Gulf oil spill: Did Coast Guard allow excessive toxic dispersants?


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Documents released by a congressional committee Saturday show that the U.S. Coast Guard appeared to flout a May 25 Obama administration directive that sought to limit the use of chemical dispersants on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to “rare cases.”
“BP carpet-bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee. ‘After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the gulf in this manner.’

Dispersants were authorized by federal officials despite their toxicity because the ecological damage from oil was deemed to be worse. But scientists say that the chemicals, which break up the oil into tiny droplets, have contributed to large plumes of hydrocarbons below the ocean’s surface. And it is unclear whether the danger to marine organisms may be higher from toxic dispersants or from oil.


Markey, who has been investigating massive use of toxic chemicals to disperse oil from the BP spill for several months, released the Coast Guard documents along with a stern nine-page letter to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander. The letter described, based on the documents, a chaotic and indiscriminate decision-making process in allowing BP daily exemptions from the May 25 directive.

The documents show that from May 26 to mid-July, when the runaway oil well was plugged, more than 74 exemption requests from BP to spray surface dispersants were granted by the Coast Guard, usually within the same day. On five occasions BP requested advance approval to apply 6,000 gallons of dispersant each day to the ocean surface for an entire week, amounting to 35 days of pre-approved continuous use. Every request was approved.

The Environmental Protection Agency, although a party to the original directive, was virtually excluded from the daily decisions on chemical dispersants until June 22, almost a month after the directive, according to the documents. In early June, an EPA official complained that “the approval process appears to be somewhat pro forma, and not as rigorous as EPA desires,” according to one memorandum.

The documents also reveal contradictions in accounts of how much chemical dispersant was being used. According to, the government’s official website, 1.8 million gallons of dispersants have been sprayed on the surface of the gulf and beneath the water since the April 20 rig explosion. ”The validity of those numbers are now in question,” Markey said, citing “huge discrepancies” that raise questions as to whether the Coast Guard “exercised appropriate oversight.”
The EPA calculates that the total use of dispersants underwater and on the surface declined about 72% from its peak after the May 26 order. But it is unclear whether most of the reduction came from underwater dispersants, as opposed to the surface dispersants permitted by the exemptions.

EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in an e-mail, ‘The use of dispersant is always a difficult decision, with environmental trade-offs that must be taken seriously into consideration. As a result, its use in response to the BP spill was subject to numerous strict conditions once it quickly became apparent that BP wanted to use it in unprecedented quantities and in novel ways.

‘Specifically, EPA approved subsea dispersant use only after requiring multiple tests to confirm its use would be effective 5,000 feet below the surface and only after BP was directed to put in place a comprehensive monitoring program that ensured close observation of the ecological impact.

‘Soon after, following two days of skyrocketing dispersant usage by BP, which peaked at 70,000 gallons on May 24, mainly on the surface of the water, Administrator Lisa Jackson worked with then-Federal On-Scene Coordinator Rear Admiral Mary Landry to put in place a directive making dispersant use a last resort and capping its use both on the surface and sub sea.

‘Administrator Jackson and Rear Admiral Landry also ordered BP to implement a 75 percent overall reduction of dispersant use from that peak usage.’

The Coast Guard was authorized to grant waivers to increase dispersants, and ‘initally EPA was not involved in day-to-day decisions about granting such waivers, and EPA staff were notified after waivers were granted,’ he acknowledged.

’ While EPA may not have concurred with every individual waiver granted by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator, the Agency believes dispersant use has been an essential tool in mitigating this spill’s impact, preventing millions of gallons of oil from doing even more damage to sensitive marshes, wetlands and beaches and the economy of the Gulf coast,’ Gilfillan wrote.

Responding to the Markey investigation, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart wrote in an e-mail, “We were in regular communication with EPA on the topic of dispersant use and we followed the direction of the Unified Command,” the federal agency in charge of spill response. He added that “dispersant use was pre-approved as a response tool, and approved during the response, because it is effective and, on balance, less harmful” than undispersed oil.

Coast Guard spokesman Mike Lutz said Saturday that he was unaware of the Markey documents, but would request official response.

--Margot Roosevelt