August 4, 2010 Senate Hearing on Oil Dispersants

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In an August 4 Senate Hearing on Oil Dispersants, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned the effectiveness and toxicity of the oil dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon spill.[1] Some Senators characterized the dispersants as a perhaps toxic (but government approved) method of saving the shoreline, whereas others expressed sentiments that the dispersants made an already toxic situation even worse. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) spoke of his bill, the Safe Dispersants Act, which would "require long-term testing and disclosure of all ingredients in a dispersant before it can be used in response to a spill."[2] The first panel included testimony from the EPA and NOAA. The second panel included testimony from Ronald Kendall of Texas Tech University, David C. Smith of the University of Rhode Island, Edward B. Overton of Louisiana State University, and Jackie Savitz from Oceana.[3]

Testimony by Paul Anastas, EPA

In the hearing, EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development Paul Anastas testified, admitting that the longterm effects of dispersants on aquatic life are unknown, but claiming that the EPA is not observing the dispersants in their monitoring and suggesting that the dispersants have perhaps broken down in the environment. He spoke of the EPA's tests of toxicity on two species. He said that the eight dispersants tested were non-toxic to mildly toxic, whereas the oil alone was moderately toxic. Together, he said, the oil and dispersants were no more toxic than the oil alone to the two species. He also maintained that the dispersants were successful in keeping the oil off of the shoreline and therefore any environmental impacts of their use were offset by the benefits of keeping oil from the Gulf coast.

In her questioning, Barbara Boxer clarified that Corexit 9527A was used for the first 30 days following the spill, after which BP used Corexit 9500. She read from the MSDS for Corexit 9527A: "Eye and skin irritant. Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver. Harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed. Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing. Do not take internally. Use with adequate ventilation. Wear suitable protective clothing. Keep container tightly closed. Flush affected area with water." She then established, with the help of Anastas, that Corexit 9500 contains "petroleum distillates" that are like kerosene in them as a solvent. She said that the labels define the products as acute human health hazards. This statement was a misreading of the labels. The Corexit 9500 label says "No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product" but then defines the product as a "Moderate" human health hazard. The Corexit 9527A states that the product's rating as a human health hazard is "High." In addition, the MSDS for Corexit 9527A says:

"The principal health effects following acute exposure to 2-butoxyethanol are irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. 2-butoxyethanol is readily absorbed through the skin. In laboratory animals exposed to 2-butoxyethanol via inhalation, blood(hemolysis) and secondary effects on the kidney and liver have been observed. When 2-butoxyethaol is ingested it is metabolized to butoxyacetic acid (BAA), which can cause hemolysis. BAA is rapidly excreted in urine in animals and humans with an urinary excretion half-life of approximately 3-6 hours in humans. Human red blood cells have been shown to be significantly less sensitive to hemolysis than those of rodents and rabbits. These effects are transient and when exposure is discontinued, these effects subside. 2-butoxyethanol does not cause adverse reproductive or birth effects in animals, unless exposures occur at levels high enough to induce significant maternal toxicity."

Barbara Boxer also mentioned and submitted records of 334 people who became sick from the pollution of the oil spill and dispersants in Louisiana, as well as lawsuits brought by people in Alabama who became sick.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse noted that the fact that the dispersants were "approved" was often cited as proof of their safety. He asked Anastas to explain the approval process for the dispersants. In fact, although the EPA's National Contingency Plan Product Schedule was treated by the Coast Guard and others as an "approved" list, it was no such thing. It was more or less simply a list of available dispersants on the market. First, a manufacturer would nominate itself and provide data to indicate that its product(s) are effective. Although the manufacturers also had to vouch for the safety of their products, there was no threshold of toxicity that would disqualify a product from inclusion in the EPA's list.[4]

Then Sen. Whitehouse asked about bioaccumulation, the tendency of some pollutants to accumulate in the bodies of organisms living among the in the environment. Anastas brought up the term biomagnification, which describes the phenomenon when species at the top of the food chain accumulate large amounts of a particular pollutant at a much greater magnitude than they are present at the bottom of the food chain. Sen. Whitehouse asked him at what order of magnitude this might occur. He replied, "Ten, hundred, thousands." Sen. Whitehouse then confirmed with him that it would be possible for a top of the food chain species to have a pollutant in its body at 10,000 times the concentration as it is found in the species at the bottom of the food chain.

Sen. Whitehouse then alluded to the human health impacts of the dispersants brought up by Sen. Boxer and asked why the chemicals would have those effects on humans but not on fish.

