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In Gulf oil spill, how helpful – or damaging – are dispersants?

The one BP is using to break up the Gulf oil spill has been approved by the EPA. But it's an older mixture that contains toxic ingredients, and it's not among the top tier of recommended dispersants.

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“What effect that will have we don’t know,” says Judy Haner, marine program director for the Alabama chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

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There is no “direct way to know exactly which [habitats]” will be affected by the dispersants, said Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Anything that we say at this point is speculation,” Dr. Lubchenco said, adding that monitoring will continue.

EPA officials say the agency only has the power to pre-approve dispersant products and has no say about which ones companies choose to stockpile as part of their contingency plan. BP chose to use Corexit because it was available the week of the explosion, says EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. EPA is allowing BP to use the product only on the water's surface, she says. The company is seeking approval to use it underwater, Ms. Jackson adds. So far, two tests proved inconclusive in determining its effectiveness under water, and results of a third test are not yet known.

“Dispersants are not the silver bullet” in containing the oil, Jackson says.

Corexit is a brand of dispersant manufactured by Nalco Co., located in Naperville, Ill. Corexit EC9527A has a better environmental rating than Corexit EC9500A because it has been on the market longer, says company spokesman Charlie Pajor in a phone interview. Nalco is increasing production of both, but Mr. Pajor says the scope of the disaster will give the company better insight into the product’s future development, which will include “looking at ways to improve the environmental profile and effectiveness of the product.”

Critics have said the major oil companies stockpile Corexit, despite its relatively poor toxicity rating, because of their cozy relationship with Nalco. Nalco’s executives include a former BP board member and a former Exxon executive. Critics cited by Greenwire, an online news organization that covers environmental and energy issues, say the company’s board of directors is stacked with oil industry insiders.

Pajor says the company is being misrepresented and, contrary to news reports, was never owned by Exxon. Nalco and Exxon Chemical formed a joint venture called Nalco Exxon Energy Chemicals in 1994. Following a takeover by a parent company in 2001, Exxon’s interest was bought out and the two companies no longer have a relationship, Pajor says.

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