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SYNOPSIS OF U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE HEARING ON USING DISPURSANTS IN BP GULF OIL SPILL On Wednesday, July 14, 2010, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce and Science held a hearing on the use of dispersants in the Gulf oil spill with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Dr. Larry Robison, Assistant Commerce Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere of NOAA. Here is a synopsis of some of the key points made during the hearing: Senate Committee Chair, Barbara Mikulski wanted to know what we know and what we don’t know about the impact on people and marine life. As of the hearing date, BP had used 1.8 million gallons of dispersant-over 1 million in the air and 735,000 subsurface. Lisa Jackson indicated the amount of dispersant used and its use below the surface in “unprecedented”. The Exxon Valdez used 4,000 gallons of dispersant. She indicated the long-term effects were “unknown”. She stated the USCG makes the final decision on the use of dispersants and that the decision involved an “environmental trade-off” of a known toxic, oil, vs. an unkown, the Corexit dispersant. She indicated BP had asked to apply the dispersants below the surface of the water. She stated BP was required to perform regular “monitoring” of the dispersant use. She indicated current water sampling tests had found no “significant” environmental impacts “so far” and that no dispersant had been found in water samples taken near shore. On May 26, 2010, she recommended a limit of 15,000 gallons per day and that no further aerial spraying would be allowed. There was a concern on the toxicity to fish and other species on or near the surface of the water. (NOTE: On July 11th, BP asked for a one day exemption to allow dispersants up to 20,000 gallons. The USCG gave the approval. This fact was not a part of the hearing. A list of the BP requests for exemptions, including a request for an exemption from the prohibition on aerial spraying, can be found at the following website: http://app.restorethegulf.gov/posted/2931/070810.780039.PD F) Jackson said after this event, they need to “re-visit” the use of dispersants, conduct long-term studies and find alternatives to reduce dispersant use. She acknowledged people want the oil to be collected on the surface, not dispersed under water. Chairperson Mikulski was very concerned about the EPA’s role in the oil spill cleanup. She could not understand how the EPA could give a directive to BP and BP could choose to ignore it. She indicated the “Unified Command” seemed to be operating more like a committee. She wanted to know who was in charge of what. Jackson explained the role of the EPA was to “assist” the USCG but that the USCG made the calls. She indicated NOAA was a “scientific advisor” to the USCG. Mikulski asked the extent of her “authority” and she indicated that was a legal question and she would need to consult with her attorney. Mikulski felt that in a matter of public health exposure, the EPA should have the authority to direct use or prohibit use of any product with potential negative impacts, that such matters were not within the expertise and function of the USCG. Mikulski indicated NALCO, the manufacturer of the two dispersants used, was invited to testify but declined. Dr. Robinson of NOAA indicated their strategy was to fight the oil offshore. Dispersants were part of that fight. He acknowledged dispersants can be effective but do have a “trade off of collateral impacts.” He said there has been research for 30 years but there are gaps in the research for the long-term impacts on marine life. He said the dispersants degrade faster than oil-the concentration and duration of using them is the key to surface impacts. He said there was no data on their toxicity to deep- sea marine life. There has been some surface and subsurface “modeling” which shows the dispersant degenerates as it moves from the wellhead. NOAA has analyzed seafood and has not found any that has a concentration beyond FDA and EPA guidelines. He indicated they need funds to do research on the short term and long term implications of above- surface and below- surface applicaton of dispersants NOAA will continue to monitor and re-evaluate the use of dispersants. Mikulski asked Jackson why, if they claim the dispersants are “safe” did they direct BP to stop using them and find a less toxic alternative. Jackson indicated the EPA was becoming concerned about the volume of dispersants being used. She said the “science was unknown” and that their choice was to stop them completely or allow their use in moderation. BP was using 70,000 gallons a day. She said they were asked to use no more than 15,000 gallons per day and that aerial spraying be a last resort. Mikuslki wanted to know what research needed to be done on seafood. Robinson indicated they need to develop a “seafood safety protocol” to test for oil and by-products of oil. NOAA only tests seafood beyond 3 miles of shore. Within 3 miles, the safety is within the FDA and State’s jurisdiction. