallons per acre are used or one gallon for every 10 to 50 gallons of oil, Pajor said.

Similar dispersants were used after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, and afterward government officials vowed to study their environmental effects more carefully. But urgency faded, research dollars evaporated, and when this spill arrived, the questions were still unanswered.

Now, scientists say, it's difficult to tell what the added use of dispersants permitted by the Coast Guard meant for the gulf. The chemicals may have helped break up some oil before it reached sensitive marshes along the Louisiana coast. But it also may have poisoned ecosystems offshore, helped deplete underwater oxygen and sent oil swirling through the open-water habitats of fish and coral.

"It's still a trade-off. I mean, you're using dispersants to protect the shoreline, and you're going to be killing things in the water column," said Carys Mitchelmore, a professor at the University of Maryland. By using more dispersants, Mitchelmore said, "you're just going to be killing more things in the water column."

In May, under pressure from environmental groups, the EPA and the Coast Guard issued a directive to BP, ordering the company to "eliminate" the use of dispersants on the surface. The directive said BP could seek an exemption in rare cases when other cleanup methods were not feasible.

The government allowed BP to continue injecting dispersants below the surface, as oil leaked from the well on the gulf floor. Their logic was that the chemicals could be used more efficiently underwater, where the gushing of BP's well provided a turbulence that helped them work.

"Because so much is still unknown about the potential impact of dispersants, BP should use no more dispersant than is necessary," Jackson wrote in a letter to BP that day.

But, over the next nine days, BP made daily waiver requests for the use of surface dispersants. Every day the Coast Guard gave its approval. On May 28, for instance, BP sprayed 6,400 gallons of dispersant on the surface, saying it was needed to control dangerous fumes -- volatile organic compounds -- where rig and platform workers were trying to get the blowout under control.

In early June, federal documents show, an EPA official raised concerns about the ease with which BP was obtaining waivers.

"The approval process appears to be somewhat pro forma, and not as rigorous as EPA desires," the official wrote, according to a Coast Guard memo that quoted him. It said BP "must be put on notice that the request for exemptions cannot be presumed to be approved at the point they are submitted."

Two weeks later, on June 22, Jackson said that the Coast Guard had begun giving her agency a greater role in the approval of dispersant use. But federal documents show that the chemicals were still being used, sometimes more than 10,000 gallons a day. A federal official said the last surface dispersants were sprayed July 19.

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, said that his company had been careful to obtain federal permission before using dispersants on the ocean's surface.

"Since the very beginning, BP has operated in a unified command and we have always worked hand in hand with the Coast Guard and EPA on dispersants," Dean said, "and we've complied with EPA requests regarding dispersants." He added that "dispersants are an EPA-approved and recognized tool in fighting oil spills."

Aaron Viles, at the Louisiana-based Gulf Restoration Network, said the Obama administration gave the impression of controlling the controversial dispersants while allowing their use to continue. The result, he said, was that more oil sank out of sight and out of reach of the cleanup operation.

"Clearly, you know, there was a bit of a show here," Viles said. "Whether EPA wasn't serious, or the Coast Guard didn't care, they kept cranking, and kept exposing the Gulf of Mexico to this giant science experiment."

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