After an oil spill in the ocean, chemical dispersants are often dumped in the water to break up the oil and, supposedly, reduce environmental damage.
The problem is the Environmental Protection Agency, which authorizes the particular dispersants, hasn’t ensured these toxic chemicals won’t harm threatened or endangered species like whales, sea turtles, salmon, sea birds or even polar bears or walruses.
This week, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard over oil dispersants. The Center wants the EPA to immediately study the effects of dispersants on endangered and threatened species in all U.S. waters.
“If chemical dispersants are going to be used after an oil spill, we have to know whether they’ll hurt or kill whales, sea turtles and other wildlife. So far, the EPA has no idea,” said Deirdre McDonnell of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unprecedented amounts of dispersants were dumped into the sea during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and they’re likely still affecting the Gulf of Mexico, where dead dolphins continue to wash ashore.”
Dispersants are chemicals used to break oil spills into tiny droplets. In theory, this allows the oil to be eaten by microorganisms and become diluted faster than it would if left untreated. However, dispersants and dispersed oil can also allow toxins to accumulate in the marine food web.
Once put on an official EPA list, chemical dispersants can immediately be used in oil-spill responses in any U.S. waters, including the Atlantic, Pacific or Arctic oceans. But the EPA has not taken steps to ensure that the use of these chemicals will not jeopardize endangered wildlife. The EPA should determine the safety of a dispersant before it goes on the list, not afterward as it did in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 2 million gallons were used in the Deepwater Horizon response. Yet the effects of using such large quantities of dispersants and injecting them into very deep water, as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, have never been studied; scientists believe it may be linked to the spread of underwater plumes of oil.
The Center and allies are also asking the government to apply lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to oil-response plans for the California coast, where dispersants have been preapproved for vast areas of the Pacific. They want the agencies to reexamine a regional response plan to determine whether these toxins would harm endangered wildlife.
The Center, Pacific Environment and Surfrider filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit seeks to force the EPA and Coast Guard to comply with the Endangered Species Act and examine the impacts of these toxins on endangered wildlife and consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“From Santa Barbara to the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon, we’ve seen the destruction that oil spills leave in their wake,” said McDonnell. “We shouldn’t add insult to injury by using dispersants that could have long-term effects on species already fighting for survival.”
Studies have found that oil broken apart by the dispersant Corexit 9527 damages the insulating properties of seabird feathers more than untreated oil, making the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death. Studies have also found that dispersed oil is toxic to fish eggs, larvae and adults, as well as to corals, and can harm sea turtles’ ability to breathe and digest food. Formulations of the dispersants being used by BP, Corexit 9500 and 9527, have been banned in the United Kingdom due to concerns over their impacts on the marine environment.
Photo of Oil Dispersants in Use in Gulf of Mexico courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/kk+