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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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.