SARASOTA — A local citizens’ group has formed to fight the use of chemical dispersant to break up oil in the water from the Gulf spill.
The nonprofit Protect Our Waters Inc. opposes use of dispersant, which scientists have found shreds the oil into tiny droplets that remain deep under water, said Susan McMillan, a long-time environmentalist affiliated with the group.
She contended Friday that the dispersant, Corexit, is highly toxic to marine life and potentially to humans, as well, and called for its use to be halted in favor of expanded skimming and suctioning operations.
“In other industrialized nations, when they have an oil spill, they immediately garner their skimming and suctioning ships,” said McMillan, questioning why the United States would allow millions of gallons of dispersant to be dumped into the Gulf carrying the same ingredients as kerosene, antifreeze and paint thinner.
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The current skimming and suctioning effort to remove oil from the water has not been done on a scale necessary to render the use of dispersant unnecessary, she said.
“We need all branches of the military, all the skimming ships, help from other nations that offered from Day One to do the skimming,” she said, calling the current effort “too little, too late.”
McMillan questioned whether use of dispersant was a method of evading fines that eventually will be levied in connection with the spill.
Because fines are based on how much oil leaked after a fire and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, dispersing it rather than collecting it could be financially advantageous for the company, she said.
As of Friday, 1.84 million gallons of dispersant had been deployed, none of it in Florida waters, according to information from the Joint Command, which is overseeing the handling of the spill. About 34.7 million gallons of oil-water mixture had been recovered, it said.
The use of the dispersant was approved by the U.S. government, said BP spokesman Jim Schwartz.
“Their conclusion was it was a safe and effective choice,” he said.
“Our goal in using the dispersants was simply to improve upon what is a natural process of oil dispersing as it naturally seeps into the water,” he said. “The use of dispersant in this application helped lessen the impact on the environment.”
Schwartz emphasized that at this point, now that the well is no longer leaking any appreciable amount of oil, the use of dispersant “has been minimal, limited and targeted.”
Florida officials have been collecting water samples to establish “baseline” data in order to document the harm caused by contaminants originating from the well, said Amy Graham, speaking for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Emergency Operations Center.
Scientists are continuing to scrutinize water quality to prioritize clean-up efforts and to protect the public, she said.
McMillan acknowledged she has no background in marine science. She operates a substance abuse and domestic violence agency in Bradenton, in the still-pristine Tampa Bay area. However, she has a long record of work on local environmental issues.
In Florida corporate records, she was listed as a vice president of the group, which formed last month. Listed as president was Edward Rosenthal, of Sarasota. Other officers included Ralph Clemments and Ellen Bregg, both of Sarasota.
Another volunteer with the organization, Jan Schneider, said the group would consider joining lawsuits that have already been filed in connection with the spill.
“But all Gulf coastal residents, wildlife and habitats are threatened by using these highly toxic chemicals,” she said. “Because of the extreme toxicity, dispersant use has already been banned in Europe.”
State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, credited the group with playing a role in a decision by the White House to send a “strike force” to Gulf states to try to repair damage among Democrats, some of whom are unhappy with the White House’s handling of the spill.
“I communicated to some people I knew about my meetings with them,” Fitzgerald said Friday. “It got back to the White House, and the White House has responded by trying to do a better communication effort, to explain better their role down here.”
The White House has quietly launched an effort to confront the political backlash along the Gulf Coast over its handling of the spill — giving special attention to Florida, the only state in the region President Barack Obama won in 2008 and one he will need again when he runs for re-election in 2012, the website www.politico.com reported Sunday.
The White House dispatched political and communications aides to the Gulf Coast states on July 12, with Alabama and Mississippi receiving one each, sources familiar with the effort said. Some aides went to Louisiana, while Florida received four, it said.
That battleground state will be a heavy lift, it said, adding that in interviews conducted along the coast, Florida Democrats accused the administration of largely ignoring their calls and letters and complained of a White House that’s out of touch.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.