Fewer controversial oil-spill issues exist right now than the use of dispersants.

Specifically, environmentalists, residents and clean-up workers are concerned about BP’s  use of petroleum-based Corexit brand, which is more toxic than many of the alternatives approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is only 55 percent effective on the type of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Consider the scene a few weeks ago at a town hall meeting in eastern New Orleans where a BP representative said that with the help of the dispersants, “we expect oil that sinks to the bottom will be naturally remediated.”

The statement was met with laughter, except for one man who made a beeline to the microphone to ask sternly whether BP expected them to believe that the oil would clear up by “letting nature take its course.” When the BP rep responded yes, more laughter ensued.

But on this point, BP is right. A natural biodegradation of oil occurs in the ocean, and dispersants help that. Microbes in the ocean feast on oil, particularly its hydrocarbons. The dispersants carve that feast into tinier portions so that those microbes can feast faster.

But it remains an open question whether BP chose the best dispersant manufacturer – not merely the most convenient or influential – and whether the federal government was realistic or serious when it ordered BP to find an alternative.

The dispersant Corexit EC9527A is being used underwater while its sister Corexit 9500 was being used on the surface; BP has discontinued surface spraying of the chemical at EPA’s request. A key chemical in the underwater compound, 2-butoxyethanol, is toxic, but not nearly as toxic as the oil itself. Studies show that the chemical causes reproductive disorders and birth defects in animals, but there’s no research for humans. If inhaled, it may cause nausea, headaches, eyes and nose irritation for those exposed at mild levels.

Last week, workers involved in oil clean-up where dispersants have been used were hospitalized, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The Coast Guard subsequently pulled 125 boats from the area.

But the company hasn’t stopped using Corexit – it has used 800,000 gallons so far – even while BP and EPA are continuing scientific reviews to find alternatives.

BP spokesman Graham MacEwen said the company committed to Corexit because officials “believe it to be the lowest toxicity brand within the quantities that we need. However EPA has asked us to look at other options and we continue to do that.”

EPA at first endorsed using Corexit, but then backed off on May 20, giving BP 24 hours to identify a less toxic alternative, and another 48 hours for the company to begin using it. But the switch never happened.

BP said in response that no suitable alternative existed, which is not true. Dispersit, produced by the New York-based U.S. Polychemical Corporation, is a non-petroleum based solvent that is far less toxic and is more effective [b2] on this type of oil, according to EPA data. Another alternative, Sea Brat #4, was sitting in Houston – 100,000 gallons of it.

Alabaster Corp. makes Sea Brat, and CEO Charles Sheffield said BP didn’t pick it up until late last week – about two weeks after EPA ordered an alternative.

“At the time they got the directive, the material was stocked in our yard waiting for them to take it, and they didn’t,” Sheffield said.

MacEwen said he wasn’t aware of and couldn’t comment on the specifics involving Sea Brat.

The reason these alternatives, as well as at least four others – Nokomis 3-F4, Nokomis 3-AA, Mare Clean 200 and Neos AB3000 – weren’t picked, said BP in its response to EPA, is because the company officials felt they didn’t have enough time to obtain the information necessary for scientific analysis of those other brands. They also responded that the other companies couldn’t match the amount of Corexit that they already had stockpiled. Some of the other companies’ officials said they could have deployed more of their product if they had more lead time.

Which leads to the question: Did any of the alternatives ever really have a shot at being used by BP?

EPA seems not to have had an “or else” in mind if BP did not honor their request. EPA said in a public statement that BP’s response is “insufficient” and told The Lens that it is “not satisfied that BP has done an extensive enough analysis.”

Despite having three branches of enforcement, EPA referred questions about possible  punishment to the Justice Department.

Sheffield said he thinks that BP has only ever wanted to use Corexit because Nalco’s board of directors include a former BP executive.

While the Sea Brat #4 was one of the five identified by BP as best meeting the criteria from EPA’s directive, BP stated it had problems with it because a trace amount of one of its ingredients might degrade into nonylphenol, which is an endocrine disruptor. Still, that didn’t stop BP from ordering a supply of it.

