Members of a powerful Senate Appropriations subcommittee said Thursday (July 15) that the lack of research on BP’s use of vast quantities of dispersants to break up the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico leaves open the possibility that the chemicals could make the disaster worse, not better.
In an unusual bipartisan consensus, subcommittee members pressed top officials of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on why they and other federal agencies had not shown more of a “sense of urgency” in addressing health and environmental issues raised by the massive use of dispersants.
Deploring the lack of data, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md), who presided at the hearing, called on federal officials “to go to the edge of our chair” to get answers about the effects on the public, on workers fighting the spill and on the safety of seafood from the Gulf. “We need to know more,” Sen. Mikulski said.
In later testimony, Environmental Working Group President and co-founder Ken Cook echoed the senators’ concerns and said that since the moment the blowout began, “We have been engaged … in a scientific experiment. No good options. Not much good news… We basically have entered into this with a complete lack of preparedness.”
Cook noted that under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, industry had been able to withhold virtually all information about the chemicals in the dispersants under the cloak of “confidential business information” until EPA forced Nalco to disclose the ingredients well after the disaster unfolded.
“We walked into this almost completely blind, almost completely unprepared to understand” the environmental and health risks, Cook added.
He was followed by Louisiana environmental activist Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who said that although 20 percent of workers on the oil spill cleanup had reported becoming ill, industry and local health officials were systematically attributing those symptoms to the oil, oppressive heat, falls, noise and insect bites – everything but exposure to the dispersant chemicals.
“No one is prepared to talk about the dispersants,” Rolfes said. She called on Congress to give EPA and NOAA new powers to monitor and test the use of dispersants and to resist pressure to reopen recreational fishing in affect areas until the safety of Gulf seafood is assured.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure that what we put in the water isn’t more dangerous, or as dangerous, as the oil,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), adding that next week (July 19) he plans to file legislation to require testing of dispersants before they are used and to require the disclosure of chemicals in those products.
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said she agreed that the law should be changed to require more testing.
Earlier, Mikulski grilled Jackson on whether EPA had the authority to order BP to halt or limit the use of dispersants and was clearly dissatisfied with the EPA chief’s answer that the question “is a matter of untested law.” Jackson said she would need to consult with EPA lawyers to be sure of her authority.
“That’s a question you should have known from day one,” Mikulski snapped.
The senator noted that representatives of the chemical industry and Nalco, the company that manufactures the Corexit dispersant BP is using, had declined invitations to testify.
On the Republican side, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said public fears about seafood contamination by dispersant chemicals and oil was hurting even her state’s distant fishery.
Speaking for NOAA, assistant secretary of commerce Larry Robinson said fish and shellfish samples taken “outside the contaminated area” had shown no evidence of the dispersant chemicals.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, whose state has been directly affected by oil from BP’s failed well, was kept from the hearing by Senate floor action on financial regulatory reform, but he said in a prepared statement that “some experts believe that using dispersants in such enormous quantities is hindering recovery efforts.”
“Did the use of dispersants on this large spill make the problem worse” Shelby asked rhetorically. “It is possible that we inadvertently diffused a manageable floating oil spill problem into a large, non-manageable deep ocean contamination problem. The industry has willfully resisted any effort to understand the full impact and effect of dispersants, and there has been no effort to understand their use in a spill as large as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, it appears that federal agencies with oversight have done nothing about it.”
At the conclusion of the two-hour hearing, Milkulski said, “We’re going to do something about” the unresolved questions about dispersant use and EPA’s powers to act.
“We also want the executive branch to be more involved with the dispersant issue,” the senator said.