The Future of Dispersants

The jury is still out on whether using dispersants on the surface and at the well head was the best idea. That being said, the recent Oil Spill Commission Report is highly critical of the government’s failure to anticipate and plan an adequate response for a spill of the magnitude that we experienced.The Commission is blatant about the inadequacy of government preparedness to address the BP disaster. EPA, as the lead Federal Agency is responsible for developing a National Contingency Plan, the government’s blueprint for responding to a spill of national significance. In spite of this responsibility, the EPA has failed over the past 20 years to plan adequately for what the Commission deemed as a foreseeable disaster. The EPA did not adequately consider the challenges or consequences of using dispersant at the wellhead of a large-scale drilling disaster in deepwater. Because of this failure of planning, the EPA Administrator was seriously handicapped trying to make decisions in the absence of critically important information like the toxicity of pre-approved dispersants, availability of less toxic alternatives, long-term impacts, and subsea dispersant use.To address these knowledge gaps and to better prepare for future spills, the Commission stated a need for new regulations to govern the use of dispersants and recommended that the EPA update dispersant testing protocols and require more complete testing of dispersant before pre-approving them. This is an extremely reasonable request and should be carried out immediately. We hope that part of the testing protocol will include analysis of the dispersant on oil and species specific to each region and study food chain impacts.We know the decision to approve unprecendented volumes of dispersant was based on the prioritizing of coastal areas at the potential expense of the marine environment. Based on the preliminary information available, Administrator Jackson’s decision to approve dispersant did decrease the amount of oil on the shore. The Commission’s Staff Working paper on Dispersants states that “approximately 8% of the oil from the well was chemically dispersed, either subsea or surface.” We still do not know what long-term consequences this decision will have on the sea bottom (the most important benthic layer), marine life, or human health; nor if these long-term impacts were worth a decrease of only 8% of the oil. The scientific inquiry into these questions continue. And, hopefully soon, will better inform decisions during the next drilling disaster and prevent sacrificing one ecosystem to save another.The Commission makes several other recommendations that could affect the use of dispersants in the future. Relevant Sections:”The Need for Improved Oil Spill Response Planning” the commission calls on other agencies with relevant scientific expertise to play a role in evaluating spill response and containment operation plans, and mentions EPA, NOAA, and Coast Guard specifically to be consulted on source-control measures.”The Need for a New Approach to Handling Spills of National Significance” recommends that EPA and Coast Guard establish distinct plans and procedures for responding to a “Spill of National Significance” .”The Need for New Regulations to Govern the Use of Dispersants” recommends that EPA should update and periodically review its dispersant testing protocols for product listing or pre-approval, and modify the pre-approval process to include temporal duration, spatial reach, and volume of the spill.” “The Need to Strengthen Industry’s Spill Preparedness” recommends that the Department of the Interior should require offshore operators to provide detailed plans for source control as part of the their oil spill response plans and applications for permits to drill. Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy for the Gulf Restoration Network.

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