Activists Sue Trump Administration to Update Rules for Oil Spill Dispersants

The rules for using these toxic brews to control oil spills haven't been changed since BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

by | Jan 30, 2020

Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Adobe Stock)

If the Trump administration succeeds in opening new areas of the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexicoto oil drilling, one thing is almost certain: There will be oil spills.

That’s why two women are suing the administration to revise its rules for using chemical dispersants in oil spill clean-ups.

Kindra Arnesen, a south Louisiana mother of two and wife of a commercial fisherman, and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Iñupiat and community health aide living on Alaska’s North Slope, say they want their communities protected from the industry’s standard response to spills.

The two women, joined by Earth Island Institute’s A.L.E.R.T program, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inletkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Thursday. Their complaint asks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its chief, Andrew Wheeler, to update the National Contingency Plan, a set of rules that governs responses to oil and chemical pollution emergencies.

“I have seen first-hand the health problems the use of these chemicals can cause. We’ve learned to live sickly,” said Arnesen, who has become a community activist since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, which began when the BP-chartered Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded and sank on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and damaging a seafloor wellhead. More than 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the ocean before BP succeeded in sealing the well months later. Responders released millions of gallons of chemical dispersant, claiming at the time that the chemicals would help reduce the oil’s environmental impact.

But as the New Orleans Times Picayune recently reported, a decade of research since the Gulf oil disaster “has uncovered a laundry list of potential health effects” from both substances.

“We are all still suffering the effects from use of dispersants following Deepwater Horizon,” Arnesen said. “Exposure to chemical dispersants after the spill changed my family and my community.”

BP used about 1.84 million gallons of two types of Corexit in the Gulf during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, an unprecedented amount. Approximately 1 million gallons were sprayed on the ocean surface, while about 771,000 gallons were applied underwater, right at the site of the spewing wellhead.

Ahtuangaruak cared for people exposed to dispersants during the response to 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The experience led her to campaign for tribal bans on the use of dispersants in Arctic waters where members hunt and fish. “An oil spill would devastate my community’s food security. All of our hunting, gathering, and harvesting would be impacted from any event where dispersants are used,” she said.

“EPA’s delay in updating its oil spill response plan to reflect scientific knowledge about the dangers of dispersant use is inexcusable and unlawful,” said Claudia Polsky, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, who is representing the plaintiffs along with Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

One reason BP and the EPA gave at the time for the massive amount of dispersants used in the Gulf was that it would prevent crude oil from reaching the delicate shorelines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas, an effort that largely failed. Experts have estimated that up to 10 million gallons of oil-dispersant mix sank out of sight, much of which still remains on the Gulf floor.

Fishermen and other coastal residents hired to clean up the oil say exposure to Corexit devastated their fisheries, and left them battling ongoing health problems. Some workers exposed to one type of Corexit experienced an increase in acute pulmonary illnesses, and skin lesions, along with other serious health effects.

Those exposed to a slightly less toxic version experienced increased coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and burning in the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs than those who were not exposed to dispersants, according to research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Another study found that Coast Guard personnel deployed to the clean-up reported an increase in acute respiratory issues.

Corexit also made oil 52 times more toxic to certain types of marine life, according to a 2012 study by U.S. and Mexican scientists.

Arnesen, Ahtuangaruak and the A.L.E.R.T. Project first petitioned the EPA to amend the NCP in 2012, documenting harms to sea life and human health from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and noting that “the combination of dispersants and oil is more harmful to life than oil alone, and that dispersants kill beneficial oil-eating bacteria.”

When the EPA failed to act, they filed a supplemental petition in June 2014, noting new scientific evidence highlighting the harms of dispersants.

The agency finally began the revision process in 2015, proposing changes to the NCP that would incorporate lessons learned during the Deepwater Horizon disaster about the toxicity of chemical dispersants. More than 81,000 public comments were submitted, with the majority calling on the EPA to end the use of dispersants, according to the lawsuit.

But nearly five years later, the EPA has still not issued a final rule, which the activists say both violates federal law, and has unnecessarily endangered communities that may be exposed to future oil spills.

“In the twenty-six years since EPA last updated the National Contingency Plan, significant advances in understanding the behavior and risks of chemical dispersants and chemically dispersed oil on marine life and human life demonstrate that dispersants are dangerous, ineffective, and exacerbate harms caused by oil spills,” the complaint states.

The NCP covers not only large-scale disasters like the Exxon Valdez and BP’s 2010 blowout, but also oil spills that happen during smaller drilling operations, and during the transport of oil on U.S. rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Arnesen and her co-plaintiffs say that puts millions of Americans at risk, particularly given the Trump administration’s propensity for expanding oil and gas development while rolling back safety regulations.

“As huge as the BP oil spill was for us, this isn’t a one-incident issue. We have oil spills here regularly, whether they be big or small,” Arnesen said. “The risk is here 365 days a year, 7 days a week.”

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Karen Savage is an investigative journalist who has reported on climate change-related itigation, environmental justice, policing, and other social justice issues. Her work has appeared in Climate Docket, Undark Magazine, In These Times, Project Earth, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Truthout, City Limits, and more. Karen is an alum of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she won the Sidney Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting.