NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As BP inched closer to permanently sealing the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, congressional investigators railed the company and U.S. Coast Guard for part of the cleanup effort, saying too much toxic chemical dispersant was used.
The investigators said the Coast Guard routinely approved BP requests to use thousands of gallons of chemical a day to break up the oil in the Gulf, despite a federal directive to use the dispersant rarely. The Coast Guard approved 74 waivers over a 48-day period after the Environmental Protection Agency order, according to documents reviewed by the investigators. Only in a small number of cases did the government scale back BP's request.
Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, released a letter Saturday that said instead of complying with the EPA restriction, "BP often carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it."
BP did not immediately return a phone call, and a spokesman for the Unified Command Center in New Orleans did not have an immediate comment.
While the chemical dispersant was effective at breaking up the oil into small droplets to more easily be consumed by bacteria, the long-term effects to aquatic life are unknown. That environmental uncertainty has led to several spats between BP and the government over the use of dispersants on the water's surface and deep underwater when oil was spewing out of the well.
A temporary cap has held the gusher in check for more than two weeks, and engineers were planning to start as early as Monday on an effort to help plug the well for good. The procedure, dubbed the static kill, involves pumping mud and possibly cement into the blown-out well through the temporary cap. If it works, it will take less time to complete a similar procedure using a relief well that is nearly complete. That effort, known as a bottom kill, should be the last step to sealing the well.
Before the static kill can take place, however, debris needs to be cleared from one of the relief wells. The debris fell in the bottom of the relief well when crews had to evacuate the site last week because of Tropical Storm Bonnie.
Companies working to plug the disaster for good are also engaged in a billion-dollar blame game. But the workers for BP, Halliburton and Transocean say the companies' adversarial relationship before Congress isn't a distraction at the site of the April 20 rig explosion, where Transocean equipment rented by BP is drilling relief wells that Halliburton will pump cement through to permanently choke the oil well.
"Simply, we are all too professional to allow disagreements between BP and any other organization to affect our behaviors," Ryan Urik, a BP well safety adviser working on the Development Driller II, which is drilling a backup relief well, said in an e-mail last week.
The roles of the three companies in the kill efforts are much the same as they were on the Deepwater Horizon, the exploratory rig that blew up, killing 11 workers. The U.S. Justice Department has opened civil and criminal investigations into the incident, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed and congressional investigators are probing the incident and aftermath.
Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said the investigations may have stifled communications between the government and companies — and between the companies themselves.
"The problem is you've chilled communications with the very people you need to solve the problem," he said. "Once the Justice Department got involved, the lawyers were basically immediately in charge of the show."
BP is trying to move forward from the disaster that sent anywhere from 94 million gallons (356 million liters) to 184 million gallons (697 million liters) of oil spewing into the Gulf, announcing once the cap was finally in place that its vilified chief executive, Tony Hayward, will be leaving in October.
The are other signs of change in the Gulf. State waters closed by the spill have slowly reopened to fishing, most recently in Florida, where regulators on Saturday reopened a 23-mile area off of Escambia County to harvest saltwater fish. The area was closed June 14 and remains closed to the shrimp and crab harvesting pending additional testing. Oysters, clams and mussels were never included in the closure.
In Alabama, the Department of Public Health lifted all swimming advisories for the Gulf of Mexico.
And Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured three offshore oil rigs last week, his most extensive trip since the unprecedented shutdown of offshore drilling.
Salazar told The Associated Press, which accompanied him, that he's gathering information to decide whether to revise or even lift the ban, which is scheduled to last until Nov. 30.
Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders say the shutdown is crippling the oil and gas industry and costing thousands of jobs, even aboard rigs not operated by BP PLC. The freeze "is like punishing the whole class" when a student does something wrong, oil executive John Breed told Salazar during a tour of the Noble Danny Adkins, one of the rigs Salazar visited Wednesday.
Salazar told the AP he believes the industry-wide moratorium imposed after BP's Gulf oil spill was the correct call.
"I think we're in the right direction," he said, adding that the ultimate goal is to allow deepwater operations to resume safely. "We're not there yet," he said.
Associated Press writers Matt Daly on the Gulf of Mexico; Harry R. Weber in Port Sulphur, Louisiana; Greg Bluestein in New Orleans and Ray Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.