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska pointed out that fish don’t know the 3-mile limit. She said many of these issues were the same as in the Exxon Valdez. Twenty years later we are asking the same questions. How much research has the EPA done on dispersants in the last 20 years? Lisa Jackson responded there has been significant research but not enough. She said there is enough evidence to be concerned with dispersants being used near shore so they are not allowed within 3 miles of shore. She said they need time to degrade and that would be a problem with close in use. Senator Murkowski wanted to know how much research had been done on the impact according to the volume of dispersants applied to an area. Jackson said there had been no research on the volume applied sub sea. Murkowski asked about international research on these issue. Jackson said there was some but not much. Senator Frank Latenberg indicated he would be proposing a bill on dispersants (Safe Dispersant Act) that would require testing and complete disclosure on chemical components before use. Lisa Jackson said a law requiring testing and disclosure would give EPA transparency they don’t have now by law. Latenberg asked how the EPA could direct BP to stop using a dispersant and BP refuse? He wanted to know whether the EPA could force BP to comply with its directives. Jackson said BP wants to use the dispersants and when EPA directed them to stop using the Corexit they tried to throw the concerns to all of the dispersants. She said they could order BP to stop using dispersants or switch dispersants. She pointed out that BP had not sprayed in 5 to 6 days after she directed them not to spray. She said they have to make judgment calls “on the fly” as the situation changes. (NOTE: Some contradiction in testimony here. Earlier she said USCG had the command authority. Also, since the directive from EPA not to use aerial spraying except in limited circumstances where justified, BP has sent many letters to the USCG saying they needed to continue spraying. They were allowed to spray. Those letters can be found at “RestoreTheGulf.gov” ) Jackson acknowledged they need to move to a less toxic dispersant. NOAA told the committee the President wants to allocate 2 million for research into dispersants. Mikuslki wanted to know whether dispersants are banned in other countries. (The ban of Corexit in England was clarified. England bans Corexit for coastal use because it interferes with the ability of certain mollusks to adhere to the rocks). Jackson said she did not know how other countries handle dispersants. Mikuslki asked Jackson and Robison to provide a list of what NATO and other allies do with regard to dispersants. She said they need to have a “sense of urgency” about this issue. Senator Murkowski from Alaska asked whether they have detected any problems with seafood. Robinson said they test for oil and dispersed oil. They do not test for by-products of dispersants or the dispersants themselves. Says the FDA is not testing for the dispersants either-they are focusing on oil. Murkowski asked how people could know the seafood is safe. Robinson said there is evidence the dispersants biodegrade quickly but he cannot say there are no traces in seafood. Senator Murkowski said we must consider the impact to the fisheries. If we are not testing for dispersants in seafood we need to do it ASAP. Lisa Jackson said the EPA had shared the formula for the dispersants with NOAA and the FDA even though it is confidential. She says they looked at the “bioaccumulation potential”. The dispersant is petroleum based and has other chemicals, which can pollute. She says there have been no field studies, just modeling which showed the dispersants do not “stick around”. She said they are less toxic than oil, that the oil in the dispersant is the most likely ingredient to “stick around”. Murkowski said public concern needs proof of safety of the seafood. The agency needs to unequivocally state it , is safe and risk free. Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group testified. His statements can be found on the website: www.ewg.org/kid-safe-chemicals-act-blog Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade also made some comments. A copy of her statement can be found on the following website: /www.labucketbrigade.org under the “News/Events” section. Chairperson Murkowski agreed that independent research was important. She felt the universities and other independent sources should be utilized. There was some discussion that BP should pay for the research but it should be done independently. It was pointed out that BP gave 500 million for research in the Gulf but BP must approve the project. Senator Murkowski closed by pointing out that in the past, the government had assured people a product was safe (Agent Orange, DDT) or that the chemicals in the working area were not a hazard, (911), and that years later people got sick. She wants the EPA to immediately find out its legal authority, review research on dispersants from around the world. She wants the Executive Brach to get more involved for seafood and worker safety. She stated repeatedly throughout the hearing that the matter of dispersants should be viewed with a “sense of urgency”. The committee will re-convene in the future.
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