Gulf Coast Organizations Pressure Feds to Study and Regulate Dispersants

EPA should require dispersant makers to disclose the ingredients of their products and to better test and report on their toxicity

10-22-2010 // Craig Guillot
Plane sprays dispersants in the Gulf

A number of organizations along the Gulf Coast are joining forces to press the federal government to better regulate dispersants that are often used to break up oil slicks in the water. With an estimated 2 million gallons used during the Gulf oil disaster, biologists and concerned parties say they’re uncertain what the impacts may be on the ecosystem and wildlife.

BP said it used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants before the well was capped on July 15. Dispersants are designed to break up the oil into smaller droplets so that they can more easily dissolve in the water. Many scientists and biologists say that in some cases, breaking the down the oil can cause more problems for the ecosystem.

The principle dispersants used, Corexit EC9500A and Corexit EC9527A, contain a number of chemicals including propylene glycol and 2-Butoxyethanal. Although there are less toxic dispersants on the market, BP relied on the Corexit because they were the most widely available at the time of the disaster.

Clear Guidelines Needed

Michael Murray, PhD, a staff scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said that although dispersants have been used for decades, the Gulf oil disaster was one of the first times they have been used on such a scale at such a depth. Murray supports more research and studies into the use of dispersants. He said federal guidelines should address not only the toxicity of the dispersants themselves but how they are to be used, when and how much.

“I think they just made on-the-fly decisions,” said Murray. “They need clear guidelines on how they are to be used in the future. You can’t present with 100 percent confidence what is going to happen but you want to have something that is more systematic.”

The petition is being filed by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of a number of organizations including the Gulf Restoration Network, Florida Wildlife Federation, Cook Inletkeeper and Sierra Club. They are calling on the EPA to require dispersant makers to disclose the ingredients of their products and to better test and report on their toxicity. The petition includes a 60-day-notice of intent to file a lawsuit to force action, in the absence of more limits and testing.

Too Many Holes in the Science

When the dispersants were being sprayed from planes in May, a number of Louisiana fishermen started pointing out the potential harmful effects to people. Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association said there were just “too man holes in the science” and points to conflicting reports between governmental organizations and independent scientists on whether or not the dispersants were harmful to the environment and people.

“When you asked if it was harmful, all you ever heard was ‘we don’t know,’ said Guidry. “There was never enough upfront science to be able to tell. We’re just asking for some steps to be taken to stop this from happening again.”

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said that a part of the problem is that companies want to keep proprietary information on the chemical components of their dispersants. He questions the toxicity of some of the dispersants and supports rules on when and how they should be deployed, instead of just blanketing large swaths of the Gulf. And while there have been some lab tests, Fuller said the tests are thus far lacking any indication as to what can happen in real-world conditions to microorganisms and marine life.

“There is little, if anything, as to what effects the dispersants might have on the deepwater ecosystems," said Fuller. "It’s not just about how it reacts in a lab with a few test organisms. We just don’t know.”

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