It was a busy scene Thursday at the Gulf spill site. A new ship is expected to begin a massive burn late next week.
BP dividend: BP executives said the board of directors would meet Monday to discuss whether to suspend the company's dividend to pay spill-related claims. The executives continued to say they are financially capable of paying the dividend, which amounts to $10.5 billion a year. But they acknowledged the pressures building in the U.S. to set aside at least the next dividend payment as the oil continues gushing.
Escrow account? Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum sent a letter to BP demanding it put at least $2.5 billion into a dedicated escrow account to cover spill-related losses to the state and its residents.
Congressional testimony: Robert Barham, secretary of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told a U.S. House subcommittee that chemical dispersants used underwater may be more environmentally damaging than the oil. He added that despite repeated requests to BP and to the manufacturer of the dispersant, he had not received information about the percentages of the components of the product being used, Corexit.
BP defender: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become a lonely defender of BP, saying the world should not rush to point fingers. "The guy that runs BP didn't exactly go down there and blow up the well," Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show.
Seattle Times news services
Health fears over BP plan to burn huge amounts of oil
By Renee Schoof and Marisa Taylor
WASHINGTON â€” Plans to burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil per day from BP's blown-out well are raising new questions about the health and safety of thousands of workers near the spill site.
BP and the federal government are again in new territory in dealing with the nation's worst environmental disaster: There has never been such a huge burning of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists say the blown-out well could have been spewing up to 2 million gallons of crude a day before a cut-and-cap maneuver last week started capturing some of the flow, meaning more than 100 million gallons may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the start of the disaster April 20.
That is more than nine times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst U.S. oil spill. The larger estimates, issued this week, are preliminary and considered a worst-case scenario.
The incineration of large amounts of oil, combined with clouds of smoke already wafting over the Gulf waters from controlled burns of surface oil, create pollution hazards for the estimated 2,000 people working in the area.
Dozens of rigs and ships are clustered in the area around the spill site.
The Discoverer Enterprise, the main recovery ship, is collecting as much as 630,000 gallons of oil a day through a pipe from the wellhead. A second vessel, the Q4000, is being prepared to pull up more oil and burn it. Experts say it could soon be burning 420,000 gallons a day.
Dr. Phil Harber, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, said the burning oil could expose workers to toxins that might cause severe respiratory irritation and asthma attacks, depending on how the burns are handled.
Burning oil is a common method of relieving pressure in refinery operations, he said.
"But the magnitude is a concern," said Harber, a lung specialist who's also the chief of UCLA's division of occupational and environmental medicine.
The other worry, he said, is if the wind carries off the thick clouds, "there are hundreds of ships in the area, and those workers could have significant exposures and perhaps less protection because the exposures would be unanticipated."
Residents in the coastal communities â€” especially babies and people with asthma or serious heart problems â€” also could be vulnerable to any possible toxins from the burn-off.
Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned why the Coast Guard decided to allow the oil to be burned.
"It seems like a no-brainer that you wouldn't want to do this," she said. "Maybe there's just such a logistical challenge in getting it onshore and getting it processed that they decided this is the cheapest, easiest thing to do. But the possible acute health problems should be of a greater concern."
BP spokeswoman Anne Koltun said the Environmental Protection Agency was consulted on the burning plan. An EPA permit isn't required because the Deepwater Horizon site, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, is outside the agency's three-mile jurisdictional limit.
Burning the oil also would reduce the amount of money BP would earn from selling the crude, which the company has promised to donate to a fund to restore and improve wildlife habitat in the four states most damaged by the spill.
"They're essentially burning money that could be used for Gulf restoration," said Christopher Mann, of the Pew Environment Group.
Mann also questioned why so long after the explosion, BP and the Coast Guard still hadn't moved enough tankers or other ships into the area to accommodate the volume of crude oil likely to be flowing from the damaged well.
"BP has known for weeks they'd be recovering large amounts of oil, and yet they now don't have the capacity to recover it," he said. "There's a continuing failure to connect the dots."
Harmful byproducts of burning the light crude include fine particles; toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which result from the incomplete burning of carbon materials such as oil; and volatile organic compounds such as benzene toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
The EPA's stationary monitors and mobile labs are checking for pollutants and have found air-quality levels for ozone and particulates that are normal for this time of year.
The agency has reported it also found low levels of chemicals from the oil that produce odors and can cause short-term effects such as headaches or nausea.