When oil spills, responders rush to the scene with a huge toolbox and try to contain, clean up and disperse the oil so it will break down as quickly as possible. The nation was gripped with the scenes of workers trying to do just that in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon spill, and along the way, we learned that our oil cleanup technology is still lacking, and some of the products we’re using are untested and potentially dangerous.
In the wake of the Gulf spill, workers reported respiratory irritation, skin rashes, and other reactions not because they were exposed to oil, but because they were working with dispersants, chemicals designed to break the oil down so microorganisms in the ocean can digest it. Eyes turned to marine life, wondering what was happening to animals if humans were reporting problems, and the news wasn’t good; very few studies had been done, very few limits were in place to determine how dispersants should be used, and very few people knew what the long-term effects might be.
Researchers at the Surfrider Foundation determined that: “…dispersants and dispersed oil can also allow toxins to accumulate in the marine food web…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.”
That was enough for advocates in California. After a struggle, they successfully managed to get a settlement ordering the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Coast Guard to research four named dispersants before their release off the coast of California. Effectively, advocates are making it clear that California will not become a testing ground like the Gulf did: the government is responsible for documenting the safety of these compounds before they’re applied, rather than after the fact, when it would be difficult if not impossible to clean up after their damage.
The nitty-gritty of the settlement spells out the details. Before approving what’s known as the California Dispersant Plan, the state’s documentation for handling dispersant use in the wake of oil spills, the EPA and Coast Guard must demonstrate that using COREXIT 9527A, COREXIT 9500A, NOKOMIS 3-AA, or NOKOMIS 3-F4 will not harm endangered species. If ample proof can be provided, dispersant use can continue, but if not, the state will be forced to go back to the drawing board and come up with another solution.
For California wildlife, this is good news. While endangered species are the focus of the suit, any added protections help all animals in the Pacific; keep in mind that the California Coast is not Vegas, and what’s dispersed there doesn’t stay there. Consequently, if dispersants were used to handle a major spill, they’d travel out into Pacific waters and potentially harm animals in far-flung regions off the coasts of Alaska and South America, in addition to drifting to other areas.
Environmental advocates suggest that while it takes longer to allow oil to disperse naturally, this may be safer than using dispersants. Without the toxic chemicals, oil still isn’t particularly safe for ocean life, but the toxicity wouldn’t be magnified as it is by dispersants, and it wouldn’t enter the marine food chain to create a cascading serious of reactions that would ultimately lead to serious harm.
This precedent in California could also pave the way for similar demands in other states, and the research used to respond to the court order might be immensely useful for advocates elsewhere who want to put a stop to oil dispersants.
Animals and the environment score: one, government: zero.
Image credit: eGuide Travel
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