Jul 15 2010

Shelby Questions Use and Safety of Oil Dispersants

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee (CJS), today submitted for the record the following statement on the Subcommittee’s hearing to review of the use of dispersants in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


The full text of Shelby’s statement is as follows:




Oil Dispersant Hearing

Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Ranking Member

July 15, 2010


“I join Senator Mikulski in welcoming and thanking our witnesses for joining us today. Madame Chairwoman, I understand you invited Nalco and the industry association to attend but they declined. 

“The early days of this disaster were labeled as a ‘spill’, and the U.S. government relied on BP’s estimation of oil flow to be 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day.  U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry assured us that the U.S. government had the necessary assets needed to contain the spill, and BP had the situation under control.

“BP then began using EPA-approved dispersants to dissolve the oil. An expert from NOAA came to my office and assured my staff that the dispersants were safe for fisheries and the environment. Skeptical of dispersants, I wrote a letter to the NOAA Administrator. 

“Today, an estimated 65,000 barrels a day are polluting the Gulf of Mexico and BP did not have this catastrophe under control.

“Furthermore, we now learn the dispersants being used by BP are banned in the United Kingdom and it took NOAA an unacceptable two months to respond to my letter.

“But, the most ridiculous statements during this disaster have come from BP leadership regarding oil plumes, which are caused by the dispersants. President Tony Hayward said, ‘The oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes.’

“Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said, ‘There is yet to be anyone who has found any significant quantities below the surface,’ and, ‘it may be down to how you define what a plume is.’

“During the same newscasts when these statements were reported, the major networks were showing video footage of these subsurface oil plumes. 

“Mr. Hayward should commandeer his yacht to Houston to pick up Mr. Suttles, and they should set sail out in the Gulf to see the ‘plumes’ that, according to them do not exist.

“Given the continual false statements and mismanagement of information to those impacted by this disaster and the American public at large, it is no wonder that everyone views big government and BP in a negative light.

“While the white sandy beaches of Alabama have remained relatively clean, tourism has dropped dramatically. Potential visitors hear of dispersants being used in the Gulf in unprecedented amounts and with the potential danger of their toxicity levels, tourists choose another destination. The mayors of Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach, Alabama need a consistent and viable source of information to find out if the air and water is safe, so that they can disseminate the information to the public. 

“Each day, questions are building about the use of dispersants to battle the oil spewing into the Gulf. It is my understanding that Nalco, the chemical company that makes the dispersant used by BP, has hired lobbyists to deal with the questions and fall-out. Clearly, there are legitimate concerns but so far, not many answers. Even more alarmingly, it appears that decades-long intransigence by Nalco and other makers of these dispersants is the leading reason why we do not have the information we need to make informed decisions in a timely manner.

“Twenty-one years ago, a National Academy of Sciences panel recommended that ‘information on dispersant chemical structure and formulations should be made readily available to researchers.’ For more than 20 years, the industry has ignored the National Academy’s recommendation and we are now paying the price. Government agencies and non-profit groups still cannot get their hands on dispersant samples to conduct research. After considerable pressure from the federal government, Nalco has recently disclosed the ingredients on its website, but it is too little and too late.  

“A recent claim from Nalco stated that, ‘based on EPA research, the rate of biodegradation increases almost 50 percent  in the presence of COREXIT 9500 vs. oil without dispersant.’ But a review of the EPA research reveals that the authors never made that statement. This was Nalco’s misinterpretation of the results reported in this research. The EPA researchers performed multiple experiments with different products.

“Their primary goal was to study temperature effects by comparing how each product performed in warm and cold waters. There is one data set where COREXIT appears to have performed better. In another data set however, the authors conclude that ‘the biodegradation rates were quite similar in magnitude.’ In other words, there was no difference in biodegradation when the dispersant was used compared to when it was not. Also, for diluted samples, which are more indicative of current Gulf conditions, COREXIT performed poorly. In the conclusion, the EPA study clearly warned, ‘substantially more research is needed to explain and fully understand chemical dispersion as a countermeasure for treating oil spills.’ 

“This research raised more questions than it provided answers. As such, Nalco’s strong statement, without any qualifiers, is clearly misleading. And, according to academic experts in my state, it is not scientifically sound to misquote a scientific article in this manner. 

There is no conclusive evidence in the EPA report that would support Nalco’s claim.  Nalco needs to acknowledge and correct their statement. Also, while we know that dispersants are effective for small-scale spills, there is no evidence supporting the effectiveness of the caliber of the spill we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, some experts believe that using dispersants in such enormous quantities is hindering recovery efforts. 

“What we are seeing in the Gulf is that oil companies have little to no experience using dispersants for managing large spills. In theory, dispersants are supposed to break oil into smaller drops that can be digested by microbes. But, prior to last week’s hurricane, we know that a substantial portion of the spilled oil was in large, continuous slicks. 

“Further, without using the dispersant, much of the oil would have remained intact, floating on the surface. Would that have been the correct way to attack this spill? We don’t know. 

“While there is no possible way to capture it all, responders could have been able to more efficiently trap and burn the oil closer to the source and away from the coastline. They also could have used skimmers to capture the floating oil closer to the source. Do the industry, and BP, simply hope to keep the public from seeing large floating slicks of oil? If the oil is out of sight, do they think it is out of mind? One can only wonder.

“Meanwhile, a large portion of the oil is evidently sinking, and could possibly be destroying marine life in deep waters or on the ocean floor. This all is all unchartered territory for us, and we have no research or answers.

“The idea of using dispersants would have made more sense if the spill was small. In the case of small spills, dispersing the oil could potentially lead to a diluted plume that would have had a smaller chance of impacting our coastline. But, BP’s internal documents show that they knew that the flow could have been as high as 100,000 barrels per day, yet dispersants were used anyway. Did the use of dispersants on this large spill make the problem worse? It is possible that we inadvertently diffused a manageable floating oil spill problem into a large, non-manageable deep ocean contamination problem?

“The industry has willfully resisted any effort to understand the full impact and effect of dispersants, and there has been no effort to understand their use in a spill as large as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, it appears that federal agencies with oversight have done nothing about it.

“The federal government continues to allow the use of huge quantities of dispersant in unprecedented amounts with no idea of what the immediate or long term effects are on the people in the Gulf or on the marine environment.

“Madam Chairwoman, as I have stated numerous times before, the Gulf Coast still lacks infrastructure, research, and support from NOAA.  This Committee provided NOAA with $11 million to build a Gulf Coast Disaster Response Center, which will be completed in February of 2011, yet the fiscal year 2011 budget request provides no resources or staffing to run this facility.

“The Disaster Response Center will be unstaffed, while thousands of Gulf Coast residents are trying to recover from one of the largest environmental disasters in history.

“The purpose of the Disaster Response Center is to increase NOAA’s presence in the Gulf and to be the central location for a collection of NOAA’s emergency preparedness, response, restoration, and recovery assets and personnel. Sadly, there are still coastal cities in Alabama that have not heard from NOAA, understand NOAA’s mission, nor do they have any idea what support and assistance NOAA can provide. This is unacceptable.

“Instead of providing funding to staff what could be a key component in the oil response and recovery effort, the Administration decided this is not a priority.

“The Administration does think a better use of taxpayer funding is to renovate the White Elephant, Thomson Prison, in Illinois. When the Administration’s decision to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay was denied by Congress, they decided that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the site was necessary -- at the expense of a Gulf Coast Disaster Response Center. This absolutely makes no sense. 


“Madam Chairwoman, I thank you again for calling this hearing and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.”