What’s In Oil Spill’s Toxic Stew? We Demand An Answer

Earthjustice files action to discover what's in chemical dispersant

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Today, the maker of a controversial dispersant used in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill declared, “We have nothing to hide.” In fact, that’s the headline of a New York Times story on the dispersant.

If that were true, we at Earthjustice and our clients wouldn’t have to take formal action to find out what’s in the dispersant. British Petroleum, which has used more than 800,000 gallons of “Corexit” to combat its oil spill, won’t reveal what is in the compound. Thus, we have been forced to send a formal Freedom of Information Act request to the Environmental Protection Agency, asking for the information.

Update: Earthjustice Vice President of Litigation Patti Goldman notes that “Nalco put out a release trying to allay concerns about the ingredients in its dispersants, but its statement raises more concerns than it answers. First, it asserts that all of the ingredients “have been determined safe and effective by the EPA.” While the Food and Drug Administration makes such determinations for drugs, the Toxics Substances Control Act is so weak that it does not require that EPA make such safety findings before chemicals are allowed on the market. That is why a diverse health, environmental, and labor coalition (including Earthjustice) are calling for an overhaul of that law. Given that EPA is not in the business of declaring chemicals safe and effective, I doubt EPA would back up Nalco’s claim. Second, Nalco tries to prove that Corexit ingredients are safe by pointing to their presence in cosmetics, lotions, and stain blockers. That gives me little comfort. Cosmetics and lotions often contain phthalates, which have been associated with reproductive impacts and endocrine disruption. And some stain blockers contain ingredients classified as cancer-causing or neurotoxins.”>

The FOIA seeks the identities of all chemical ingredients in the dispersants eligible for use in the Gulf spill. It also seeks all health and safety studies and data and potential adverse effects reports for the chemical ingredients in the dispersants and unredacted correspondence between BP and EPA about dispersants in connection with the Gulf spill.

We have every reason to be concerned about whether the dispersants are in and of themselves threats to the environment, and to living things, including humans. ABC News did a piece on the threat, and there is some question about whether oil cleanup workers were sickened by it. And the Times shares our concerns:

Scientists have compared BP’s heavy use of dispersants in the Gulf to a massive chemistry and biology experiment, saying it is an exercise in environmental trade-offs. The chemicals break up oil that would otherwise float on the surface into tiny droplets that can sink and be consumed by fish, bacteria and microorganisms.

The consensus is that the 870,000 gallons of Corexit that have been either sprayed on the Gulf’s surface or injected underwater at the broken wellhead have likely spared beaches and wetlands from an even worse oil slick, while contributing to the formation of massive, difficult-to-track oil plumes underwater that could have long-term ecological consequences.

Once upon a time, only last week, the EPA also had concerns about the dispersant and BP’s use of it. The agency even ordered BP to stop using it. BP refused, and as of today, still is using it. Does EPA know something we don’t?  Let’s find out.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.