The manufacturer of the oil-dispersing chemicals being used by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico said today that injecting the dispersant on a still-gushing wellhead was unprecedented and should be carried out with ample testing.
"That's a new approach," said Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Nalco, whose dispersants are marketed under the name Corexit. "Our belief is, because it is a new approach, it needs to be done with a lot of testing to make sure there are no unfavorable impacts, and we encourage that."
Fyrwald also called the latest version of his company's dispersant, Corexit 9500, "safe and effective." But he refused to either endorse the controversial dispersant strategy or U.S. EPA's decision this week to scale back its use dramatically over concerns about the long-term effects that dispersing oil might have on the environment.
"What is the best approach? What has the least impact to the total environment?" Fyrwald asked. "I do believe that dispersants have a positive role to play as a tool. But I think the only people that can determine how to use it and when to use it and which ones to use are the respondents on the ground who are making those calls."
Scientists have compared BP's heavy use of dispersants in the Gulf to a massive chemistry and biology experiment, saying it is an exercise in environmental trade-offs. The chemicals break up oil that would otherwise float on the surface into tiny droplets that can sink and be consumed by fish, bacteria and microorganisms.
The consensus is that the 870,000 gallons of Corexit that have been either sprayed on the Gulf's surface or injected underwater at the broken wellhead has likely spared beaches and wetlands from an even worse oil slick, while contributing to the formation of massive, difficult-to-track oil plumes underwater that could have long-term ecological consequences.
Fyrwald said Nalco has disclosed the complete chemical constituents of Corexit to EPA to assist in the government's evaluation and testing of the otherwise proprietary formula.
"We've given the exact formulation," he said. "We have nothing to hide."
Acknowledging the risks of human health exposure listed on the products' material safety data sheets, Fyrwald said there was no evidence to suggest whether Corexit was responsible for the reported complaints of seven workers involved in the spill cleanup of nausea, shortness of breath and high blood pressure.
"We keep coming back to: We haven't seen any evidence of any issues," he said.
Fyrwald also said concerns raised by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and others that Corexit has been banned in the United Kingdom were unfounded. Corexit, he said, has been banned for use only on rocky shorelines, where it was found to affect the ability of snails and similar organisms to cling to the rocks.
"Corexit has not been banned for offshore use in the U.K.," he said.
Sales of Corexit for use in the Gulf spill have amounted to about $40 million, or 1 percent, of the company's sales, Fyrwald said.
"When I look at the whole picture," he said, "everything I'm seeing gives me confidence on the safety of the product and the effectiveness of the product."