The head of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency faced down hostile critics Thursday in a Senate hearing, denying accusations of reckless management of BP's use of toxic dispersants to break down the oil spill in the Gulf.
"We have not seen significant environmental impacts on the use of dispersants so far," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
The hearing came amid mounting criticism against the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) by lawmakers and advocacy groups, who say the Obama administration is not being candid with clean-up workers and the public about lethal effects of dispersants.
"I don't want dispersants to be the Agent Orange of this oil spill," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the subcommittee chair, referring to the chemical agent used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War and has been linked to cancers and other ailments.
Mikulski demanded "straight talk and plain talk" from officials.
Dispersants, a detergent-like brew of solvents, surfactants and other compounds, break up oil into particles. The tiny droplets of crude are eaten up by naturally occurring bacteria to prevent oil blobs from washing ashore and wiping out wildlife.
Scientists say the chemical stew can enter into the food chain, causing genetic mutations in species and damaging the overall health of the oceans and public safety.
In the case of the Gulf disaster, they fear the environmental danger is already too far gone – even as President Barack Obama informs the nation the oil flow has, at least for now, stopped.
Since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig ruptured on April 20, the oil giant has poured 1.84 million gallons of oil-dissolving Corexit 9500 into Gulf waters, according to figures from the response team — more than has ever been used in the United States. Around 760,000 gallons of that has been injected 5,000 feet undersea at the source of the spill, a technique that has never been tried.
EPA says the total volume of dispersants used has fallen by almost 70 percent since last month. At the site of the Exxon Valdez oil crisis in Alaska in 1989, just 250,000 gallons of Corexit was applied.
According to information released by the EPA, the main ingredient of Corexit is 2-butoxyethanol, a pesticide deemed highly toxic to humans and wildlife, causing cancer, liver and kidney damage, birth defects and other reproductive side effects.
The dispersant also contains arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and mercury, among other chemicals.
Corexit was linked to health problems in clean-up workers exposed in the ExxonValdez disaster, including respiratory and nervous system disorders. Recent data shows that 20 percent of BP's offshore oil-spill employees have been exposed to 2-butoxyethanol at potentially dangerous levels, Greenwire reported last week.
The toxicity data generated "does not indicate significant effects on aquatic life," Jackson said, though she admitted to being "concerned" about the "scientific unknowns."
Studies on the long-term effects of dispersants are few and far between; for deepsea use they are non-existent. Mikulski criticized NOAA, in particular, for being lax in its pursuit of the science.
In response, Larry Robinson, the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, told the subcommittee that NOAA is "quite interested" in learning more about the impact of dispersants.
Mikulski fired back.
"I want you more than interested," she said. "I need NOAA on the edge of their chair. I need a sense of urgency here."
One of the greatest fears is contamination of Gulf Coast seafood. Louisiana alone supports a $2.4 billion a year seafood industry.
Last week, NOAA and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) said seafood was safe to eat, after testing 400 samples of shrimp, grouper, tuna and other species and finding no concerning levels of contaminants.
"Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals," FDA declares, "the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time."
But Robinson said seafood has not been tested for dispersant poisoning. He could not say with certainty if the Gulf fish are risk-free.
"We don't know with absolutely certainty ... that there are no traces of dispersants in seafood," Robinson said.
The Obama administration is now requesting supplemental funds for dispersant research associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a national organization, said the request is a case of too little, too late.
"It's exactly the backwards way you would want to do this," Cook said, saying Jackson and EPA are "flying blind."
Safe Dispersant Act
At the hearing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) announced that he would introduce the "Safe Dispersants Act" into the Senate next week to provide the public their right to know.
Many of the ingredients of chemical dispersants have been protected as trade secrets under the nation's current Toxic Substances Control Act and are unknown.
"Current law requires only a minimal safety testing of dispersants," he said. "The bill would require long-term testing, approval and disclosure of all ingredients in dispersants before they can be used in response to a spill," he added.
"What we don't know can hurt us."
Jackson welcomed the announcement.
"The law would give us critical transparency and openness protections that right now EPA cannot provide by law,," she said, adding that it could help facilitate "a move to a less toxic dispersant" in the future.