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Gulf oil spill and the use of dispersants

Since May 24, my Facebook friend Hugh Kaufman has had one persistent question about the response to the volcano of oil spewing under the Gulf of Mexico. "I would be grateful," he asked, "if someone could explain why millions of lbs. of useless toxic dispersant is being dumped into the Gulf, to add to the toxic loading?" Using the oil-cutting chemical makes sense for a little spill. But for the thick cloud of ooze stretching its way across the Gulf Coast? Good question, Hugh. So I asked the folks at the Environmental Protection Agency.

An EPA official told me yesterday that while dispersants were "pre-approved for deep water use," the agency is now "insisting that dispersants be used only in minimum amounts and that spraying of dispersants be an absolute last resort." On May 26, the EPA issued a directive to BP that dispersant spraying is the last resort and subsea dispersant use is limited to 15,000 gallons a day. According to an EPA official, "15,000 is much much less than BP was using." The agency said that surface burning, collection, booming and skimming "are much more effective and preferable to spraying dispersants."

Anticipating Hugh's question in response to that, I asked why use the stuff at all. "The goal here is to keep large slicks of oil from reaching shallow waters and destroying our estuaries, our wetlands and our way of life," the official said, noting that the beach-bound globs are a lot more toxic than dispersant. "It's a trade-off, but an informed one." This reflects the views of many environmentalists. As Lisa Suatoni of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in USA Today, "We can't get the oil out of the environment,...So we're left with a bunch of impossible choices.... Dispersants aren't a good thing, but they're used to try to direct the oil to the least bad place."

I totally get it. It's a horrible choice. But, somehow, I don't think Hugh will be satisfied.

Update, 2:50p.m.: Hugh's not satisfied. Given his experience, can't say that I blame him. Here's what he wrote to me on Facebook. "Thanks Jonathan. As you probably would guess, I am heartbroken going against the Administration and NRDC on this stuff. But, after having done these kinda cases for 4 decades, and helping put together the EPA's programs to deal with this stuff, you are right. I won't stop till I've done everything I can, to help the 'innocent bystander civilians' get protected. P.S. The toxic dispersants have NOT stopped the oil from hitting the marshland, beaches, etc."

By Jonathan Capehart  | June 3, 2010; 7:27 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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