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BP told to cut back on toxic remedy

A skeptical EPA calls for a sharp reduction in the company's use of an oil dispersant.

May 25, 2010|By Ashley Powers, Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall

Reporting from Port Fourchon, La. and Los Angeles — In a sign of diminished confidence in BP's ability to manage the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, federal officials Monday said they intended to require the company to dramatically scale back its use of oil dispersants and would initiate their own tests on the chemicals' effect on sea life.

With an oil spill of epic proportions looming offshore, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson — along with angry chorus of lawmakers — chided BP for its lack of transparency. She said that BP's response to federal directives last week to find a less toxic dispersant was "insufficient."

Even though the company's test results show that the dispersant, Corexit, is effective and not a risk to aquatic life, Jackson wants its use cut by 50% to 75%. She said there is no way to know the long-term effects of the unprecedented amount of chemicals.

Adding to BP's woes, Jackson said that the company is liable for environmental fines and penalties now that oil has reached land. And the Commerce Department declared a "fisheries disaster" for the waters off Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, making the company responsible for compensating losses to the fishing industry.

BP's dressing down came on a day when a bipartisan cast of lawmakers and federal officials voiced unstinting criticism of the company as toxic oil washed up on nearly 75 miles of Louisiana marshland.

In refusing to rely on BP's data on the toxicity of dispersants, Jackson said, "I'd rather have my own scientists do their own analysis."

More than 800,000 gallons of dispersant have been used in an attempt to break up the oil and speed its decomposition before the slick reaches shore. That is more than has ever been used in U.S. waters, spurring concern that dispersants' widespread application is magnifying the toxic effect of oil on sea life from the gulf surface to its muddy floor.

Last week the EPA told the oil giant to find less toxic alternatives to the two types of dispersant released on the surface and, to a lesser extent in the ocean depths near the damaged wellhead. BP said it is unable to find a more benign dispersant available in the necessary volumes.

On Monday, Jackson and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry used frank language to describe a Sunday night meeting with BP officials.

"We are not satisfied that BP has done extensive analysis of other dispersant options," Jackson said. "They were more interested in defending their original decisions than studying other options."

A federal lab in Florida will begin testing the dispersant's effectiveness and toxicity.

Jackson said the unprecedented release of dispersants at an ocean depth of 5,000 feet have been effective and would continue. But the surface applications, in particular, would be decreased.

BP is finishing preparations to stop the flow of the blown-out oil well that that has poured millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 workers.

Much is riding on the planned Wednesday morning "top kill" operation, which involves pumping heavy liquids into the wellhead to plug it. If the procedure works, the gush of oil from a broken pipe connected to the wellhead could end by Wednesday night.

If it doesn't, BP's badly tarnished reputation will dim further. And the Obama administration will run the risk of seeing the spill narrative shift from BP's failures to a questioning of the administration's competence in handling a growing environmental disaster.

"This is a BP mess. This is a horrible mess," declared Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a Galliano, La. news conference, where he repeated his threat to put a "boot on the neck" of BP. Over the weekend, Salazar said the federal government was prepared to "push them [BP] out of the way appropriately'' if the company proved unable to stem the oil leak spreading across the gulf.

But in a Monday news briefing at the White House, Adm. Thad Allen, U.S. Coast Guard commandant, conceded that the federal government is in no position to take over the job of stopping the leak.

"I know that, to work down there right now, you need remotely operated vehicles," he said. "You need to do very technical work at 5,000 feet. You need equipment and expertise that's not generally within the … federal government, in terms of competency, capability or capacity.''

Asked about Salazar's tough stance toward BP, Allen said the Interior secretary was merely using "a metaphor.''

In Port Fourchon, La., BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward repeatedly said he was "devastated" by the destruction in the gulf. The shoreline of Port Fourchon — which bills itself as "The Gulf's Energy Connection" — was dripping with liquid that could have been mistaken for chocolate and cherry syrup, if not for the stomach-churning smell.

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