Dispersants being applied on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo from US Coast Guard. Yesterday, Gulf Restoration Network -- along with Louisiana Shrimp Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Alaska-based Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Sierra Club -- filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish better rules on how and when to use dispersants, the toxic chemicals that are used to break up and disperse oil that has been released into the marine environment. You can read our press release, watch a TV clip on the story, and read an article; but I still wanted to give more background on our involvement in challenging the use of toxic dispersants.
In response to the BP drilling disaster, approximately 1.84 million gallons of dispersant were used in the Gulf, 1.07 million gallons at the ocean's surface, and 771,000 gallons applied subsea. Unfortunately, as was made painfully evident during the response, EPA had little information on the toxicity of the various dispersants listed on its National Contingency Plan Product Schedule -- a list maintained by EPA that identifies dispersants and other chemicals that are eligible for use in oil spill response -- or the impacts of their use on the marine environment. Many questions remain about the harm that dispersants have done to the Gulf, and a study released last week indicates they may have had a major impact on the food web.
During the height of the BP oil disaster and dispersant use in summer of 2010, Gulf Restoration Network and Florida Wildlife Federation were gravely concerned about the lack of public information regarding the ingredients and toxicity levels of dispersants. We filed a freedom of information act (FOIA) request, and a subsequent lawsuit when the original request was denied, seeking a release of the ingredients of the dispersants that had been listed by EPA as appropriate for use in response to an oil spill.
This FOIA request, and subsequent lawsuit to force compliance, eventually resulted in the release by EPA of an aggregate list of 57 ingredients found in dispersants contained on the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule. Of those 57 ingredients: 8 chemicals are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms, 5 are suspected to have moderate toxic effects, and over 33 are associated with some potential hazard to humans (i.e they are associated with cancer, respiratory or kidney toxicity or irritants). The full analysis was released in The Chaos of Clean-up: Analysis of Potential Health and Environmental Impacts of Chemicals in Dispersant Products, prepared by Toxipedia Consulting Service, Earthjustice, Gulf Restoration Network and Florida Wildlife Federation in August 2011.
Groups in oil producing states also became concerned about the apparent failure of EPA to fully comply with Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements regarding testing/research. The CWA requires EPA, as part of it's responsibilities for preparing and publishing the National Contingency Plan, to identify the waters in which dispersants and other spill mitigating substances may be used, and what quantities can be used safely in different identified waters. Yet, as discovered during the BP disaster, the comprehensive testing required by the CWA for dispersants had never been done.
To make sure that the required testing will be done in the future, in October 2010 Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inlet Keeper, Florida Wildlife Federation Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Shrimp Association, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance sent EPA a notice of intent to sue unless new rules on chemical dispersants were issued. Those rules have yet to materialize.
As a result, yesterday, August 6, 2012, the groups filed a citizen suit under the provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a rule on chemical oil dispersants (read the full complaint here). 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 and endanger our ecosystems and wildlife.
Cynthia Sarthou is Executive Director of Gulf Restoration Network.