EPA administrator says BP's use of dispersants is significantly down as it battles oil spill

WASHINGTON (AP) — BP's use of dispersants to fight the Gulf oil spill has been significantly reduced, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency told a congressional panel Thursday.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified that BP used less than 12,000 gallons of dispersants on Wednesday, down from 70,000 gallons four days ago. She argued that showed that EPA has been aggressive in getting BP to scale back its use of the dispersants, whose long-term effects are unknown. The chemicals are used to break up oil spilled into water.

But under questioning from lawmakers later, she said the company is still using the dispersant Corexit 9500 — even though the EPA last week directed BP to find a less toxic alternative. The product can cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation with prolonged exposure and has been identified as a "moderate" human health hazard.

Earlier this week, White House energy adviser Carol Browner said it became clear the alternatives were not as widely available as needed.

"The concern became as this thing has become a longer-term release whether or not their original decision to use Corexit might not be looked at again — whether there was something less toxic out there," Jackson said at a House Energy and Commerce energy and environment subcommittee hearing. "BP has not identified anything less toxic."

Still, she said it has been effective in the Gulf.

"It is a tough trade-off, but I believe it has been a useful tool," Jackson said. "We owe it to everyone, especially when I go down there and I talk to shrimpers and others. There's a lot of concern. And right now I can't give them all the answers they'd like about whether or not this dispersant is in the waters."

Meanwhile, a Louisiana Democrat, Charlie Melancon, chocked back tears as he talked about the spill's impact on his home region.

"Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened. And everything that I know and love is at risk," Melancon said. "Even though this marsh lies" — and at this point, he paused for 10 seconds, appearing overcome with emotion, and sighed heavily — "along coastal Louisiana, these are America's wetlands."

Melancon wasn't able to finish his prepared statement. He said "excuse me" as his lips quivered and walked out of the hearing room.