BP hasn't let the unknowns slow it down. Every morning, weather permitting, a group of small planes take off from private airports in Louisiana and Mississippi and fly over the Gulf, looking for oil slicks. The spotters are experts at seeing the rainbow ribbons of water and oil – the guys at the command center say they have "calibrated eyes," because they're able to make distinctions about the oil and determine whether it's best suited for skimming, burning or dispersing.
When they report their findings to the command center, the information is fielded by the operations section and directed to Nick Benson, a subcontractor with O'Brien's Response Management, a firm that specializes in helping oil companies respond to spills. Benson, who grew up nearby, bristles with clean-cut efficiency: He has five pens in his pocket, two BlackBerries and a look of permanent worry. His desk – little more than a laptop and a mess of papers – sits in the middle of the command-center operations room. Benson is in charge of deploying and tracking all of the cleanup equipment in the Louisiana region. "I've worked hundreds of spills," he says. "Small, big, anywhere – I've done it, I've been there."
You don't have to spend more than 10 minutes watching Benson work before you figure out one reason BP has favored the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf: Skimmers are slow, dull and prone to breakdown. Dispersants, on the other hand, are fast, sexy and usually delivered by specially equipped planes like C-130s or DC-3s, as well as a newer BT-67 – which happens to be painted red, white and blue. ("I get so pumped up when we use it," Benson says.)
When Benson hears from the spotters, he reviews the conditions at slicks they have picked out – dispersants work best on fresh oil and when there are light waves to mix them in with the water. If conditions are good, he dispatches sprayer planes that carry as much as 2,000 gallons of dispersant. The planes approach the oil as if they were on a bombing run, swooping low over the water and spraying the dispersant out of nozzles on the wings. Benson calls it "dropping their payload." On some days, a plane will make as many as seven runs. By mid-May, BP was spraying an average of 24,000 gallons of dispersants on the Gulf each day.
And that's just the delivery from the air. To keep the oil blowing out of the well from reaching the surface, BP is also using robots to pump dispersants 5,000 feet beneath the water and inject them into the plumes at the blowout site. This delivery method – unimpeded by bad weather – is taking place virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Benson is unabashed in his enthusiasm for dispersants. He calls them "the best tool in the toolbox." Says they are getting "more refined" in their targeting, as well as "more efficient." Bombing the oil with chemicals certainly fits well with the military mode of the cleanup operation. Dispersants are the oil-spill equivalent of pounding the Taliban with predator drones. '
The Obama administration has tried to rein in BP's use of dispersants, but its efforts barely made a dent in the company's all-out chemical warfare. In early May, the company asked the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to inject dispersants 5,000 feet underwater at the blowout site. "One of BP's main arguments was that you would be able to use much less dispersants if they were injected directly into the oil stream, rather than sprayed at the surface," says Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA. The move would protect response workers from chemical exposure and reduce the tons of dispersant that BP was spraying on the surface of the Gulf each day. But it would also spread the oil and chemicals far deeper and wider, putting the entire food chain at much greater risk. After a few days of testing, Jackson reluctantly signed off on the operation. "It was the toughest decision I've ever made," she told her aides.
Then, as Jackson touched down at the New Orleans airport for a tour of the region on May 23rd, she checked her BlackBerry. The day before, her staff had discovered, BP had dumped an unprecedented amount of dispersants – 70,000 gallons – in a single day. Instead of reducing its surface injections, BP had moved into toxic overdrive. Jackson was livid. "She was not at all happy to get the news," says an EPA staffer.
Around the same time, Jackson was engaged in a concerted effort to get BP to use a less toxic brand of dispersant in the Gulf. Corexit was hardly the best option available: Of the 18 dispersants on the EPA's pre-authorized list, 12 are more effective on southern Louisiana crude than Corexit – and some are far less toxic. So why did BP go for a chemical that worked worse and did more harm? The company claims that the choice was driven by availability: Corexit was already
stockpiled around the Gulf. But politics likely played a part: The board of the company that manufactures Corexit is made up of Big Oil veterans, including former ExxonMobil vice president Daniel Sanders and former BP executive Rodney Chase.
Initially, Jackson tried to hide behind bureaucratic camouflage. "If it's on the list and they want to use it," she declared on May 12th, "then they are pre-authorized to do so." But a few days later she changed her tune, telling a Senate panel that the EPA was "working with manufacturers, with BP and with others to get less toxic dispersants to the response site as quickly as possible." On May 19th, the EPA issued a directive to BP, telling the company that it had 24 hours to find a new, less toxic dispersant.
A day later, Doug Suttles, a top executive at BP, fired back a letter to the EPA, announcing that the company had every intention to keep using Corexit. Since then, the company has dumped more than 1.1 million gallons of Corexit in the Gulf.
The day she landed in New Orleans, Jackson traveled to BP's command center in Robert, Louisiana, and met with David Rainey, BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf. She and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who was the federal on-scene coordinator at the time, told Rainey that BP had to reduce its use of dispersants, especially on the surface of the Gulf. After all, reducing the air-bombing of chemicals was one of the central reasons that Jackson had approved subsurface injection in the first place. "I certainly made it very clear to BP that we were getting the worst of both worlds and that they were not being judicious enough in their use of that tool," Jackson says. One of her aides is more blunt: "It was a very heated meeting."
That night, Jackson and Landry worked out a three-point agreement with BP, which became the basis for a formal directive issued by the EPA and the Coast Guard on May 26th. The agency ordered the company to eliminate surface application of dispersant except "in rare cases" approved by the Coast Guard, to limit subsurface application to 15,000 gallons a day and to reduce overall dispersant use by 75 percent from its maximum daily levels.
If the purpose of the directive was to push BP to reduce the use of dispersants, it largely failed. The company – which applied for and received a waiver from the Coast Guard almost every day – continued to apply an average of 10,000 gallons a day to the water's surface. It exceeded the limit of 15,000 gallons for subsurface application at least four times, at one point injecting 33,000 gallons beneath the water on a single day. And by late June, it had cut its overall use of dispersants by roughly 2,000 gallons a day – a decrease of only nine percent.
Although BP has clearly flouted the spirit of the EPA order, Jackson insists that the company is doing nothing wrong, noting that its daily use of dispersants is now far lower than its peak of 70,000 gallons. "Personally and professionally, if I felt like BP weren't complying, I wouldn't hesitate to go to the president," she says. "The president has made clear that he sees it well within EPA's duties and authority to watch this process very closely. It would be unfair of me to characterize it as if somehow we are being dragged along. We are well aware of the trade-offs here."
I ask Jackson if she believes that BP is using dispersants to hide the oil and downplay public fears about the scale of the catastrophe. "I have no idea what BP is thinking," she tells me, her voice laced with exasperation. "In my view, they just don't understand why they can't just use dispersants all the time."
By any measure, however, the administration has failed miserably in its attempt to reduce the amount and toxicity of chemicals that BP is dumping into the ocean. "The EPA is full of smart, competent, hardworking scientists who are trying to do the right thing," says Wilma Subra, former vice chair of the EPA's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy, who has led the battle against dispersants in the Gulf. "But politically, they are no match for BP."
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