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Why Are Dispersant Chemicals Secret?

The important question, which has gone unanswered, is are we minimizing the damage to our planet by using these dispersants, or are we adding to the mess?
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British Petroleum, Inc. has dumped more than 400,000 gallons of chemical oil dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the undersea gusher caused by the April 20 blowout at BP's exploration well, which set fire to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killed 11 workers.

By next week, that figure could double, at least. On Tuesday, Lamar McKay, president And chairman of BP America, Inc., told a Senate panel that its supplier, Nalco Energy Services of Sugar Land, Texas, can deliver as much as 75,000 gallons of dispersants a day for the massive environmental clean-up.

Dave Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at Environmental Working Group
, and I have been striving, along with many other journalists and experts, to understand what those chemicals are and how they behave in such massive volumes.

This much is well accepted: dispersants don't make all that streaming oil vanish. As the science journal Nature reported, "they help large globs of oil 'disperse' into smaller pieces -- hence their name -- which are easier for sea-living microbes to break down."

"Their use is a trade-off decision," Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said during a telephone press conference earlier this week.

The important question, which has gone unanswered, is are we minimizing the damage to our planet by using these dispersants, or are we adding to the mess?

It is inexcusable that we do not know the answer to this question and have decided to make the Gulf of Mexico an enormous floating science experiment. After all, we've been dealing with oil spills from the moment we started pumping oil. According to a 2005 National Research Council report titled, Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects , 3 million gallons of oil and refined petroleum are spilled annually in around U.S. waters, mostly in smaller batches.

The dispersants going into the Gulf have been around for decades. According to the NRC report, COREXIT EC9527A came on the market in the 1980s. COREXIT 9500 was introduced in the 1990's. Both are made by Nalco and have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard for spraying on the ocean surface. (EPA has authorized limited tests of dispersants near the source of the leak, 5,000 feet below the waves, but has not given a green light to use them in volume.)

No one pretends that these or any other dispersants are environmentally neutral. "Dispersants are not the silver bullet," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said.

Jackson has defended the use of the chemicals on grounds they are far less toxic than petroleum and degrade much more rapidly.

That's not much of a recommendation.

So, what is this stuff? There's a lot the public is not permitted to know about these concoctions. The EPA has published some information about them on a list of dispersants and other agents that were okayed for use in the clean-up of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But a number of ingredients are listed as "confidential" or "proprietary," and their proportions in the mix are not disclosed.

Information provided by Nalco to EPA and the federal/BP task force on its website, known as the Deepwater Horizon Response, says that COREXIT EC9527A, contains three chemicals considered hazardous:

  • 2-Butoxyethanol
  • Organic sulfonic acid salt
  • Propylene glycol

From what we can discern, the active molecule that does the dispersing is "organic sulfonic acid salt," a generic term for class of chemicals. Its precise chemical name is apparently proprietary. We think that once a company, or the government, or both, decides to cover the sea with this molecule, it's time to tell us what exactly it is.

The company's disclosure statement says, "No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product." It also says, "Based on our hazard characterization, the potential environmental hazard is: Moderate Based on our recommended product application and the product's characteristics, the potential environmental exposure is: Low." But how the company has reached that conclusion isn't clear.

Corexit 9500, the newer formulation, is made without 2-butoxyethanol. According to the NRC report, Nalco developed Corexit 9500 because it discovered that "prolonged exposure to Corexit 9527 caused adverse health effects in some responders. These effects were attributed to its glycol ether solvent (2-butoxyethanol)."

Jackson told reporters that EPA permitted BP to spray the older product, Corexit EC9527A, in the early days of the spill until sufficient quantities of 9500 could be located. She described Corexit 9500 as "more effective and more environmentally friendly."

However, it's disquieting that the "material safety data sheet" for Corexit 9500 warns: "Do not contaminate surface water." Also, the document says, "Component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate."

Energy and Enviroment Daily's Greenwire, a leading online environmental news outlet, reported this week that Corexit may not be the best option. "Other U.S. EPA-approved alternatives have been shown to be far less toxic and, in some cases, nearly twice as effective," Greenwire reported, adding that Nalco was once part of Exxon Mobil and still has interlocking leadership with Exxon Mobil and BP. BP spokesman Jon Pack was quoted as saying that BP was not considering or testing other products because stopping the leak and containing the loose oil "has to be our primary focus right now."

It's been well established that until this mother-of-all-oil-spills, BP had not developed a thoroughly researched plan for managing this sort of crisis. It didn't know all it should about dispersants. It had to scramble to obtain sufficient supply. It may not have picked the best product for this gargantuan job. With advance planning, it might have availed itself of better options.

Most importantly, since spills are a constant threat, the oil industry should have financed far more research into dispersants. We the taxpayers seem to be shouldering the financial burden of much of that research. And yet we're in the dark about the precise make-up and behavior of dispersants and other chemical agents that are used in very high volumes.

How many gallons of secret chemicals, exactly, will wind up being sprayed across the Gulf?

"I think it's fair to say that when it comes to this volume, we're in uncharted waters," EPA's Jackson said.

Jackson, to her credit, is blunt and doesn't dissemble. Still, that's not an answer Americans might have expected to hear in the 21st Century. At the moment, what we know about dispersants seems to be as murky as the Gulf's troubled waters.

We'll be following the Gulf oil spill here and on Send us your comments. Do you want to know more about the chemicals being used in this crisis?