EPA, BP At Odds Over Use Of Chemical Dispersant

The Environmental Protection Agency and BP are at odds over the use of a chemical dispersant being used on the Gulf of Mexico oil leak. The EPA says it will crack down on the oil company if it doesn't use less of the dispersant. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Jon Hamilton.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with news from Louisiana, where today EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said her agency has asked the oil giant BP to cut its use of chemical dispersants in the gulf oil spill by half. The EPA had ordered BP to stop using a dispersant called Corexit by Sunday, out of concern over its toxicity. But BP continued to use that dispersant today.

NPR's Jon Hamilton joins us to talk about this. Jon, it sounds like the EPA is backing off what it had said. They had ordered BP to stop using Corexit. Now, they're saying you can use it, but just use less?

JON HAMILTON: Well, they certainly are taking a slightly less strident tone. And it should be noted that BP was told they either had to stop using it or explain why they couldn't. And they did submit a detailed explanation of that.

Lisa Jackson said that she wasn't satisfied. In fact, we have some tape. Here is what she said.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency): The answer we got back from BP to me seemed more like a defense of their current choice, reminding me a little bit of that old commercial I'd rather fight than switch. And it seems to me that we owe the American people, and certainly the people of the gulf, better information than that. Science should be guiding our decision on what dispersant to use.

HAMILTON: That's an interesting cut in part because she brings up the issue of science. And, in fact, the science of dispersants and what they may do in the environment is not really all that clear. There have not been that many studies done and what they show is not entirely clear.

BLOCK: Well, what has BP said about using this particular dispersant, Corexit?

HAMILTON: Well they said that they think it's the best dispersant for the job. And the reason for that is they say they know it's effective. It's been used in a number of places and they don't think it is more toxic for this use than the other alternatives out there.

BLOCK: But you do hear this that it's been banned for use in Britain, for example. What do scientists on the other side say about it?

HAMILTON: What people on the other side say is that there are laboratory studies that show that other dispersants, at least when you expose certain marine organisms to this chemical, that it is less toxic to them.

However, some of the scientists I talked to say, well, you know, it depends -the circumstances, it depends where in the ocean, it depends what organism, it depends on a whole lot of things.

The other thing is that the toxicity is not just from the dispersant. It's a combination of the dispersant, which is carrying with it oil. And oil is far more potent as a toxin than any of these dispersants.

BLOCK: And so far, BP has used about, what, 700,000 gallons of Corexit. Explain how it works. What's the idea behind it?

HAMILTON: Well, it's kind of like a detergent. It's kind of like a dishwashing soap, you know, it takes grease or oil or something. And instead of it just making that nice film, it will take it and break it up into little tiny bits. And those little tiny bits, even though they're still lighter than water, it's much easier for them to get brought down into the currents of the ocean and it makes it easier for little organisms that feed on oil to eat them. And so, it helps with the breakdown.

BLOCK: Jon, has this dispersant or any dispersant, really, been used in this way before, the way they're using it in the gulf with this oil spill?

HAMILTON: Well, they certainly have used dispersants in a number of spills. But what's really different about this one, and the real unknown territory here, is that they have been trying to sort of inject this dispersant into the stream of oil coming up off of the ocean floor.

And that's where everybody is in real unknown territory. They think it's more effective. And, in fact, Lisa Jackson said today there was evidence that it is working as far as dispersing. What they don't know is what happens to all of that oil and to all that's - where did that detergent go?

BLOCK: Jon, thanks very much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

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