BP inched closer to permanently sealing the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico as environmental officials defended themselves Sunday against assertions they allowed the oil giant liberal use of chemical dispersants whose threat to sea life remains unknown.
The Coast Guard routinely approved BP requests to use
thousands of gallons of chemicals per day to break up the oil, despite a
federal directive to use the dispersant rarely, congressional investigators
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., released a letter Saturday
that said instead of complying with the EPA restriction, "BP often carpet
bombed the ocean with these chemicals and the Coast Guard allowed them to do
Before leaving on a boat tour of recovery efforts Sunday
off Venice, La., BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the company had
operated under a protocol agreed on by the Coast Guard and the federal
"Furthermore," spokesman Daren Beaudo said
earlier, "we've complied with EPA requests regarding dispersants, which
are an EPA-approved and recognized tool in fighting oil spills."
The EPA and the Coast Guard ordered BP on May 24, more
than a month after the spill began, to cut the use of chemical dispersants by
The Coast Guard approved 74 waivers over a 48-day period
after the Environmental Protection Agency order, according to documents
reviewed by the investigators. Only in a few cases did the government scale
back BP's request.
The EPA said in a statement that the company slashed its
use by 72 percent through mid-July, when engineers placed a cap on the leaking
"While EPA may not have concurred with every
individual waiver granted by the federal on-scene coordinator, the agency
believes dispersant use has been an essential tool in mitigating this spill's
impact, preventing millions of gallons of oil from doing even more damage to
sensitive marshes, wetlands and beaches and the economy of the Gulf
coast," the agency said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard did not return calls
The chemical dispersant was effective at breaking up the
oil into small droplets to be consumed more easily by bacteria, but the
long-term effects to aquatic life are unknown. That environmental uncertainty
has led to several spats between BP and the government over the use of
dispersants on the surface and deep underwater when oil was spewing out of the
BP's apparently generous use of dispersants helps explain
why so little oil has been spotted on the surface recently, said Larry
McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico
Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Whether the benefits of dispersants outweigh the possible
risks is a "debatable point," he said. They've protected the Gulf
Coast's fragile wetlands from heavier bands of oil but are capable of killing
shrimp and crab eggs and larvae.
"That's a debate with no right answer," he
State waters closed by the spill have slowly reopened to
fishing, most recently in Florida, where regulators on Saturday reopened a
23-mile stretch of Escambia County shoreline to harvest saltwater fish. The
area was closed June 14 and remains closed to the shrimp and crab harvesting
pending additional testing. Oysters, clams and mussels were never included in
In Alabama, the Department of Public Health lifted all
swimming advisories for the Gulf of Mexico.
A temporary cap has held the gusher in check for more
than two weeks, and engineers were planning to start Tuesday on an effort to
help plug the well for good. The procedure, dubbed the static kill, involves
pumping mud and possibly cement into the blown-out well through the temporary
If it works, it will take less time to complete a similar
procedure using a relief well that is nearly complete. That effort, known as a
bottom kill, should be the last step to sealing the well.
Before the static kill can take place, however, debris
needs to be cleared from one of the relief wells. The debris fell in the bottom
of the relief well when crews had to evacuate the site last week because of
Tropical Storm Bonnie.
The attempt to start plugging the well remains on target
for Tuesday, Suttles said in Venice.
Companies working to choke off the oil for good are
engaged in a billion-dollar blame game. But the workers for BP, Halliburton and
Transocean say the companies' adversarial relationship before Congress isn't a
distraction at the site of the April 20 rig explosion, where Transocean equipment
rented by BP is drilling relief wells that Halliburton will pump cement through
to choke the oil well permanently.
"Simply, we are all too professional to allow
disagreements between BP and any other organization to affect our
behaviors," Ryan Urik, a BP well safety adviser working on the Development
Driller II, which is drilling a backup relief well, said in an e-mail last
The roles of the three companies in the kill efforts are
much the same as they were on the Deepwater Horizon, the exploratory rig that
blew up, killing 11 workers. The Justice Department has opened civil and
criminal investigations, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed, and
congressional investigators are probing the blast and its aftermath.
BP is trying to move forward from the disaster, which
sent anywhere from 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil spewing into the
Gulf, announcing once the cap was finally in place that its vilified chief
executive, Tony Hayward, would be leaving in October.
*Contributing to this report were Associated Press
writers Harry R. Weber in Venice, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, and H.
Josef Hebert and Matthew Daly in Washington.