It is possible – perhaps even probable – that one of the central mysteries in the Gulf oil spill will never be solved: How much oil was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico daily at the height of the crisis?
BP has said that it used 1.8 million gallons of dispersant before the well was capped on July 15. But Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts said that with the new documents: "The validity of those numbers are now in question."
These documents suggest that BP, with the Coast Guard's essentially rubber-stamp approval, continued routine use of Corexit on the surface of the Gulf despite a May 25 directive by the Environmental Protection Agency that BP scale back these activities to “rare cases.”
The directive aimed to scale back BP’s use of Corexit because dispersants themselves are toxic, and while most scientists believe using them is better than doing nothing, Congressman Markey – along with many researchers – had become concerned by the fact that oil dispersants had never been used on such a scale before.
The information released Saturday shows that the Coast Guard granted BP 74 exemptions for surface use in 48 days. Several times, it pre-approved surface use of Corexit for an entire week. As early as the beginning of June, one EPA official lamented: “The approval process appears to be somewhat pro forma, and not as rigorous as EPA desires,” according to one document.
Moreover, Markey’s release also suggests potential discrepancies between how much dispersant BP reported it was using and how much it actually applied to the Gulf’s surface.
On June 16, Markey notes, BP told the Coast Guard that its use of Corexit had never exceeded 3,365 gallons in any recent day. Yet e-mails to Congress told a different story. In fighting the Gulf oil spill on June 12 and 13, the e-mails noted, BP used 14,305 gallons 36,000 gallons respectively.
Coast Guard officials insist that they carried out the EPA’s directive faithfully. In a press briefing Saturday, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal relief effort, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said they had reduced BP’s use of dispersant on the surface by 72 percent.
Allen also implied that in “the equivalent of an environmental war,” he had to use all means necessary. Ms. Jackson added: “There’s absolutely no doubt that use of dispersants was one of several essential tools to mitigate this spill’s impact.”
Markey, however, takes a different view: “BP carpet-bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it.”
Markey has been Congress’s fiercest critic of the use of dispersants. His agitation on the issue in part led to the EPA’s May 25 directive.
The directive was in response to the EPA's failed attempt to force BP to stop using Corexit altogether. By the EPA’s own tests, Corexit is more toxic and less effective than 12 other products on the market.
BP, however, refused to comply with the EPA demand, saying no other manufacturers could meet its overwhelming needs. The Obama administration ultimately agreed, though at least one manufacturer challenged BP’s assertion.
Dispersants break oil into smaller droplets that can be consumed more easily by natural bacteria. But there is some concern that Corexit could be just as harmful as the oil. There is also debate about whether dispersants applied beneath the surface caused the plumes of oil that have been located in the Gulf.