Monday, August 02, 2010

Another measurement question: how much Corexit toxic dispersant did BP use?

Kate Sheppard, a real journalist who has been doing some of the best reporting on the BP oil catastrophe, reports on the possibility that BP's official estimate of 1.8 million gallons of the toxic dispersant Corexit used on their oil geyser at Macondo/Deepwater Horizon may be seriously lowballed (Kate Sheppard, BP "Carpet Bombed" Gulf With Dispersants Mother Jones 08/01/2010):

In one example, the subcommittee staff found that Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, stated in a June 12 letter to the Coast Guard that the maximum daily application of dispersants on the surface in the days before June 16, 2010 was 3,360 gallons. But according to the dispersant totals BP provided to Markey's committee, the company applied 14,305 gallons of dispersant on June 11 alone. The company reported using another 36,000 gallons on June 13 and 10,706 gallons June 14.

Not only does this raise questions about whether BP was playing straight with the government, but also about whether the Coast Guard was following through on its responsibility to monitor the company's use of the chemicals. According to the official totals from BP and the Coast Guard, 1.8 million gallons of the chemicals have been applied. Now, it's beginning to look like the real total may be much higher.
Democratic Congressman Ed Markey is using his role as chair of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee (of the Energy and Commerce Committee) to investigate BP's use of Corexit. In a letter of July 30 to Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen, Markey questioned whether the Coast Guard (USCG) and the EPA had enforced their own direction to BP of May 26 to limit further usage of dispersants to "rare cases". It raises a number of questions about dispersant usage. For instance, he notes in Item 9/Page 6 that BP received at least one retroactive waiver of the USCG/EPA directive on using dispersants. In another instance, the USCG "essentially gave BP permission to use as much dispersant as it wanted to for a 7 day period." (Item 6/Page 4)

The more I learn about this, the more suspicious I am that BP used Corexit for public relations purposes. The popular image of oil in the water is of oil spills, producing surface oil which is visible on sea and on land when it washes ashore. Minimizing the amount of surface oil gives BP more room to present the oil-in-the-water problem in the most benign (or least malign) light.

But surface oil is far easier to clean up through the use of skimmers, for instance. And Corexit is toxic, and the particular effects of large amounts of Corexit used to disperse a huge amount of oil at the source on the sea floor are unknown, though we do not they are going to cause a certain amount of harm. In terms of cleaning up the oil and minimizing the actual damage to marine life, fishing, tourism and the food supply, using the Corexit dispersant may have been counterproductive. But it assists BP spin efforts in the short run. Efforts which, as Sheppard reported earlier (Media Runs Defense for BP, Again Mother Jones 07/29/2010), our housebroken national media has been all to willing to enable. (h/t Marigolds2)

I certainly hope we have a thorough Congressional review that addresses the sorts of questions Markey is addressing, as well as the entire accident and the response by BP, the federal and state governments. Some of it will inevitably be embarrassing to the Obama administration, and that's fine. Accountability is important, even if the Republicans only want accountability for Democrats. There certainly no reason to let BP get off easy, and BP is the main entity to which full accountability should be applied since it was their disaster. Republican Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi are especially likely to come off looking bad in a thorough accounting.

But any Congressional reviews should not interfere with what will hopefully be a serious criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Though if Obama applies his Look Forward Not Back principle to BP's Gulf oil catastrophe, a thorough Congressional investigation would be second best, even if it results in some corporate executives or employees avoiding prosecution. If the administration plans to let them skate on criminal charges anyway, why not get the facts of their misdeeds before the public via Congressional immunity, if that's what it takes?

The Christian Science Monitor has related coverage, including:

Mark Sappenfield, New Gulf oil spill mystery: How much dispersant did BP use? 08/01/2010

Mark Guarino, EPA scolds BP in Gulf oil spill: dispersant is too toxic, change it 05/20/2010:

The US Environmental Protection Agency reversed course in the Gulf oil spill cleanup effort Thursday, telling BP that had three days to stop using a chemical dispersant that the EPA’s own data suggests is unnecessarily toxic.
Mark Guarino, EPA girds for a fight with BP over dispersants in Gulf oil spill 05/25/2010:

The Obama administration's frustration with BP over the dispersant issue has been mounting since this weekend. By Sunday, it had become clear that BP would not heed an EPA directive to find an alternative to Corexit, the dispersant that the EPA rates as less effective and more toxic than as many as 12 other products. [my emphasis]
How much testing, if any, that the EPA did to make such a rating is a whole other question.


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