Elizabeth Grossman

Oil Spills Are Big Business

As oil continues to flow unabated from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico at what’s estimated to be a rate of at least 210,000 gallons a day, a suite of extraordinary measures are being deployed to both staunch and mitigate the underwater gusher. While much attention has been paid to BP’s efforts to build an oil collection dome and drill a relief well (estimated to take 90 days to complete), far less has been said about the chemical solution being undertaken.

According to the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, to date some 160,000 gallons of chemical dispersant—a chemical formulated to physically break up and disperse oil in and on water—have been deployed. The dispersant is being sprayed aerially from U.S. Air Force C-130 fixed wing aircraft, and, in a new technique designed to break up oil before it reaches the surface, dispersant is also being dispensed from a remotely operated underwater vehicle some 5,000 feet below the surface at a rate of nine gallons per minute. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this new technique “will require further monitoring to tell whether the sub-sea dispersants are having an effect and further analysis to ensure effects in the water column are not worse than those from oil.”

So, to deal with the failure of one advanced technology with unforeseen ramifications, another new technology with unknown risks is being deployed. And the solution comes from a company with ties to at least one major oil corporation.

As chemicals designed to combat a powerful pollutant, the oil dispersants themselves—and the dispersing oil droplets—can be toxic to marine organisms. The investigative website ProPublica reported that “The dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own and can concentrate leftover oil toxins in the water, where they can kill fish and migrate great distances.” They may also pose occupational hazards.

The dispersants currently being deployed in the Gulf were described at a May 4 press briefing as “fairly non-toxic.” But the material safety data sheets supplied by the manufacturer indicate both exposure hazards for workers handling the chemicals and toxicity to fish and aquatic invertebrates, for some at as little as 20 parts per million.

The dispersants are manufactured by a company called Nalco with ties to at least one large oil company. Sold under the trade names Corexit 9500A and Corexit (R) EC9527A, the dispersants are proprietary mixtures of organic sulfonic acid salts, propylene glycol, and various solvents, themselves petroleum-based.

While not a household name, Nalco’s reach extends far beyond its headquarters in Naperville, Illinois. Established in 1928 by two Illinois chemical companies with expertise in industrial water treatment, Nalco now works in more than 130 countries. In 1994, Nalco merged with Exxon Chemical and in 2001 it became part of Suez Lyonnais des Eaux. In 2003, Nalco was acquired by The Blackstone Group, Apollo Management L.P., and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners. Nalco board members are affiliated with similarly powerful corporations, among them DuPont, Eli Lilly, Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, and Monsanto.

“To date, sales related to these dispersants have not had a material financial impact on our company,” said Nalco Chairman and CEO Erik Fyrwald in a press statement. “But it is impossible to predict at this time how long this incident will last or the magnitude of the overall response needed.” Some 230,000 additional gallons of dispersant are now available and more may be needed. This week Nalco stock prices rose to their highest level since 2007.

Officials are struggling with a delicate balance of risks and trade-offs.

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