Exceptions swallow the rule: “Rare cases” turn into daily approvals for dispersant use

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

What the EPA hath sought to take away from BP, the US Coast Guard hath given back.

Remember the May 26 Directive that, well, directed BP to “eliminate the surface application of dispersants” except in “rare cases when there may have to be an exemption” and where BP submits a written request and receives an exemption in writing from the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC, currently Admiral James Watson of the Coast Guard)?

Naturally, I was curious about the nature and number of such exemptions, given that, as I noted earlier, surface application of dispersants has continued since the May 26 Directive.  After I (and others, I expect) made inquiries a couple of weeks ago to get copies of the written requests from BP and written approvals from the FOSC, the Coast Guard has informed me that it has posted these documents on the Deepwater Horizon response website.

These documents reveal that, as of June 30 (the last day for which a document has been posted as of this writing), more than 40 exemption requests have been submitted – and approved.  These exemptions have allowed surface application of dispersant to occur virtually every day since the Directive was issued.

The documents also hold some other interesting details as to the rationales offered for the exemptions and the nature of the approvals. 

In the great majority of cases, the FOSC has accepted without modification the exemption request submitted by BP; the FOSC has simply approved the exemption request by signing and dating it at the bottom.

Below I walk through what I think is actually a fascinating story revealed by the exemption requests, in some cases relating to events associated with efforts to control the spill and inclement weather.

But not to be forgotten in what follows is that what began as a firm and clear directive to eliminate the use of surface dispersants except in rare cases has instead become a rather rote exercise of requests and approvals conducted on essentially a daily basis.

What happened??  And where is EPA in all this??


The details of BP’s requests and the Coast Guard’s approvals

The first two posted exemption requests are dated May 29, three days after the Directive was issued, and they were approved the same day.  One requests an exemption to spray 6,000 gallons “for health and safety purposes to minimize VOC emissions at the source control site” that could affect personnel working on vessels, and further requests authorization to exceed that amount (no upper limit for such an exceedance is indicated).  It was signed without modification the same day by then-FOSC Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

The other exemption request dated May 29 indicates the spotting of visible slicks of “dispersible oil” 20-30 miles from the source site, and argues that “due to the location and size of the oil slick the use of mechanical recovery and ISB [in situ burning] will not provide sufficient means to recover or remove the oil.”  It requests an exemption to spray up to 19,000 gallons over a period of 12 hours.  Again, it was approved without modification the same day.

Those two rationales used in the first two exemption requests would become constant refrains over the next month, being invoked repeatedly and virtually verbatim by BP, and being routinely approved, nearly always without modification, by the FOSC.

The third posted exemption request, one of three dated May 30, appears to be a mea culpa from BP for having sprayed dispersant without obtaining prior approval from the FOSC.  It seeks “retroactive authorization for the referenced deployments” and promises the infractions won’t happen again.

After less than a week of making requests for exemptions to spray dispersants “to minimize VOC emissions at the source control site,” BP apparently tired of the task.  So on June 2 it submitted a request for a full week’s worth of exemptions, each for up to 6,000 gallons per day, adding that “BP also respectfully requests to exceed these volumes as required.”  It was promptly approved the next day without modification by the newly appointed FOSC, Rear Admiral James Watson.  Several more such weekly exemption requests would be filed over the coming weeks, each one approved without modification.

Two days later, on June 4, noting that placement of the containment cap on the gusher had interrupted subsea dispersant use, BP requested an exemption for a one-day increase from the 15,000 gallon maximum allowed for subsea application to 23,000 gallons.  Approved.  An additional subsea application exemption request would follow two weeks later, on June 19, this one not specifying any upper limit, which was again granted without modification.

Meanwhile, the exemption requests to address visible “multiple slicks of dispersible oil” continue unabated, with only the requested volume changing, reaching new highs on June 7 and again on June 8 of up to 32,000 gallons to be applied over a 12-hour period.  Again, approved without modification.

Then on June 9 or 10, the first small sign of push-back from the Coast Guard:  BP’s request for an exemption to apply up to 32,000 gallons for a third consecutive day was not granted.  Instead, the 32,000 figure has been crossed out and replaced with 21,000.  Then another sign of independence on June 11, with the whopping 38,100 gallons requested for that day slashed to just 7,000 gallons.  But the next day, June 12, BP was back up to 36,000 gallons, approved without modification, followed by June 13 (cut from the requested 38,860 to 17,800 gallons).  That pattern continues, with requests to apply tens of thousands of gallons of dispersant per day in each case approved, sometimes as requested, sometimes as slightly modified.

Interspersed are a few requests, such as this one, for use of small quantities of dispersant for research purposes to assess the effects and effectiveness of dispersants.  Glad to see that being done, however late in the process.

Inclement weather – and the associated decision to remove the cap – begins to have an effect on the exemption requests on June 22 and June 23, with exemptions to apply larger, unspecified amounts requested to address the expected larger slicks – and approved without modifications.  On June 24, an upper limit was again proposed by BP, and cut in half by the FOSG.

The next day, on June 25, large increases in the extent and number of visible slicks led the FOSC to increase, rather than decrease, the exemption amount, from the requested 30,000 gallons up to 43,000 gallons.  Yet on the next day, BP’s all-time high exemption request to apply up to 50,600 gallons was slashed by the FOSC to 10,880 gallons.

With weather again becoming a problem due to Hurricane Alex passing nearby, leading to reduced or no ability to identify visible slicks of dispersible oil due presumably to higher winds and wave heights, BP nevertheless requested exemptions on June 28, June 29 and June 30 to apply at least 10,000 gallons while acknowledging it might not be able to apply any due to the rough conditions (which appears to have been the case for one of those days).  All were approved without modification.

That’s the story so far.  Wow.  No end yet in sight.

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  1. Posted July 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Well thats just Great… Here have a look at this You Tube Vid. Lab results included water samples tested came from Grand Isle, LA. And 20 miles off shore of Grand Isle. Scary Stuff these Test results reveal http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gq65E7rmO_k . Watch and see for yourself

  2. anomaly
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    What does Rear Admiral Mary Landry have to say for herself? Does she have any oil industry connections? I'm an ex-Coastie and I'm ASHAMED that Admiral Landry doesn't have greater respect for the oceans, the creatures that live in it, and the people who depend on it for their livelihood.

  3. Brian J. Donovan
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    This article discusses BP’s comprehensive strategy to limit its liability in regard to the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the federal government’s response to BP’s strategy.