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17th Sep 2021

BP detergent could pose risk for EU coastlines

  • Oil in Florida: IMF-Geomar scientists said more oil each year enters the North Atlantic due to normal shipping traffic than has so far come from the spill. But the detergent is an unknown factor (Photo: Deepwater Horizon Response)

A leading scientist has warned that the detergent being used by BP to break up oil in the Gulf of Mexico could pose an environmental threat as far afield as the EU, after ocean currents bring residues to Europe next year.

Martin Visbeck, head of the Physical Oceanography unit at the IFM-Geomar institute in Kiel, Germany, told EUobserver on Tuesday (6 July) that the large amount of detergent - most of it a substance called Corexit 9500 - being pumped into the sea poses an unknown environmental risk.

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"That's what we are concerned about. There's a lot of understanding of the oil but not of the detergents. They have never been put into the water in such quantities before," he said.

"BP says they're safe but we're not sure," he added.

"They have been approved by the EPA [the US Environmental Protection Agency] but in these large quantities, we'll know what happens when it happens."

BP has so far put 6,493,526 litres of detergent into the sea according to data from Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, the joint BP-US body set up to handle the oil disaster. A further 47,136 litres is being added daily as of 6 July.

The detergent can cause kidney and liver damage if directly ingested by people.

Preliminary test results on small fish and shrimp released by the EPA on 30 June said it does not display "biologically significant endocrine disrupting activity," referring to the chemical compound's ability to alter hormones in sea life.

The tests were criticised by US environmentalists for failing to study repeated exposure and for not looking at impact on juvenile marine life, however.

The EPA also noted that tests on the effect of Corexit 9500 when mixed with oil have yet to be carried out and that the lifespan of the compound is unknown. "We are currently unaware of published scientific information in the peer-reviewed literature about the biodegradation of the dispersant itself," the body says on its website.

Mr Visbeck's team at IFM-Geomar has since the oil spill in April carried out computer models of how waterborne substances from the Gulf of Mexico end up in Europe.

The oil - which is still leaking at a rate of 35,000 to 65,000 barrels a day - floats through the Florida Strait and accelerates rapidly along the US east coast before slowing and dispersing as it enters the Gulf Stream current, which will bring it, 12 to 18 months later, to Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

Unlike the detergent, Mr Visbeck said dilution of the oil by the time it reaches EU coasts will see it pose no harm. This is the case even if the oil continues to leak for months or years because microbes break it down to harmless levels as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean.

A spokeswoman for the Irish Environmental Protection Agency told this website that: "We would expect some tiny wee tar balls, something negligible."

The European Commission has not yet looked at the potential Gulf Stream effect. But energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger and three other commissioners - on aid, the environment and maritime affairs - are to meet leaders from 18 major oil firms in Brussels on 14 July to ask them if new safety rules are needed.

"We're talking about platforms and how to make them safe," Mr Oettinger's spokeswoman said. "The main aim is to see whether in Europe we have to do something to prevent a similar accident and if an accident happens, what could be done, and if there's damage, who would be liable."

Meanwhile, the oil disaster risks having another effect on the EU - an economic one - amid talk of the potential financial collapse of BP, the EU's fourth largest company according to a ranking by Forbes magazine.

Shares in the battered firm rose on Tuesday due to market chatter that Libya's state oil company and sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Singapore are interested in buying stakes. BP saw its share value almost halved at its lowest point since the disaster, while the cost of the clean-up so far amounts to around around €2.5 billion.

Correction: the story originally attributed a quote on lack of knowledge about the biodegradability of Corexit 9500 to the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. It came, in fact, from the EPA

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