The feds act on toxic oil-spill dispersants — too little, too late


One of the many battles with Big Oil that I chronicle in my new book — Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americais the fight over BP’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The action peaked during the darkest days of the spill that poisoned the Gulf with 5 million barrels of oil.

While much of the Gulf region was in something of a daze — not surprising given the extent of the spill and the environmental devastation — our team of lawyers and environmental experts was finding fault with BP’s clean-up efforts from Day One. As described in the book, we were among the first to sharply criticize the oil giant’s gross underestimates of the size of the spill, one of the first acts of its cover-up. We went to court to demand that workers who were already getting sick from noxious fumes be given proper clean-up gear.

But most importantly, especially in hindsight, we urged the BP and the federal government to dial back and hopefully end the massive use of the highly toxic oil dispersant known as Corexit. It seemed crazy to fight an environmental hazard by dumping another poison — some 1.8 million pounds when they were all done — into the Gulf. What’s more, the Corexit didn’t really make the oil go away, but it dispersed the spill’s toxic impacts — and pushed a lot of the harm onto the rich sea floor. The main thing the dispersant accomplished was getting BP’s oil off the surface where it might make for some ugly TV footage. In the nearly five years since the spill, a series of scientific studies have found that Corexit stays in the Gulf longer and does more harm — to plant and animal life and to humans — than once believed.

It’s taken all these years, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finally getting its arms wrapped around the problem. But its new restrictions on oil-spill dispersant are underwhelming:

Citing lessons learned during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed sweeping changes in regulations for the use of chemical dispersants and other substances in future spills.

The 247-page proposed rule includes more stringent standards for toxicity. It also would mandate that the inclusion of the chemicals in regional spill response plans, and the way they are used, be reviewed every five years. The rule would ban the use of dispersants in freshwater.

“Our emergency officials need the best available science and safety information to make informed spill response decisions when evaluating the use of specific products on oil discharges,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, in a news release announcing the proposed rule.

“These requirements are anticipated to encourage the development of safer and more effective spill mitigating products, and would better target the use of these products to reduce the risks to human health and the environment,” said a summary statement included with the proposed rule.

The new rule was praised by Christopher Reddy, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher who tracked oil and dispersants from the BP well in the aftermath of the 2010 spill. In December, Reddy and another scientist co-authored an opinion piece for CNN that urged the public not to dismiss the use of dispersants in future spills.

From my reading of the proposal, it doesn’t seems like the feds learned very much from the Deepwater Horizon spill at all. Its proposals are too tepid and too late, given the severe harm that has been traced back to Corexit. A much more innovative approach would be to focus on advances in non-chemical — and thus non-toxic — techniques for cleaning up oil. But even more important will be to wean society off of the type of dangerous deep-water drilling that causes these types of spills in the first place. That’s what we learned in 2010 — that the only safe way to keep the Gulf free from crude oil is to keep the oil from escaping in the first place.

Check out my new book: Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

Read more from about the new proposed regulations on oil-spill dispersant:

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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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