Professor says chemicals 'worse than oil'; Corexit substance also known as 'deodorized kerosene', poses risk to man and animal alike
After initially approving a chemical oil dispersant called Corexit, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency retracted it's allowance and ordered British Petroleum to stop dumping the mysterious chemical substance by Sunday.
However, the oil giant has ignored the government's deadline and was continuing to dump large volumes of Corexit into the Gulf on Monday, according to The New York Times, apparently to keep the massive sea floor oil plumes from surfacing and possibly washing ashore.
"The company told the agency that no better alternative was available," the paper noted.
That's not exactly true, however. Another substance, Dispersit, was found some 10 years ago to be twice as effective and half as toxic, according to Wired Magazine. Yet, tests on Dispersit are progressing very slowly and it does not exist in as large a quantity as Corexit.
"That Corexit would be the first line of dispersant defense in the Gulf makes sense. Originally synthesized by Exxon, various formulations of it have been used for decades to dilute spilled oil and accelerate its natural breakdown," they added.
"Corexit 9500 is the dispersant that was in all the stockpiles. When something like this happens, you need hundreds and hundreds of tons," Alun Lewis, an oil spill consultant, told the magazine.
Corexit has come under massive scrutiny in recent weeks since BP began dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Gulf -- up to 800,000 gallons thus far, according to recent reports -- as the chemicals are shown to accumulate in a variety of marine life, which in some cases is later consumed by humans and can cause a variety of illnesses.
"The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but a worker safety sheet for one product, called Corexit, says it includes 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses," Pro Publica noted.
However, Fast Company magazine added: "in a statement to the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, toxicology expert Dr. William Sawyer elaborated on the risks associated with Corexit. According to Sawyer, Corexit is also known as deodorized kerosene--a substance with health risks to humans as well as sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles, birds, and any species that need to surface for air exchanges."
The chairman of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council called it "worse than oil". By roughly two weeks into the now month-long gusher, BP had bought up more than a third of the world's supply and had contracted Nalco Energy Services, L.P. in Sugarland, Texas to produce more.
An EPA product summary of Corexit does not disclose the ingredients, which are a corporate secret. The federal agency recommends avoiding any bare skin contact with the substance and notes that its fumes could be harmful.
Maximizing the oil plumes
The number one benefit of a product like Corexit for a company like BP is to push the most plainly visible pollutants to the sea floor and away from coastal areas, where the true ecological damage will remain out of sight. While much of the company's use of the substance involves surface spraying, they are also injecting large volumes of Corexit into deep waters, where already massive oil plumes have spread over dozens of square miles, their thickness and perimeter growing by the hour.
The accumulation of oil at the bottom of the ocean presents a more startling threat to the Gulf's ecology than shallow-water spills. Paul Montagna, a marine ecologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, explained to AFP: "What that means is that basically life in the entire water column is now being exposed."
"Clearly you'd expect a huge die off in the water column as well as in the (affected) sediments," said Wilma Subra, a chemist and consultant who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Another major concern is that the subsea oil and dispersants can be carried by currents in an entirely different direction that where the wind and waves send the surface slick, creating a "much larger area of impact," she added.
The reservoir BP had tapped is estimated to hold tens of millions of barrels. If it is allowed to fully deplete those reserves, the Gulf could literally become a massive dead zone for generations to come.
BP said on Monday it would try to plug the well with a "top kill" procedure, injecting mud and cement into the rushing torrent of oil and natural gas in hopes that it won't simply be flushed out. All the company's other efforts at stopping the sprawling disaster have failed, prompting U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to warn that the oil giant may soon be pushed out of the way by U.S. authorities.
On the contrary, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen told media on Monday that BP is, in fact, the country's best hope for plugging the well.
"There's no reason to make a change" in leadership of the spill response," he said, according to MSNBC.
There are nearly 4,000 active offshore drilling platforms in the northern Gulf region, according to the NOAA.