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Gulf oil spill: EPA orders BP to use less toxic dispersant

May 20, 2010 | 10:26 am

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered BP to use a less toxic chemicals in the company’s effort to clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a key congressman announced on Thursday.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who three days ago questioned the toxicity of a dispersant called Corexit, praised the agency’s decision. Markey had argued that some formulations of Corexit were banned in Britain more than a decade ago because of harmful effects to sea life.

“I commend the Obama administration for acting swiftly to address my concerns that the dispersant BP chose to use is more toxic than other available formulations,” said Markey, who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the Energy and Commerce Committee. “The effect of long-term use of dispersants on the marine ecosystem has not been extensively studied, and we need to act with the utmost of caution.”

The use of dispersants is one tactic in the battle to contain the damage from the leaking underwater well that has poured millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the last month.

After criticism of Corexit surfaced at recent congressional hearings, the EPA gave BP 24 hours to find a new dispersant. The company must submit its list of agents for approval to the EPA.

 A formal announcement by the EPA was posted Thursday.

On Wednesday, Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) used some of his time in the House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing to grill the head of BP America, Lamar McKay, over the company's choice of Corexit. Hall said that the company that makes the dispersant, Nalco Holding, has a former BP executive on its board.

BP officials have repeatedly said that the dispersants are safe, arguing they are like soap that breaks the oil into smaller drops that can be naturally degraded by microbes.

“The tests used to measure the toxicity of dispersants involve only a 96-hour dose to the marine animals that will be exposed to them – clearly, their effects when they’re used over longer periods might be significantly more damaging,” Markey said in his letter. “The release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico could be an unprecedented, large and aggressive experiment on our oceans. We must ensure that these chemicals, which are being touted as a way to mitigate the effects of the spill, first do no harm to marine life.”

-- Michael Muskal