During Sen. Tom Carper's questioning, Anastas claimed that adding dispersants to the oil is simply mimicking what nature would do anyway to help the microbes in the Gulf eat the oil, breaking it down into carbon dioxide and water. Anastas told Carper 24-25% of the oil has evaporated, the oil that has been or will be consumed by the microbes could be as much as 50% of the oil, and the last 25% has been skimmed off or collected. He said that most of what's in the water column or on shore will biodegrade over time. However, he said, we still need more information on how this will occur and what will happen in the long term.

Testimony by David Westerholm, NOAA

In the same hearing, David Westerholm, Director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, testified. He called dispersants an "effective tool" but also noted "trade-offs." He noted some gaps in scientific knowledge on the environmental effects of the dispersants. According to him, no seafood tested has been found with unsafe levels of PAHs as a result of the spill or dispersants. When asked by Boxer, he said it was too early to make any conclusions about the long-term impacts of the spill and dispersants on the fisheries in the Gulf.

Testimony by Ronald J. Kendall, Texas Tech University

Dr. Ronald J. Kendall is the director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health and a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University. He called the dispersant use "unprecedented." He acknowledged the justification for the use of dispersants (protecting the Gulf shoreline) but then added that a large area in the Gulf is under stress from the oil and the dispersants. He said "a massive ecotoxicological experiment is underway" and we have very little information about ecological effects of this particular oil and dispersant mixture in terms of acute, chronic, and indirect effects on marine organisms. "Did we really understand the environmental toxicology" of the deepwater use of Corexit he asked, and he answered that "we did not." It appears to be upheld from research that the use of dispersants creates the release of toxics such as PAHs into the water column. Crude oil alone can have physical toxic and indirect effects, and by dispersing it into the water column, its toxicity could be magnified as more organisms are exposed to it and exposed to more of it. That is in addition to any toxic effects of the dispersants themselves.

He gave three significant examples: Kemp's ridley sea turtles, sperm whales, and bluefin tuna. Kemp's Ridley, one of the most endangered sea turtles in the world, nests on coast of Texas. The tiny hatchlings are returning to the Gulf now, but will not return to the coast to breed for over a decade. Kendall says if we effect their food chain now, we may not see the effects for years to come.

The sperm whale is also endangered. The females come to Gulf to calve in the summer and they feed in deep water on squid. He said we have no idea what the deep water injection of dispersants will do to their food supply.

Last, the bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna come to the Gulf, one of two breeding grounds in the world for the Atlantic bluefin, and release their eggs. The eggs float in the Gulf and hatch, and the larvae feed on zooplankton. If we impact the zooplankton, we could take out the bluefin tuna and not see the results for years.

In closing, Kendall called for peer reviewed data on the effects of the dispersants. He acknowledged the claim that dispersants are a tool, saying that they are indeed a tool, but they need to be fully researched before they are used.

Testimony by David C. Smith, University of Rhode Island

Dr. David C. Smith is a Professor of Oceanography and an Associate Dean at the Graduate School of Oceanography at University of Rhode Island. He began by saying that any environmental trade-offs associated with the use of dispersants are hard to assess. Dispersants do not remove oil from the ocean and it is important that we do not adopt an "out of sight, out of mind," attitude toward the oil after using the dispersants.

Ultimately, microorganisms will degrade most of the oil. He noted that dispersants are "presumed" to speed up this process. The rate at which they do so depends on the number of microorganisms, water temperature, and other factors. While knowledge of the effects of dispersants released at the surface is limited, scientists have no prior knowledge of the effects of releasing dispersants directly into deep water, as BP has done in this case. In the deep water environment, there are fewer microorganisms and lower water temperatures compared to the surface. This will lead to slower degradation. Additionally, the oil can bond to sediment on the sea floor and the volatile compounds in the water column will be unable to evaporate, as they would if they were at the surface. These factors explain how use of dispersants in deep water can lead to increased persistence of the spilled oil in the environment. He said that limited knowledge of deep sea community structure, particularly microorganisms, makes it hard to assess the impact on them.

