How Toxic are Oil Dispersants? Groups Press EPA to Find Out Before Next Spill

Shrimpers, community groups petition agency for info, clear rules before OK’ing future use


Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235

Gulf coast shrimpers and affected community groups from Alaska to Louisiana to Florida pressed the federal government today to better regulate dispersants — the chemicals that oil companies routinely use to break up oil slicks on water – before these chemicals are used in future spill cleanups.

The non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a petition (PDF) on behalf of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, the Alaska-based Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Waterkeeper and Sierra Club asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to write rules that would set out exactly how and when dispersants could be used in the future.

The move comes just one day after the Obama administration announced it was lifting a moratorium on Gulf Coast oil drilling.

“Unprecedented use of toxic dispersants during the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster without prior scientific study and evaluation on the effect to Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystems and human health was a horrific mistake that should never have been allowed to happen,” said Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “Potential ecosystem collapse caused by toxic dispersant use during this disaster will have immediate and long term effects on the Gulf’s traditional fishing communities’  ability to sustain our culture and heritage.”

The groups are also calling on the EPA to require dispersant makers both to disclose the ingredients of their products and to better test and report the toxicity of those products.

“Industry executives would like us to think that dispersants are some kind of fairy dust that magically removes oil from water,” said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado. “The fact is we have very little idea how toxic dispersants are, what quantities are safe to use or their long term effects on everything from people who work with the chemicals to coral in the water. We have little information about their long-term impact on life in the Gulf, or even whether the mix of oil and dispersants is more harmful than oil alone.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson herself has raised concerns about this lack of information, calling for more data and better testing of dispersants so that officials don’t have to make “judgment calls on the spot.”

“We need to make sure that we understand the full effects of dispersants on the environment and human health,” said Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller. “And when dispersants are used, we need to be sure they are as safe as possible.”

The groups’ petition comes on the heels of a draft report issued last week by the federal Oil Spill Commission that acknowledged that federal agencies were unprepared for the tough decisions they faced over whether to allow some 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants to be dumped in the Gulf of Mexico during the record-breaking BP Deepwater Horizon spill. The requested rules would ensure the agency never again be forced to make such decisions without sufficient information and guidelines.

“Never again should the oil industry be allowed to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant into the sea as their preferred method of response to an oil spill,” said Cynthia Sarthou, of the Gulf Restoration Network. “Because so little is currently known by EPA — or anyone else for that matter — about the long-term impact to fish and wildlife, the use of dispersants is a dangerous and potentially devastating experiment.”

The summer’s catastrophe in the Gulf is not the first time the use of chemical dispersants has come under fire. Workers involved in the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska reported health problems — including blood in their urine and kidney and liver disorders — believed to have been linked to dispersant exposure.

“In Alaska, we have witnessed the long-term adverse health consequences of the use of dispersants on the health of cleanup workers,” said Pamela Miller, Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “The indiscriminate use of toxic dispersants also threatens the health of subsistence and commercial fisheries that are essential to the culture and economy of Alaska.”

“Oil corporations in Alaska now reach for dispersants as one of their first tools for oil spill response,” said Cook Inletkeeper Bob Shavelson.  “Countless Alaskans rely on our wild, healthy fisheries, and we have a right to know about the toxic dispersants used in our waters.”  

The group also filed a 60-day-notice of intent to file a lawsuit (PDF) prodding the agency to provide information long required by the Clean Water Act identifying exactly where dispersants may be used and how much is safe.

“The largely unregulated use of dispersants is another example in the all-too-long list of ways that oil, coal and gas industries act with an open distain for environmental and human health,” stated Scott Edwards, Director of Advocacy for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Coal companies dumping mine waste in our streams, gas extractors injecting harmful chemicals in our drinking water and the oil industry poisoning our coastal communities first with oil and now with untested dispersants all point to one thing – it’s time to end our irresponsible addiction to harmful fossil fuels and move onto cleaner, renewable energy sources.”

The Clean Water Act requirements have been in place for decades, but administration after administration has failed to comply with the law, and there was scant data available to EPA officials when they were confronted with the devastating Gulf Coast spill this summer.

“The BP oil disaster painfully showed just how little is known about these chemicals.  We should not be gambling with the health of our coastal waters or the people who make their life from them. If dispersants are going to be part of the toolbox for responding to future emergencies, we need to be certain they’re not doing more harm than good. We call on EPA to pledge that never again will oil spill response turn into an uncontrolled experiment in our nation’s waters,” said Sierra Club Louisiana Representative Jill Mastrototaro.

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