Environmental Groups Support EPA’s Proposal on Chemical Dispersant Use

The Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal last week to review the use of chemical dispersants in oil spill response. An environmental group based in Homer was part of the first push to change the existing dispersant rules.

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In some ways, this review began as a result of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“British Petroleum sprayed almost two million gallons of dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico and we recognize we really don’t understand the toxicity of this product; we don’t know what’s in it,” says Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper, a member organization of the Earthjustice coalition. “So, we got together with other groups across the nation and we petitioned EPA to finally release this rule.”

Deepwater Horizon Spill - (Photo via nature.com)
Deepwater Horizon Spill – (Photo via nature.com)

Mathy Stanislaus is the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

“I am responsible for, among other things, overseeing the emergency planning and response program for EPA,” Stanislaus said.

He says there is already a rule in place. But the BP spill caused a wave of community concern and feedback that EPA is now addressing. The proposed changes would take a more in-depth look at dispersants and their short and long-term impacts in different environments.

“Looking at different kinds of conditions – How do these agents react to cold conditions versus warmer conditions? How should we look at different kinds of species? So, it’s a far broader set of considerations than are currently in the rule and what we incorporated during Deepwater Horizon,” says Stanislaus.

The revisions would also take a more aggressive approach to monitoring dispersants. Stanislaus says there would be parameters in place to decide whether or not to use them. Then, he says the rule would push for minimizing use to decrease impacts to the shoreline and wildlife.

“So we monitor those impacts and if it were to exceed the level that we have established, then we would stop using dispersants,” says Stanislaus. “So, we bring those kind of monitoring requirements as part of the basic structure of the rule.”

The revisions include more research on the toxicity of dispersants and other chemical and biological agents. There would also be new criteria for listing products as appropriate for oil spill response based on effectiveness and toxicity. EPA states that dispersant manufactures will use a peer reviewed laboratory method for testing the products.

“To make sure that it is a rigorous scientific analysis of the agents for EPA to be able to evaluate and list it, pursuant to this rule,” says Stanislaus.

But the wildlife and environment aren’t the only concerns addressed in the proposal. There would be additional human health and safety information requirements, which Shavelson says, is very important.

“There were an untold number of illnesses in the gulf from the BP oil spill and the use of dispersants and we don’t have a good handle on that,” says Shavelson. “So, we really want to understand what that means if we’re going to use dispersants in and around Alaskan communities.”

He says he’d like to see some of the studies move outside the lab to get the most accurate and diverse set of data possible. Especially in extremely biodiverse cold water environments like Alaskan waters, he says it’s hard to be sure exactly what will happen.

“I think we need to talk to our scientists and get a better understanding on where you could have a controlled experiment where you’re not going to have undue impacts but you’re going to understand how dispersants behave,” says Shavelson.

EPA is accepting public comments on the proposal 90 days following publication in the federal register.