Thursday, August 05, 2010

Senate Hearing On Dispersants In The BP Gulf Oil Spill

Aug 4: Senate Environment and Pubic Works (EPW) Committee, Full Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight joint hearing entitled, "Oversight Hearing on the Use of Oil Dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill." Witnesses included representatives from: U.S. EPA; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Department of Environmental Toxicology, Texas Tech University; Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island; Louisiana State University Department of Environmental Science; and the environmental organization Oceana. Full Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) also delivered statements along with Senator John Barrasso (R-WY).
    In her opening statement Chairman Boxer indicated that as of August 3, 2010, the Unified Command reports that BP has used an extraordinary quantity of dispersants in dealing with the Gulf spill -- 1.8 million gallons all together, including 1.1 million gallons applied on the surface and almost 780,000 gallons beneath the surface of the sea.
    She said, ". . while dispersants may have been applied in the hope of reducing the effects of heavy oil slicks on shorelines and wildlife, more needs to be done to fully understand the impact the dispersant and dispersed oil are having beneath the surface. These decisions have very real consequences, not just for fish and wildlife that inhabit the gulf, but for the fishermen and oystermen and others whose livelihoods and families depend on the long-term health of the Gulf of Mexico. Questions have also been raised about the process the incident command and federal agencies used for approving dispersant use."
    Senator Inhofe said, "Following the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill, the National Contingency Plan (NCP) was updated to address new issues that might arise in the event of an oil spill of national significance. Among other things, the NCP was amended to require a pre-approved list of dispersants deemed safe for emergency use by the Environmental Protection Agency. . . I am disappointed that this important tool–which was first approved for use by EPA and then-Administrator Carol Browner in 1994 -- was implemented in fits and starts. EPA first approved, then stopped, then approved again the use of dispersants. I am concerned that EPA's back and forth -- which runs counter to having a list approved prior to an emergency—may have exacerbated the damages caused by the BP spill."
    Inhofe continued, "The current dispersant being used, Corexit 9500, was formulated following the Exxon Valdez spill and approved by EPA for use in 1994. This dispersant is currently approved for use in 28 countries, and 30 groups have access to samples as well as complete access to its ingredients and mixtures. . . The House-passed language institutes a 2-year moratorium on dispersants and requires full public disclosure of ingredients. This would greatly limit our ability to respond to any potential future spills and could drastically diminish our domestic manufacture and supply of dispersants in the future. . . we must be measured in how we address these uncertainties, because we could ultimately do more harm than good. . ."
    Senator Barrasso said, "I would suggest that those who criticize the use of dispersants are the same people who cannot offer one alternative to the use of dispersants in this situation. They leave responders with a catch twenty two, where either you are blamed for dumping chemicals in the Gulf or you allow the oil to devastate the Gulf. Some who criticize the use of dispersants want to over-regulate the use of them. There is no proven need for such an action at this time. . . legislating new dispersant regulations before you even know how existing law is working makes no sense. It would only serve to create more regulation, and slow the response to any future spills."
    EPA testified that, "EPA will continue to provide full support to the USCG and the Unified Command and will continue to take a science based approach to dispersant use. We will continue monitoring, identifying, and responding to potential public health and environmental concerns, including waste management and beach cleanup. In coordination with our federal, state, and local partners, EPA is committed to protecting Gulf Coast communities from the adverse environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We will persist in asking the hard questions until we more fully understand the long-term effects of the Gulf oil spill and conduct the investigations required to enable the Gulf's recovery. We have taken nothing for granted. EPA has constantly questioned, verified, and validated decisions with monitoring, analysis, and use of the best available science and data. EPA is fully committed to working with the people of the Gulf Coast, our federal partners, the scientific community and NGOs toward the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico and the restoration of its precious ecosystem."
    Dr. David Smith, Professor of Oceanography, Associate Dean, Graduate School of Oceanography University of Rhode Island testified that, "It will be difficult to assess the changes that will occur as a result of the oil and dispersants on the deep-sea community given our limited knowledge of the prespill community structure, particularly with regards to microorganisms. Working
in the deep-sea presents many challenges but it is essential to address these if we are to understand the impact of the large-scale experiment that has just been conducted in the Gulf of Mexico and we need to do so quickly."   

    Dr. Edward B. Overton, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Department of Environmental Sciences School of the Coast and Environment Louisiana State University, who has 34 years experience studying the environmental impacts of oil spills said, "Dispersant use has been controversial for years because initial formulations were shown to cause more environmental damage than was caused by the oil itself. Over the years, these formulations have evolved, and the current formulations are relatively benign in terms of potential environmental damage from the dispersant. In fact, most of the offshore environmental impacts associated with dispersant use are from the oil that has been dispersed rather than from the dispersant."
    Overton also said, "Oil dispersed into the water column will have environmental impacts on organisms exposed to the oil, and can have the potential to cause oxygen depletion in the water column due to natural biodegradation of the oil. Dispersant use represents a trade off between the areas of the environment that will be impacted to the greatest extent if covered with oil. Oil spills cause environmental damage, some very obvious, but much of the damage is to the very small, tiny organisms that are the basis of the ecological life cycle (larval and juvenile life cycle organisms) in both near shore and off shore marine environments. These damages are not readily observed during a spill and may not be obvious for several years after the damage takes place. Dispersant use will enhance the damage to these tiny organisms because it spreads the oil below the surface rather than leaving the oil concentrated on the surface. Therefore, offshore dispersant use represents a decision by responders that damage from on-shore oiling will be more severe than damage to offshore environments."
    Access the hearing website and link to all testimony and a webcast (click here).