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Summary of Yesterday's subcommittee hearing

Over the past three months, there has great debate over the use of dispersants in the oil spill in the Gulf. These dispersants are chemicals that break the oil up into small drops that can be decomposed by bacteria in the ocean. As of this week, BP has released approximately 1.8 million gallons of these dispersants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are in charge of monitoring and allowing the dispersants to be used. Today’s hearing comes as the well is supposedly sealed (as of late this afternoon) and the cleanup continues. Debate remains over the safety of these chemicals, not only to the wildlife in the area, but also to the workers assisting in the cleanup effort.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science of the Committee of Appropriations, two panels addressed the dispersants in the Gulf. The first panel of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and NOAA Deputy Administrator Dr. Larry Robinson spoke on the need for more funding and understanding on the dispersants. (Note, NALCO was invited, but declined the offer). It became very clear that the research on these dispersants is quite limited and the effects are not known. One of the greatest concerns, expressed by both Senator Mikulski and Senator Murkowski was how to assure the American people that the seafood would not be impacted. It is one thing for the fisherman to be able to return to the seas, it is quite another for the rest of the United States to not trust the food coming out of the region. This has great economic implications as the Gulf Coast attempts to recover from this catastrophe.

The second panel, made up of Kenneth Cook from the Environmental Working Group and Anne Rolfes from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, brought an NGO point of view. Cook stressed that because little has been done in the form of testing, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to say whether or not the use of dispersants needs to be stopped. He did bring up a very interesting point though when he posed the question of whether or not BP would have made efforts to study this whole situation more had it known that its company might fall through as a result.

Ms. Rolfes, in her testimony, had three recommendations; first, increase the capacity of the EPA and NOAA to better control the situation. BP was able to throw off the EPA’s request to find an alternative to the dispersant and this simply cannot be allowed to happen. Second, be mindful of BP’s information control; they have contracted their own EMS service that takes care of serious cases of injury in the cleanup process. And, as I blogged about earlier, they have also contracted their own security force and have placed the work areas under media restriction. Also, they hired the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health to do tests for them. This group is known for not finding any issues in several environmental catastrophes, including the large ash spill in Tennessee in 2008. Finally, resist pressure to reopen the fishing grounds. Echoing Mr. Cook’s thoughts, she was worried that because little is known about the dispersant, it would be wise to exercise precaution. The public record should be available soon online.

Austin Ditz is an intern with Public Citizen’s Energy Program