National Oil Spill Commission urges research on toxicity of dispersants


EPA Administrator Lisa Perez Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, came under a lot of criticism for her on-the-fly decision approving the use of dispersants in unprecedented volume and at an unprecedented depth to help break up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer. It was the first-ever subsea application of dispersants, and Louisiana officials were opposed.

It is an issue close to the heart of William Reilly, co-chairman of the National Oil Spill Commission. Reilly, a Republican who served as EPA administrator from 1989 to 1992 in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, was in charge during the nation’s last great oil disaster – the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in March 1989.

“One of the real surprises here, to me, is having overseen much of the response to Exxon Valdez in 1989 in Prince William Sound, the status of the dispersant question was still unresolved,” Reilly said at last week’s press conference at which the commission presented its final report to the president, recalling that, “I did not permit dispersants to be used in many parts of the sensitive areas – around the fish hatcheries, for example, in Prince William Sound, because of fear that getting into the water column would have contaminated the fish.”

Similar concerns were directed at Jackson’s decision to let BP rely as heavily as it did on dispersants as part of its cleanup strategy. But Reilly said, in the end, “to be clear, and contrary to my initial assumption going into the dispersant issue, we believe that Administrator Jackson made quite a sound and defensible professional decision with respect to her permission to use dispersants in the way that she did.”

But Reilly said the Commission makes “strong recommendations that EPA seriously begin to test toxics, the toxicity of dispersants and their effectiveness, and to do so in real-time situations,” so that the next time disaster strikes, the EPA administrator can make decisions based on more and better information.

Bruce Alpert can be reached at or 202.383.7861. Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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