BP Keeping Some 'Alternative' Oil Dispersant Ingredients Secret

By Peter Fowler at 22 May 2010

BP is keeping secret some of the "alternative" chemical ingredients it is using in the oil spill dispersants it is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, claiming it is "confidential business information."

Concern is growing over the effect of the chemical dispersant on the environment, separate to the oil spill, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trying to force BP to reveal what makes up the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersant it is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.

The EPA has issued a directive to BP requiring it to use a less toxic and more effective dispersant to deal with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It required it to evaluate available, pre-approved dispersants for toxicity and effectiveness and report back to EPA within 24 hours, and said it would continue to work over the next 48 hours to ensure BP is complying.

The EPA says BP and several of the dispersant manufacturers have claimed some sections of BP's dispersant response contain confidential business information (CBI).

"By law, CBI cannot be immediately made public except with the company's permission."

"EPA is currently evaluating all legal options to ensure that the remaining redacted information is released to the public.

"EPA continues to strongly urge these companies to voluntarily make this information public so Americans can get a full picture of the potential environmental impact of these alternative dispersants," it said.

A scientist who has studied oil spill cleanups says the concentration of detergents and other chemicals being used to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could cause "environmental nightmares of their own" which could linger for decades.

Berkeley Lab microbial ecologist Terry Hazen says "extreme caution" must be exercised in the cleanup operation so as not to make "a bad situation even worse." Such aggressive clean-up efforts are fraught with unintended consequences, he warned.

"The concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own," he said.

Mr Hazen has studied such notorious oil-spill sites as the Exxon Valdez spill into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

"It is important to remember that oil is a biological product and can be degraded by microbes, both on and beneath the surface of the water," Mr Hazen says. "Some of the detergents that are typically used to clean-up spill sites are more toxic than the oil itself, in which case it would be better to leave the site alone and allow microbes to do what they do best."

He cites as prime examples the Amoco Cadiz and the Exxon Valdez disasters.

In 1978, an oil tanker, the Amoco Cadiz, split in two about three miles off the coast of Normandy, releasing about 227,000 tons heavy crude oil that ultimately stained nearly 200 miles of coastline. The spill-site was so large that only the areas of greatest economic impact were treated with detergents. Large areas in the more remote parts of the coast went untreated.

"The untreated coastal areas were fully recovered within five years of the Amoco Cadiz spill," says Hazen. "As for the treated areas, ecological studies show that 30 years later, those areas still have not recovered."

In March of 1989, the oil supertanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound and impacted some 1,300 miles of coastline. It remains the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

A combination of detergents and bioremediation were used in the clean-up. The detergents were nutrient rich, being high in phosphorous and nitrogen compounds. In addition, as part of the bioremediation effort, fertilizers were also used to promote microbial growth. After the first year, the treated areas were dramatically cleaner, Hazen says, but after the second year no improvements were observed. He says long-term prospects for the treated area are grim.

"What happened was that we took an oligotrophic (low nutrient) environment, and added lots of nutrients to it to speed up the degradation of the oil, which we probably did," Hazen says."However, we upset the ecological balance of the system, which could not handle the influx of nutrients. As a result, the severe environmental damage resulting from the spill is expected to persist for decades to come."

Mr Hazen said improvements to detergents have been made, including some degree of biodegradability, but they remain nutrient rich and in some cases more toxic to the environment than crude oil.

"From a clean-up standpoint, right now we should be using sorbents to take up as much of the oil as possible," Hazen said. "Then we need to gauge how quickly and completely this oil can be degraded without human intervention."

(C) NewsRoom America 2010

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