WASHINGTON–(ENEWSPF)–May 18, 2010. Chairman Boxer, Ranking Member Inhofe, and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify about EPA’s role in responding to the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. As we all know, efforts by BP to stop the oil release continue. While there is no perfect solution to the environmental disaster that the Gulf of Mexico is facing right now, EPA is committed to protecting our communities, the natural environment and human health. That commitment covers both the risks from the spill itself, as well as any concerns resulting from the response to the spill.
Let me begin by recognizing the extraordinary effort put in by our responders. These are people that have maintained their resolve in the face of often overwhelming challenges. They have gone above and beyond and we certainly owe them a debt of gratitude. In the last three weeks, EPA has dispatched more than 120 staff scientists, engineers, and contractors to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi to perform rigorous testing and monitoring of air and water quality. We are tracking any possible adverse impacts stemming from controlled burning of surface oil, possible chemicals rising from the oil itself, and any issues caused by the use of dispersants. We are working with State officials, with local University scientists, and other Federal agencies to get the best available data, share that data in a timely fashion, and to ensure proper response for the Gulf Coast people and their environment.
At the president’s direction I have personally traveled to the region – the region I grew up in and still consider home – twice over the past weeks, to personally oversee EPA’s efforts and to meet with the local community to ensure their questions and concerns are addressed.
For weeks, EPA responders have been monitoring air pollutants including, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, and total volatile organic compounds – or VOCs – from the oil in the Gulf, as well as the controlled burning of oil. These pollutants could pose a health risk to local communities and this monitoring is essential to ensure that communities are protected as BP takes direct response actions. EPA is also monitoring water quality by conducting surface water testing along the Gulf Coast, both in areas that have been impacted and those not yet affected. All of this information is being made public as quickly as we can compile it. We have been posting regular updates to our webpage http://www.epa.gov/bpspill, which has been a critical resource since the beginning of this event.
A primary concern is to ensure the safe application of chemical dispersants. Oil spill dispersants are chemicals applied to the spilled oil to break down the oil into small drops below on the surface. The dispersed oil mixes into the water column and is rapidly diluted. Bacteria and other microscopic organisms then act to degrade the oil within the droplets. However, in the use of dispersants we are faced with environmental trade-offs. We know that surface use of dispersants decreases the environmental risks to shorelines and organisms at the surface. And we know that dispersants breakdown over weeks rather than remaining for several years as untreated oil might. But, we are also deeply concerned about the things we don’t know. The long term effects on aquatic life are still unknown and we must make sure that the dispersants that are used are as non-toxic as possible. We are working with manufacturers, with BP and with others, to get less toxic dispersants to the response site as quickly as possible.
EPA has previously authorized use of several dispersing chemicals under the National Contingency Plan. In order to be placed on this list, each dispersing chemical must undergo a toxicity and effectiveness test. On Friday, EPA and the On Scene Coordinator authorized the application of dispersant underwater, at the source of the leak. The goal of this novel approach is to break up and degrade the oil before it reaches the water’s surface, and comes closer to our shorelines, our estuaries and our nurseries. Based on our testing, this can be done by using less dispersant than is necessary on the surface. But let me be clear that EPA reserves the right to halt the usage of sub-surface dispersant if we conclude that at any time; the impact to the environment outweighs the benefit of dispersing oil. As with our other monitoring initiatives, EPA and the Coast Guard have instituted a publicly available monitoring plan for sub-surface dispersant application to understand the impacts to the environment. This data will come to EPA once a day and if the levels in the samples are elevated, EPA will re-consider the authorization of use of dispersants.
EPA is also preparing to support any necessary shoreline assessment and cleanup. This could include identifying and prioritizing sensitive resources and recommending cleanup methods. EPA, in coordination with the States, will continue to provide information to both workers and the public about test results, as well as assisting communities with potential debris disposal and hazardous waste issues.
Madam Chairman, as a New Orleans native, I know first hand the importance of the natural environment to the economy, to the health and to the culture of the Gulf Coast. As I mentioned, since the accident, I have been to the region twice. I have listened to people in numerous town halls from Venice, LA, to Waveland, MS and other communities in between. I’ve learned in those meetings that the people of the Gulf Coast are eager to be part of this response. They want to be informed and – where possible – empowered to improve their situation on their own. We have a great deal of rebuilding to do, both in material terms and in terms of restoring this community’s trust that government can and will protect them in a time of need. This is one of those times. I urge that we do everything within our power to ensure a strong recovery and future for the Gulf Coast.
EPA will continue to fully support to the U.S. Coast Guard and play a robust role in monitoring and responding to potential public health and environmental concerns. As local communities assess the impact on their economies, EPA, in partnership with other federal, state, and local agencies, will provide all assets to assist in the recovery. At this time I welcome any questions you may have.