Oil Spill Panel Says EPA, NOAA Weren't Ready to Deploy Dispersants

The staff members of a presidential commission today criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for being inadequately prepared to deal with the size of the oil spill that resulted from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. Specifically, a discussion draft concluded that neither agency had planned for large-scale use of dispersants to break up the oil on the surface and at depth.

The commission is investigating the causes of the oil spill and ways to prevent and mitigate future spills. The staff of the commission released four working papers today for consideration by the five-member commission, which will issue a final report in January. The two most controversial topics are the use of dispersants and the estimates of the flow rate from the damaged well.

According to the working paper, a lack of studies on dispersant toxicity meant that the Coast Guard's Thad Allen, EPA's Lisa Jackson, and NOAA's Jane Lubchenco were "seriously handicapped" when deciding whether the chemicals should be used. "Because federal agencies had failed to plan adequately, they did not possess the scientific information that officials most certainly would have wanted to guide their choices." But the paper concludes that their decision to use dispersants was reasonable under the circumstances, noting that the trio quickly consulted with a group of 50 experts. So far, the use of dispersants appears to have had greater benefit than cost.

The appeal of dispersants is that they break up oil into small droplets, which are less harmful to birds and other wildlife. The droplets are also thought to break down faster. And releasing dispersants at the gushing wellhead was intended to help protect workers on the surface by reducing the amount of oil and associated volatile organic compounds. The problem was the lack of adequate toxicity data on the dispersants themselves. Officials didn't know the possible impacts on marine life, given the hundreds of thousands of gallons being used over several months (more than 2.5 million in all). They also didn't know the relative toxicity of the various dispersants.

The commission staff members also concluded that the lack of planning led to delays in response; according to interviews with Coast Guard responders, EPA field staff hadn't been delegated the authority to grant permission for dispersants to be used and were inexperienced with dispersants, thus delaying the response. The Coast Guard sources also felt that "EPA scientists with such experience were not being adequately consulted in EPA's decision-making process."

The paper calls for more extensive testing of dispersants, especially when used at depth and in large volumes. The testing should be done before any dispersants are put on the list of chemicals preapproved for use in oil spills. It also calls for the development of less-toxic and more-biodegradable dispersants.

EPA was still reviewing the working paper when this article was posted.