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Less toxic oil dispersants sought for Gulf spill

The EPA is pressuring BP to use a different dispersant to break up oil in the Gulf spill, but less toxic alternatives might not be available in the quantities needed.

There are less toxic alternatives to the oil dispersants being used by BP in the Gulf oil spill but there is not enough product available, according to a White House official.

In morning talk shows on Tuesday, Carol Browner, the president's adviser on energy, said the EPA is seeking to determine the quantities available of less toxic materials than Corexit, which is being used by BP to break up the oil flowing into the Gulf.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week issued a directive telling BP to use an alternative dispersant. It also said last week that the EPA and Coast Guard will gather data to verify information provided by BP on which dispersant is the least toxic, most effective, and readily available.

But even though there are less harmful dispersants, Browner said they are only available in limited quantities.

"There aren't as many dispersants...on the shelf available for use," Browner said. "We do think that dispersants are a part of how we move forward in this difficult situation and so we're going to be evaluating, determining if others can be manufactured quickly, if others can be brought to the scene. We need to understand what is available," she said on CNN's American Morning program.

Dispersants are designed to break down oil in the water so that they can be absorbed by microbes in the water. But the long-term effects on microbial life and the effectiveness of the method is not clear, according to David Valentine of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study the effect of the projected 1 million gallons of dispersants in the Gulf spill.

Chemicals, such as dispersants, are ranked based on a number of environmental safety factors, such as flammability and toxicity. One company that has developed a less toxic dispersant based on EPA criteria is Green Earth Technologies, which makes a line of engine oil made from vegetable oils and released an oil spill cleanup product in April.

Company co-founder Jeff Loch on Monday said that Green Earth Technologies' oil clean-up product does effectively the same thing as Corexit--"attack" oil molecules and break them up--but is far more benign to the environment. It also works in a variety of areas, such as marsh areas, so it is not limited to use in deep waters.

But since it's such a new product, the product is not yet approved by the EPA. "If there was ever a good reason to break with protocol and staff up folks and look for alternative reasons," he said, "this would be the scenario to expedite things to do it."