EPA Chief Defends Use Of Oil Dispersant

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson talks to Melissa Block about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She ordered BP to slash its use of a toxic dispersant called Corexit 9500. EPA originally ordered BP to halt using it all together, but backed off after BP said it was having trouble finding a substitute in large enough quantities. Jackson says the EPA is continuing to conduct toxicity tests on the dispersant.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

BP says it has equipment in place for its next attempt to plug the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Engineers plan to pump heavy drilling fluids into the well as early as tomorrow, in a maneuver called a top kill. It's never been tried in such deep water.

Meanwhile, BP continues to use the dispersant Core-Exit on the oil, but less of it. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency told the companies to stop using the chemical and to find a less toxic alternative. But yesterday, the EPA retreated on that after BP said it couldn't find a safer dispersant in large enough quantities.

Earlier today, I asked the head of the EPA, administrator Lisa Jackson, why the EPA backed down. She said it's more complicated than that.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (EPA Adminstrator): We did two things. We said, you know what, we're going to make you continue to look, and we're going to do our own testing. And in the meantime, we're going to make you do the commonsense thing - which is to cut way back on the amount of Core-Exit that you're using.

BLOCK: You said EPA is going to be doing your own testing on Core-Exit, but we're now day 36 after this explosion. What's taken so long for you to step in and say, we're going to test this now and see if there's a better alternative?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, we, you know, on day one, when you start using a dispersant, you assume that it's going to be short term. The unique thing about this situation is that the release continues. The use of a dispersant is one of the tools that we have, and it represents an environmental trade-off. It's the trade-off between leaving the oil rise to the surface and disperse a bit naturally or trying, especially in deep water, to get it to disperse more effectively so that it never reaches the shallows, so that it never reaches the shorelines and the nurseries. We've always said that.

The difference here is that we were interested in having BP basically take a breath and look for an alternative. They haven't identified one. We'll try to identify one. In the meantime, we're also really cutting back on the amount that they're using.

BLOCK: Is it fair to say, do you think, that we really don't know the effects of this dispersant when it's used in such quantities and injected into such depths in the water?

Ms. JACKSON: I think it's fair to say that those are both novel to this response. We are rapidly approaching - probably - a world record on the use of Core-Exit in an aquatic ecosystem. And it's part of the nature of this response that we were willing to even try, with a lot of monitoring, to allow the sub-sea dispersant used. And that may well be one of the successful lessons that we learn, that dispersing in the sub-sea is a valuable tool.

But we're having to get science on the fly. We are having to collect data every day and review the data to make sure we're not making a bad situation any worse. And remember, although these are chemicals, they are less toxic than the oil, and we have millions of gallons of oil being released out there.

BLOCK: There are, though, a number of scientists and environmentalists who would dispute that or say, we just don't know how toxic it is. Oil may break down; we have no idea whether Core-Exit will break down, especially when it's used at depth.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I think anybody can inject lots of questions into the system. I have them, too. I don't want to minimize the concern. But when you have to make a decision during the response, it's whether to take it off the table completely. And there are some good reasons not to do that.

BLOCK: Ms. Jackson, you know that there is growing anger now - not just at BP, but also at the Obama administration for being caught essentially flat-footed here, unprepared, and letting BP make the decisions on the cleanup and how to handle it. How do you respond to that?

Ms. JACKSON: I just don't agree. I understand frustration. It's hard not to be frustrated, especially when I'm down here on the ground in my hometown, and I know people are just tired of not getting any good news. But that doesn't speak to whether or not the administration has been engaged. It has been engaged since day one.

BLOCK: Ms. Jackson, though, you said it earlier that initially, you assumed this would be a short-term problem. That would imply that you were not staying in front of this, that you did not anticipate the worst-case scenario when you authorized the use of Core-Exit.

Ms. JACKSON: No, no, no. I don't agree. I do think there's a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking going on here. In the beginning, as there was a release of oil, it is common practice - and had been approved by all the agencies - that you use dispersant as one tool. You also use burning on the surface. You also use skimming and booming. All those things have been done. The president made it clear we should plan for the absolute worst.

But what we do is - sometimes I think it's important to get BP to realize that when you're 36 days in and you're looking at 70,000 gallons a day of chemical going in, we want to know whether or not there was a better choice that could be made. It's not second-guessing the original decision. It's saying, OK, what else is out there, and do we need to order it? There is some science on dispersants, and I would be the first to agree with the general idea that we need to update the science on dispersants, that not enough has been done to move us to least toxic, most effective solutions.

But in the middle of this response, one of the things we can at least do is minimize how much of the chemicals are being used, and then monitor like crazy to see if we see any effects. And I have to say, with all that monitoring, we haven't seen those toxic effects. We may see them, and we'll keep looking, but we haven't seen them yet.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Lisa Jackson. She heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Ms. Jackson, thanks for being with us.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you.

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