Nalco Oil Dispersant Alleged More Harmful than BP Oil Spill

Crisis in the Gulf
Crisis in the Gulf

The BP oil spill was a tragedy. Eleven people died and untold damage was done to the environment.

But investing is a cold-hearted endeavor, and as the response to the spill evolved, investors tried to find ways to profit from it.

Early last May, we reported that a majority of the chemical dispersant used to break up the oil was coming from a little-known company called Nalco.

On May 3, the stock popped about 11 percent, and it was discussed as an interesting secondary play on the spill. One year later, the stock hasn't budged from that May 3 pop, and now the company is dealing with both a perception and a legal problem.

The perception nationally is that the dispersant is contributing to some of the problems with the Gulf's ecosystem. Some say it might be more harmful than the oil.

"What I am worried about down the line is the dispersant and the oil," said shrimper Glenn Poche. "We are worried about the reproduction of our seafood."

The potential impact is unknown and some say it will take years to know for sure. Others simply want to go out to shrimp beds when the season opens and see what it looks like.

"I always like to talk about the oil and the dispersant — a dangerous toxic chemical, sprayed and used everywhere," said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. "We don't know. That's something we have to live with."

"We won't have accurate data until we start fishing."

Then there's the legal issue. Among others, there's a civil lawsuit that names Nalco as a defendant. The suit alleges the toxicity from the dispersant is a health hazard for many people who worked on the spill recovery and cleanup.

As for the stock itself, Nalco hit a new high back in December during a quarter that saw record revenue. But it's down about 14 percent in 2011.

There are several contributing factors beyond the legal headwinds. Several downgrades have hurt, as did the news that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway liquidated its stake in Nalco back in February.

Nalco declined to speak with CNBC because of the ongoing litigation, but we could learn more about these issues when the company reports earnings next Tuesday.