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Gulf disaster
Summit County Citizens' Voice, April 18, 2011

EPA faces lawsuit over dispersant use in Gulf oil spill
Environmental group wants feds to study and disclose impacts of dispersants, as marine biologists continue to document an unusually high number of dead whales and dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — One year after the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the EPA is facing a potential lawsuit over the widespread use of chemical oil dispersants.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed an official notice of its intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for authorizing the use of the dispersants without ensuring that these chemicals would not harm endangered species or their habitats.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the EPA must pre-approve the use of chemical dispersants in the event of an oil spill, but has not taken steps to ensure that the use of these chemicals will not jeopardize endangered wildlife. The Center’s notice requests that the agency immediately study the effects of dispersants on endangered and threatened species such as sea turtles, endangered whales, piping plovers and corals.

“The Gulf of Mexico disaster was a wake-up call about the inadequacy of current oil-spill response technology,” said Deirdre McDonnell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Before the next spill happens, the government needs to ensure that these dispersants don’t do more harm than good to threatened and endangered species.”

About 1.84 million gallons of dispersant were used to treat the oil spewing from BP’s busted well, including about 770,000 gallons used deep in the ocean. Here’s an excerpt from the official notice of intent to sue:

“These dispersants are known to or likely to adversely affect multiple threatened and endangered species, including loggerhead, leatherback, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, olive ridley, and green sea turtles; multiple whales including sperm, blue, fin, gray humpback, bowhead, North Atlantic and Pacific Right, and sei whales; other marine mammals including Steller’s sea lion, sea otters, Hawaiian monk seal, spotted seal and polar bear; many marine and anadramous fish species including Atlantic salmon, several species of pacific salmon, green sturgeon, Pacific eulachon and Gulf sturgeon, smalltooth sawfish, and many sea birds and coastal birds such as short-tailed albatross, Western snowy plover, piping plover, and Steller’s and spectacled eiders.”

Read the entire notice here.

Unable to stem the oil flow from the busted well, more than 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants were dumped into the Gulf after the BP spill began in April 2010.

A year later, federal marine biologists are still reporting an unusually high number of dead marine mammals that may be linked to the oil spill. Between Nov. 3, 2010, and April 17, 2011, the federal government reported 207 stranded whales and dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico, far higher than the average number. And that tally only reflects the marine mammals that are found on the shore. Many more likely have died without ever being found. Click here to get details on what the National Marine Fisheries Service calls “unusual mortality events in the Gulf.” An FAQ page gives some context to these numbers.

Jan Feb Mar Apl May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Average (2002-2009) 6.6 6.9 17.9 11.5 5.1 3.6 4.1 3.5 4.0 4.0 2.6 3.8
2010 Total 5 11 62 40 35 29 10 19 17 5 11 12
2011 24 63 73 24

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. The effects of using 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.

Now, one year after the Gulf spill began, the same dispersants remain approved for oil-spill response, and we know little more than we did then about their effect on wildlife. The Center intends to file a lawsuit unless the EPA complies with the Endangered Species Act, which requires that it 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 Exxon Valdez to 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 © Paul S. Hamilton