May 21, 2010— -- A day after the Environmental Protection Agency gave BP 72 hours to start using a "less toxic" dispersant to help control the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the agency told ABC News today it may allow BP to keep using the same chemicals.
The EPA on Thursday gave BP 24 hours to find a better dispersant and 72 hours to begin using it.
The EPA said testing had determined that the use of the dispersant Corexit had killed up to 25 percent of all organisms living at 500 feet below the surface in areas where the dispersant was used.
A top BP executive defended the use of Corexit on "Good Morning America" today.
"The EPA had to approve and the Unified Command and the Coast Guard had to approve the use of that product. It is approved and in fact we've been using it and it has been effective," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told "Good Morning America" today. "It's making a difference in this fight to try and keep this stuff from coming to shore."
Though Suttles said BP will continue to search for a better alternative, he said "right now we cannot identify another product that is available that's better than [dispersant] Corexit."
EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy told ABC News today, "It's not that Corexit is banned. It's not that they have to stop using it because they're using it right now. But it's just that they need to switch over."
If the 72-hour window passes without a suitable alternative found, the EPA will demand BP prove it investigated a number of alternatives and explain why they were not chosen, according to Thursday's statement. Beyond that, the EPA would not comment on consequences of a missed deadline.
EPA made its demand for a "less toxic" dispersant Thursday after criticism grew over the effects of Corexit.
"Any living organism that contacts this stuff, particularly the mixture of dispersant and oil, is at significant risk of acute mortality," said marine biologist Rick Steiner.
Suttles said he had not seen any evidence of the toll the dispersant is taking on marine life, he admitted that using the chemicals involves "tradeoffs."
"I haven't seen any evidence to show that," Suttles said today. "We're doing extensive monitoring as is NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the EPA."
BP Siphons Less Oil From Leak Than It Hoped
BP has already dumped 700,000 gallons of the dispersant into the sea, and prior to the EPA's announcement, the company defended its use of Corexit after questions were raised about a corporate connection between BP and Nalco, the maker of the product.
In a statement to ABC News Thursday, BP called the chemical "one of the most well-studied dispersants" and said it chose Corexit in part because it could "get a sufficient supply to meet our needs on short notice."
In a fresh setback to containing the underwater catastrophe, BP said today that an insertion tube in the broken well was siphoning less than half of the oil the company had claimed.
The oil company had been claiming to be sucking up 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the site, but only 2,200 barrels had been captured from the surging leak on Thursday, BP said today.
"The flow changes, it's not constant," said BP spokesman John Curry.
The tube collecting that oil is BP's first success at containing any part of the leak, after weeks of failed attempts. The company also is readying a top kill operation for next week in the hope of plugging the gusher for good with heavy mud, though the technique never has been attempted at the 5,000-foot depth.
Suttles defended his company's actions in the face of mounting criticism and claims that it has misled the public about the size of the spill.
"We're fighting this thing as best we can," Suttles told "Good Morning America." "We've mounted the largest response we've ever done in the world. ... I understand the anger, [but] I don't know of anything, absolutely anything else that we could be doing."
BP has repeatedly stressed that every decision made since the spill has been made in collaboration with the government, but in some quarters there is a growing fear that too much is under BP's control.
BP Has Too Much Influence?
BP has an army of 20,000 employees working on the response, and some people ask if the company exerts too much influence on everything, from the information out in the gulf to the response in the halls of Congress.
Labs being used to test everything from water to the wildlife are all paid by BP, to the frustration of some scientists.
"There is a perception that this lab in Texas, there is a cozy relationship between this laboratory and the oil industry, including BP," said Taylor Kirschenfeld, an environmental official in Escambia County, Florida.
BP's tentacles spread far. As the world's fourth-largest company, it shelled out $20 million on Washington lobbying in 2009, and it has some big political guns on its special advisory council, including former House majority leader Tom Daschle and former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
And less than a year ago, a former BP executive was appointed to head a division of the Minerals Management Service, the very federal body meant to police oil drilling.
"One of the big problems is that the oil industry has been so active in the process that creates regulations, that even the fines that can be levied are so limited they're just really a cost of doing business," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
BP also controls the cleanup of the spill. It has taken the lead in deploying skimmers, and until today, had sole discretion in the dumping of dispersants on the oil.
The company also had effective veto power on releasing information about the spill, until Congress strong-armed it to release the live, streaming video of the site zone.