U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today urged Congress to take up legislation strengthening her agency's authority over oil dispersants in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico gusher, calling for more testing and disclosure of the chemical ingredients in the controversial spill-fighting products.
Jackson said EPA is evaluating a draft dispersant bill that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) plans to introduce next week, a measure expected to focus on advance testing of the chemicals' long-term effects on human and marine health in addition to ingredient reporting. While she stopped short of endorsing the Lautenberg proposal, Jackson said new dispersant legislation "would give us critical transparency and openness protections that right now EPA cannot provide by law."
BP PLC has deployed more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant in the Gulf since its record-breaking oil leak began in April, sparking concerns among environmental and public-health advocates as well as some scientists and several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee's science panel, before which Jackson and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) senior official Larry Robinson testified today. Senators from both parties raised alarms about the limited test data currently on the books and the ability of manufacturers such as Nalco Co., which makes BP's Corexit dispersant, to file confidentiality claims that shield the ingredients in their products.
"Each day, questions are building about the use of dispersants to battle the oil spewing into the Gulf," Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the science subcommittee's senior Republican, said in a statement. "Even more alarmingly, it appears that decades-long intransigence by Nalco and other makers of these dispersants is the leading reason why we do not have the information we need to make informed decisions in a timely manner."
Jackson defended EPA's attempts to curtail dispersant spraying in the Gulf, asserting to senators that BP has limited its Corexit use in response to a federal directive -- an edict issued days after the oil company refused a government order to switch to a less toxic alternative dispersant (Greenwire, May 20). EPA's efforts to push BP and test dispersant toxicity, Jackson acknowledged, do not change "the fact that we need more information, information not only on what's in the chemicals but different and better testing so we ... don't have to run models to come up with judgment calls on the spot."
The Appropriations science panel is chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who publicly warned of the consequences of dispersant use after a trip to the Gulf last month. As her subcommittee drafts its spending bill for the coming fiscal year, Mikulski said she needs "a sense of urgency" from EPA, NOAA and other federal science agencies.
"We don't have time for a lot of in-house bureaucratic vetting or screwing around," she added, soon after rapping Jackson for being unable to state whether EPA has the authority to order BP to stop using dispersants. Mikulski also said she would consider signing on as an early co-sponsor of Lautenberg's bill.
The senator asked Jackson and Robinson, assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere at NOAA, to give Senate appropriators a list of dispersant limits and rules in effect in other nations, with an eye to influencing future research funding. Robinson made an initial request for $2 million to pay for new testing of dispersants, admitting to senators that his agency has tested Gulf seafood only for chemical components of oil -- not dispersants.
"If we've displaced the oil but replaced it with another substance that has toxicity levels that impact that seafood, that's something we all need to be concerned about," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.
Nalco has stepped up its public relations campaign on Capitol Hill, disseminating comments and data aimed at tamping down concern over the long-term health effects of dispersants. Most recently, the company hailed EPA tests that found Corexit to be no more acutely toxic to marine organisms or hazardous to human cells than alternative dispersants (E&ENews PM, June 30).
But EPA's testing has yet to examine the toxicity of dispersants when mixed with crude oil, and Jackson told senators that she is "unaware of any research" on the effects of applying the chemicals in the massive volume that has entered the Gulf region. "It's not the body of testing you would want," given the historic nature of the ongoing oil leak, she said.
In addition, existing rules under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) empower manufacturers to resist the public release of chemical ingredients in their products by filing confidentiality claims. Nalco waived its claim after a weeks-long controversy over the ingredients in Corexit, but EPA has vowed to continue pushing dispersant makers to support broader release of ingredients (Greenwire, June 10).
Legislation approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month would require EPA to conduct more dispersant studies and mandate the disclosure of ingredients as well as formulas for the chemical products, which are used to break up oil into smaller droplets that more easily biodegrade (E&E Daily, July 2).
A Nalco spokesman declined to comment on whether the company would support stronger dispersant rules, stating via e-mail that "we are reviewing" pending congressional oil-spill proposals while focusing on response to the Gulf leak.