U.S. Polychemical, which makes the Dispersit product, also felt constrained by time.

“BP contacted me a few weeks ago inquiring about our product but then never placed an order,” said Bruce Gephardt, CEO of U.S. Polychemical. “Then (on May 20), right after the edict from EPA, they asked how fast they can get large quantities for the Gulf. Then on Friday I was told, ‘Everything’s on hold, we’ll get back to you.’”

Richard Fredricks, president of Maritime Solutions, which helps market U.S. Polychemical, said it would have been difficult for any company to get bulk dispersant together in the time EPA allowed.

“EPA only gave BP 72 hours to start using a new product, but I don’t know of any dispersant manufacturer who keeps a stockpile of materials on hand that could be produced in three days,” Fredricks said.

Even the 24-hour deadline EPA imposed upon BP to simply identify another product appears to have been too short to meet. When BP began doing its analysis of the other brands, it hit the same blockade that many in the public have encountered: acquiring the confidential information about the composition of the different formulas. Scientists, journalists and concerned citizens have been asking in vain for this information from Nalco and the other companies for five weeks.

Fredricks said that U.S. Polychemical has given that information to BP and EPA, but only late last week, and only after requiring that neither would divulge proprietary information.

Fredricks is disappointed with the lack of time, but encouraged that the federal government is considering options to Corexit.

“I think BP and EPA are doing the right thing,” Fredricks said. “Would it have been better if they did this five years ago? Of course. But I’m glad they are doing it now.”

The company that makes Corexit, Nalco, which is based in Naperville, Il., is heavily invested in Louisiana both politically and economically.

Nalco, which manufactures its Corexit in Sugar Land, Texas, has a political action committee, and has contributed to congressional campaigns in Louisiana. Alabaster and U.S. Polychemical do not have PACs and don’t contribute to campaigns.

“We have no political connections, zero,” Gephardt said.

Nalco contributed $3,000 to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s 2008 campaign, more than it gave any other candidate that year.

Landrieu’s legislative director, Tom Michaels, and spokesman Aaron Saunders, said the senator has not been involved in any decisions over what dispersant to use, and that despite the Nalco campaign contribution they wouldn’t say Landrieu knows anything about Nalco.  Michaels said that Nalco requested a meeting with him and the senator, but it never happened.

Nalco’s campaign donations reach back further than 2008. In 2000, Nalco contributed to the campaigns of then U.S. Reps. Richard Baker, a Republican, $500; Chris John, a Democrat, $500, and Billy Tauzin, a Republican, $1,000.  In 2002, they gave $1,000 again to Tauzin. In 2004, they gave $500 to Rep. Jim McCrery, a Republican; another $1,000 to Tauzin; and $1,000 to his son Billy Tauzin III. Nalco gave nothing in 2006.

Besides not having the advantage of being a political player, Alabaster and U.S. Polychemical are both privately held. Meanwhile, Nalco is publicly traded, with stockholders to satisfy. Nalco’s lobbyists have been beefing up in recent weeks, with their chief lobbyist meeting with Congress members to win brand loyalty from them.

Also, some members of Nalco’s board of directors are former oil corporation executives. Director Rodney F. Chase, worked at BP for 38 years; Daniel S. Sanders, worked 43 years for Exxon-Mobil, the company that first manufactured Corexit.

Nalco also has a significant presence in Louisiana, namely in St. John the Baptist Parish, where they have a chemical plant for water treatment and dredged material treatment products. In November, the parish hired Nalco to review the failures of a water quality system in LaPlace. In 2008, Nalco won the controversial approval of the parish’s Planning and Zoning commission for an 80-acre extension of their facility in Garyville.

A spokesman for St. John the Baptist did not return calls for comment.

“The original thinking to use Corexit might have had merit,” Fredricks said, “but in light of more modern more friendly dispersant, it in fact now might be a mistake to exclusively focus on one old brand of dispersant. Early on that might have made sense in terms of standardization but now with all the additional testing, it makes more sense to go with a more marine environment-friendly option.