EPA Wages Battle With BP Over Chemical Dispersants

Last week, after BP had already dropped thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil slick in the Gulf, the Environmental Protection Agency took a second look at the impact of the chemicals on marine life and in wetlands. It's response, in turn, was to politely require the company to transition to a less toxic alternative by the end of the weekend.

In general terms, dispersants are a complex kind of dish washing soap that scientists have called an environmental "crapshoot" in response to a situation like the Gulf spill. Oil and water don’t usually mix, but the chemicals in soap allow them to combine, which means the oil can be diluted into the Gulf waters rather than just float at the surface. But anyone who’s gotten soap in their eyes knows the substance isn’t completely benign, which explains why it stings the eyes or embitters the mouth, and what biologists fear for area wildlife.

Despite EPA requests to use a less harmful dispersant by yesterday, BP officials have claimed they simply don’t have to—and in a way that’s less than transparent. In  a letter the company sent to the EPA last Thursday, executives defended their current cocktail mix. Yes, they admitted, it could be environmentally harmful, but everything we’re spraying is being diluted, so it won’t be that harmful. When pushed on other possibilities for dispersants, the letter redacts pertinent information related to what other chemicals BP could consider. So far, the company is standing on business law, which allows strategic business practices – in this case, how to dilute and clean up oil – to remain confidential, according to Mother Jones scribe Kate Sheppard, who’s been masterfully covering the dispute since the beginning.

That hasn’t sat well with BP. Over the weekend, agency officials were attempting to challenge BP on the law, arguing that this isn’t about business, it’s about the planet and the local ecosystems. A statement from the environmental agency proclaimed that officials were “evaluating all legal options to ensure that the remaining redacted information is released to the public,” while also trying to publicly shame BP into releasing more info to give Americans “a full picture of the potential environmental impact of these alternative dispersants.”

So far, the company is dragging its feet. Revealing just what chemicals have been dumped irrevocably into the ocean might be a matter of public record, but to the company, it opens the door to even more litigation if – and more realistically, when – further research shows the little-researched substances turn out to be more harmful than anyone considered. But on the other hand, BP is also concerned that if it switches to a less effective dispersant, the result will be more oil sticking around, and more damning photos of oil-slopped wetlands and birds covered in crude.