In closing, Smith called for a national research plan to understand oil spill cleanups. He said this must include:

  • A best practice list
  • Comparisons between types of dispersants, oils, and habitats
  • Understanding of the baseline (pre-oil spill) ecology of the seafloor in oil producing areas
  • Development of an online open access database to serve as repository to scientific community

Testimony by Edward B. Overton, Louisiana State University

Dr. Edward B. Overton is a Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University's Department of Environmental Science. He began by saying he agrees with almost everything that has been said by the senators as well as the other witnesses on his panel. He said that the spill was unique because it occurred in deep water. Oil the enters the environment undergoes a weathering process, so we must clean up not just oil but also all of its weathered products. He called it a "moving target." He identified three ways to remove the oil: skimming, burning, and use of chemicals. His favorite method is skimming, when it is possible. However, without that choice, we are left with chemical dispersants. He called them "a soap for oil." He added that if used, dispersants should only be used off-shore, not near the coast. He then reiterated what the other panelists said, that scientists do not understand the impact of this spill or the dispersants. However, ultimately, he came down on the side of supporting the use of dispersants in an effort to save the coastline.

Testimony by Jackie Savitz

Jackie Savitz is the Pollution Campaign Director and a Senior Scientist at Oceana, a global conservation organization. She began by recounting the total damage of the oil, and noted that endangered, threatened, and commercially important species are all impacted by the spill. She said that once the oil spills, there is no good way to clean it up. Any choice is a lose-lose option because there are no good choices available. First and foremost, she calls for the end of drilling and the creation of better methods of preventing and cleaning up oil spills. However, right now, we are left without those options. Savitz then went into the many ways the oil and dispersants have harmed the health or killed many types of marine life. She said Oceana recommends a ban on offshore drilling. Then, we should use this as an opportunity to shift to clean energy instead of oil. She hopes to see job creation in the Gulf around clean energy production to employ former oil and gas workers.

Question and Answer of the Second Panel

Sen. Whitehouse began by noting the repeated use of the word "experiment" and call for research. Of the witnesses, Kendall spoke first, calling for the use of the precautionary principle. He criticized the EPA's latest tests, saying "a laboratory experiment on maybe a shrimp and a fish doesn't help us understand much about the environmental chemistry and effects on other parts of the ecosystem." Smith then spoke about funding for research, saying that paying for research should be "a cost of doing business" for the oil companies. He added that it is important that the oil from each area is tested on species from that area when testing toxicity and comparing the effects of dispersants with the impact of oil alone. Also, the testing should be done in "relevant conditions." The oil coming from the wellhead is very hot, entering into cold water, and we don't have data on that.

Sen. Whitehouse asked the panel about the EPA's tests finding that the dispersants with the oil were no more toxic than the oil itself. He asked, "How complete and effective is that particular study... and what else would need to be done?" Dr. Smith began by saying that the tests were short term tests of acute toxicity that do not address long term or sub-lethal effects. Also, the organisms used in the test have "no relevance whatsoever in the deep sea." In short, he doesn't feel the tests were useful. Dr. Overton spoke next, citing one problem he sees, that oil changes so much in the environment so which form of oil should be used to conduct an accurate test. Then, he went back to the funding question, calling on the Department of Interior's Mineral Management Service to use oil royalty money to fund research. He said that we don't even have good technology to collect samples of the oil coming out of the well to then test it.

Sen. Whitehouse continued, asking if the bioaccumulation risk of oil, dispersants, and both, is low. Savitz began by saying that the EPA tests are not enough to draw conclusions about the long term. About bioaccumulation, she agreed that it's not expected for these chemicals to bioaccumulate. Overton said that PAHs don't bioaccumulate because we have enzyme systems in our bodies (as do animals) to break them down. However, Kendall brought up other concerns with carcinogenic compounds in oil and PAHs, saying just because we don't have a problem with bioaccumulation doesn't mean that we don't have a problem.

Sen. Whitehouse then asked about "sinking agents." Oil, he said, tends to float, but when broken up by dispersants, the smaller molecules have less buoyancy and stay in the water column. He asked if the dispersants will make the oil sink. Overton said that this is a very light oil that probably won't sink. Kendall said that we just don't have data about the oil-dispersant mixture in the cold, high pressure deep water environment. He said we have very little information about the behavior of the oil in the deep water. Sen. Whitehouse returned that there is concern with the oil sinking. Kendall said that he does not think so. He added that we've seen a lot of different forms of oil, which he thinks is linked to the dispersants.

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  1. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, Use of Dispersants in Gulf Oil Spill, Government Panel, C-Span, August 4, 2010
  2. Andrew Restuccia, "Lautenberg Bill Will Require Chemical Dispersant Testing", The Washington Independent, July 27, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010
  3. U.S. Senate, Full Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight joint hearing entitled, "Oversight Hearing on the Use of Oil Dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill", Committee on Environment and Public Works, August 4, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010.
  4. Jonathan Tilove, "EPA official defends role of dispersants in Gulf of Mexico oil spill response",, August 4, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010.

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