EPA and DHS Order BP to Stop Hiding Oil Spill Information

by Brian Turnbaugh*, 5/20/2010

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took steps to increase the transparency of the response to BP's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil company's actions have been criticized for failing to disclose or monitor important information about the spill, including the quantity of oil erupting into the Gulf, the potential health impacts of the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it, and water and air quality information. The actions by EPA and DHS, although belated, are needed, welcome, and hopefully portend a higher standard for transparency that is enduring and comprehensive, not limited to responses to colossal disasters.

In a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson criticized BP's response to the spill:

In his May 17, 2010 testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Mr. Lamar McKay, Chairman and President of BP America, claimed that BP was making every effort to keep the public and government officials informed. Those efforts, to date, have fallen short in both their scope and effectiveness.

The letter calls on Hayward and BP to make publicly available "any data and other information related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that you have collected, or that will be collected in the future." A three-page attachment to the letter spells out what and how the information is to be disclosed (i.e., within 24 hours, online, type of format).

In a separate action, EPA ordered BP to identify and use a less toxic and more effective dispersant on the spill. Dispersants are chemicals used to break up oil into small droplets so that they are more easily degraded. BP has one day to identify a less toxic alternative, and then 72 hours to put it into use. BP has been criticized for using a chemical to disperse the oil that is more toxic and less effective than available alternatives, and which has been linked to harmful health effects in workers using the chemical.

EPA has also begun posting online the results from the ongoing monitoring of BP's use of underwater dispersants. According to the agency, these steps are being taken because "BP is using this dispersant in unprecedented volumes and, last week, began using it underwater at the source of the leak – a procedure that has never been tried before."

Many view the use of the dispersant as a trade-off between damage caused by oil and chemicals deep in the water and damage caused by oil that reaches shore. It seems unlikely the use of dispersants will be suspended any time soon, and more than 600,000 gallons have already been dumped in the water. It is therefore crucial that the public know what was used, where, how much, and where it went. This means disclosing the identities of the chemical ingredients comprising any dispersant that BP uses – a step that EPA does not seem to be considering.

In the letter to BP, the government states "Although DHS and EPA are not aware of any data or information that you would have that is Confidential Business Information (CBI), any claim of CBI will be handled in accordance with applicable law." Although I would fully expect them to make the claim, in this situation it is hard to understand how these polluters could be allowed to use trade secrets privileges to hide data from the public.

EPA today also launched a Spanish-language version of its BP spill response website, "to inform the Spanish-speaking public about the spill's impact on the environment and the health of nearby residents." The agency is working on a Vietnamese translation to accommodate the large Vietnamese population along the Gulf coast.

In their letter to BP, the EPA and DHS claim that because the spill "impacted the lives and livelihoods of countless people," then "it is critical that all actions be conducted in a transparent manner." I hope this logic is applied much more broadly. Big Oil's actions – along with actions by numerous other industries and the federal government – frequently impact "the lives and livelihoods of countless people," but the transparency has been missing from both the industry and the government.

For years the oil and gas industry has enjoyed far too much leniency from regulators, too many handouts from government, and has been exempted from the accountability measures that apply to the majority of other industries. The oil and gas drilling industry does not have to report its pollution to the Toxics Release Inventory – the bedrock right-to-know law. Natural gas drillers are exempt from reporting what toxic chemicals they use which threaten our drinking water supply. Numerous other exemptions from other environmental laws are on the books.

This tragedy in the Gulf must be the end of Big Oil's exemption from accountability.

  • More information on the monitoring of the dispersants may be found on EPA's website.
  • Monitoring results for air, water, and sediment are also available on the site.
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