Is BP Still Spraying Toxic Dispersants in the Gulf?

A chemist says he is still finding traces of a toxic dispersant in the Gulf even though BP supposedly stopped spraying the chemical in the water in April.The BP (BP) oil spill may be over, but controversy over the company's use of toxic oil dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico is still going strong. Although BP allegedly stopped using the chemicals more than a month ago, area residents claim it is still spraying Corexit, a chemical dispersant, from airplanes and boats.

Much of the furor can be traced back to Bob Naman, an analytical chemist who lives on the Gulf, in Mobile, Ala., and who owns his own lab. Naman initially became involved in the controversy through his neighbors, who were concerned about oil in their water. "People started walking in and asking me to test their water," he said in an interview with DailyFinance.

Soon, Naman was being sought out by the news. WKRG News 5, a CBS affiliate based in Mobile, asked him to test several water samples from various locations in their viewing area. He found that the samples contained between 16 and 221 parts per million of oil, often in water that appeared clean. In mid-August, while testing a sample from Margaret Long, a resident of Cotton Bayou, Ala., he also found 13.3 parts per million of Corexit, a chemical dispersant that -- according to Coast Guard commander Thad Allen -- BP had stopped using in mid-July.

Dangers of Dispersant

Here's where the story gets complicated. There are actually two versions of Corexit: 9527 and 9500. While both compounds have been linked to a variety of health problems, the first version, Corexit 9527, is particularly toxic. According to its safety sheet, the chemical can cause a wide range of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, "anesthetic or narcotic effects" and respiratory tract irritation. Extensive or repeated exposure can cause permanent damage to blood cells, kidneys and the liver.

According to Nalco Holdings (NLC), which makes the compounds, BP stopped using Corexit 9527 in mid-April. But Bob Naman disagrees. Some of the water samples he's analyzed contain significant quantities of 2-butyoxyethanol, a major ingredient in Corexit 9527 that isn't included in Corexit 9500. Long's water sample also contained 2-butyoxyethanol.

Linked to cancer in lab animals, 2-butyoxyethanol also causes several cardiopulmonary problems, including low blood pressure, fluid collection around the lungs and coma. Considering that BP supposedly stopped using Corexit 9527 in April, it's hard to explain the compound's presence in the Gulf.

Sinking Oil

Naman admits that there are several possible explanations for the 2-butyoxyethanol that he found in Long's water: "One possibility is that it isn't biodegrading or that [BP] used more than they reported in the original spray. My best guess is that, in the quantities they've been using, it would take 4 to 6 weeks for it to biodegrade, but that is a guess."

A more likely explanation, Naman asserts, is that BP is still spraying Corexit 9527 in the Gulf. In addition to the 2-butyoxyethanol that he's found in the water, he also found large barrels of the chemical on Dauphin Island, Ala. "I didn't see evidence of it being sprayed," he emphasizes. "But I saw evidence of it being left there."

Other sources also claim BP is still using dispersants in the Gulf, ostensibly in an attempt to "sink the oil," or drive it below the water's surface. While this strategy breaks up oil slicks and reduces the danger to shorebirds, it's extremely dangerous for seaborne organisms, which can consume particles of oil, passing them up the food chain. Nalco spokesman Charley Pajor explained this Faustian bargain to the Chicago Daily Herald: "It's more toxic to marine life, but less toxic to life along the shore and animals at the surface because the oil is not at the surface."

As some critics have noted, oil that has sunk below the ocean's surface is also less visible, giving the impression that BP's cleanup operations have captured more of it. Unfortunately, given the area's extensive fishing industry, even invisible oil can be destructive, both to marine life and to the Gulf fishermen who rely on it to make a living.

At press time, BP hadn't responded to requests for comment.

UPDATE: BP Press Officer Daren Beaudo, BP stopped using Corexit 9527 on May 22, and stopped using Corexit 9500 on July 19. Here is the text of his statement:

"The last day of all dispersant use was July 19, so this was the last day of Corexit 9500 use. Unified Command has not used any dispersants since then. There's no more surface oil on which to use dispersant. ... Unified Command records indicate that the last date of use of the Corexit 9527 was May 22."
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