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Gulf oil spill: Are chemical dispersants a threat?

May 10, 2010 |  7:56 pm

Chemical dispersants may be an essential tool in breaking up swaths of the massive gulf oil spill as it moves toward beaches and wetlands. But a political battle over their makeup and possible health effects is brewing, with local officials and environmentalists demanding that BP reveal the composition of the material it is spraying onto the oil. On Monday, three top Louisiana officials released a letter to Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, expressing “serious concerns about the lack of information related to the use of dispersants.”

Meanwhile, the federal Environmental Protection Agency posted information on BP’s dispersant use on its oil spill website, including a plan to monitor the oil giant's use of the chemicals. And two U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittees served notice that a previously scheduled joint hearing on ocean acidification Tuesday would also "pay specific attention to the effects of toxins -- including oil dispersants" -- on marine and coastal ecosystems.

The letter from Louisiana officials asked BP for "an immediate response" to their request last week, at a meeting with BP and other officials, for studies to support the use of dispersants. "We are again requesting ...a BP commitment that the dispersants being used to fight the oil spill will not cause irreparable short term or long term harm to our wetlands, coast, environment, marine life, wildlife or people," said the officials. The letter was signed by Secretary Alan Levine of the Department of Health and Hospitals, Secretary Peggy Hatch of the Department of Environmental Quality and Secretary Robert Barham of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Dispersants are likely to be an issue in lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the disaster. Attorneys representing the United Commercial Fisherman's Assn. and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), have served notice that they are preparing subpoenas to compel BP to release the chemical composition of the dispersants it's using, as well as that of any agents to be applied to beaches.

A 2005 national Academy of Sciences panel concluded that newer dispersants are safer than the ones used a decade ago but that much more research needs to be done on the effects of dispersed petroleum. For more on dispersants, see Times reporter Thomas Maugh's recent article.

-- Margot Roosevelt


Photo: A dispersant-carrying plane passes over an oil skimmer as it cleans oil from the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit:Patrick Semansky/AP

Photos: Oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico