• Used to clean oil spills, toxins in dispersants cause untold damage
A coalition of conservation, wildlife and public health groups in the Gulf of Mexico region and in Alaska filed a citizen suit under the provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act Monday challenging the use of dispersants in oil spills.
The lawsuit seeks to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a rule on chemical oil dispersants. EPA’s current rules, which during the 2010 Gulf oil disaster failed to ensure that dispersants would be used safely, do not fulfill the requirements mandated by the Clean Water Act, according to press release issued by Cook Inletkeeper.
“The oil industry learned from the Exxon Valdez that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is its preferred spill response strategy, so the first tool out of the box these days is dispersants,” said Bob Shavelson with Alaska-based Cook Inletkeeper. “But dispersants add toxic insult to injury for Alaskan fisheries and Alaskans have a right to know about toxic pollution around our coastal communities.”
During the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants were dumped into Gulf waters with little knowledge or research into the chemicals’ toxic impacts. Currently, regulations dictating dispersants eligible for use in oil spills require minimal toxicity testing and no requirement for safety, according to the lawsuit.
“These dispersants would likely have devastating effects on the sensitive marine waters, fish, marine mammals and coastal communities of the Arctic, where plans for oil and gas development are proceeding without adequate spill prevention and response measures. We cannot allow a repeat in Alaska of the uncontrolled experiment with dispersants that followed the BP spill in the Gulf,” said Pamela Miller, Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
More than 5,000 petitions have been sent by residents across the Gulf Coast Region, urging the EPA to use its authority to initiate comprehensive testing of oil dispersants, create regulations that include safety criteria and identify acceptable quantities for use. But EPA still has not created a new rule to ensure that dispersants will be used safely in the next disaster.
“We sent EPA a notice of intent to sue in October 2010 following the debacle of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the unprecedented use of dispersants during that response,” said Earthjustice attorney Hannah Chang, who is representing the groups in court. “Our filing today will push the EPA to take further action to follow through on its promise to get a much-needed rule in place.”
The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to identify the waters in which dispersants and other spill mitigating devices and substances may be used, and what quantities can be used safely in the identified waters, as part of EPA’s responsibilities for preparing and publishing the National Contingency Plan. The Plan governs responses to discharges of oil and hazardous substances. But the use of toxic dispersants in response to the Gulf oil disaster was implemented without prior understanding of the effect on the Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystems and human health. Groups in oil producing regions, represented by Earthjustice, claim that EPA’s current rules do not follow Clean Water Act guidelines, and as a result they are taking action to force EPA to carry out its legal responsibility.
As the federal government and BP waffled on dispersant use in the middle of the 2010 blowout crisis, it became apparent how little testing and study had been done beforehand, the suit alleges. Even EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson readily acknowledged the agency’s lack of knowledge about the dispersants that were being applied. The result was a poorly planned, haphazard response, the effects of which will be felt for years to come. Just this week, a peer-reviewed study found that the use of dispersants may have wreaked significant and ongoing damage on the Gulf of Mexico food chain.
“The damage in the Gulf has already been done. Nearly two million gallons of dispersants with essentially unknown environmental effects were released into the waters,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “We need more effective and responsible EPA dispersant rules so that we are never caught unprepared and uninformed in a crisis situation again.”
Public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Sierra Club.
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