Is BP the Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

The Administration this week demanded that BP present them with detailed plans surrounding their newest Gulf oil cleanup strategy, including information on the company's plans for limiting dispersant usage. While this is a timely order, especially in light of BP's announcement that many Gulf responders were exposed to a now-discontinued version of Corexit (a controversial dispersant linked to chronic health problems that BP used in cleanup efforts despite orders to stop), it's unlikely that BP's response will answer another, more critical question:

Why should BP provide information on their dispersant usage when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stopped demanding this information, and until now, BP has willfully and without consequence defied much of what the EPA has demanded they do?

Immediately following the spill, BP took the liberty to overrule the EPA's order to cease using the controversial dispersant Corexit. The company continues to use the dispersant, and for a time, was even using the now-discontinued version that they just admitted may have poisoned up to 20 percent of offshore responders. The EPA, in turn, has responded to BP's insolence by rephrasing their directive and ordering that dispersant usage be ramped down. Since then, BP has ignored that directive, pumping millions of gallons of the chemical into the Gulf while the EPA continues to fail to regulate them.

As of late, the EPA appears to have developed a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality. Last week BP (under the title "Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center") and the EPA issued a joint press conference on the results of preliminary Corexit testing on marine life. Perhaps not surprisingly, these tests stopped far short of mimicking the Gulf environment, lacking both crude oil and saltwater. The tests also failed to include marine organisms smaller than shrimp or silverfish and did not determine the effects of long-term (over 96-hour) exposure.

Although the results of the tests were "announced" last week, this type of dispersant data is not new. Dispersant manufacturers are already required to submit similar data (and to test the toxicity of their dispersants combined with oil) if their product is to be included in a national list of allowable dispersants.

The results from these previous tests have already revealed that there are seven dispersants that are more effective and less toxic to both shrimp and fish when combined with oil. And while one of the products, called Dispersit, rated nearly twice as effective and between half and a third as toxic as Corexit (when mixed with oil), the EPA never ordered BP to use it instead.

So why, when these tests have been conducted, are BP and the EPA announcing that they will be presenting the results of a similar test (combining dispersants and oil) in the coming months? Why is it taking months from the time the EPA attempted to ban Corexit to verify data that is already available and to announce information regarding a known toxic chemical?

If it feels like we're being given the run-around, it may be because we are.

It is not surprising that some in industry would want to use Corexit. According to media reports, Nalco, the producers of Corexit, stand to make $800 thousand to $6.5 million per day from dispersant sales. Nalco's board of directors includes a former BP executive and board member.

What is surprising, however, is that a major federal agency, tasked with protecting the public, would allow industry to call the shots.

It is an outrage that Corexit continues to jeopardize both the health of the public and of the Gulf marine life exposed to the chemical. Both the EPA and BP are to blame, with the former allowing the latter to shoot first, ask questions later (and act surprised when the answer involves documented toxicity). This is why, despite the Administration's claim that they are demanding answers from BP, it is we who must demand that our government stop asking BP what they intend to do and start telling them what they are required to do.