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Groups Challenge EPA to Regulate Use of Chemical Dispersants

Suits follows on heals of study that shows toxic "clean-up" method causing severe damage to marine ecosystem

Common Dreams staff

A coalition of conservation, wildlife and public health groups in the US have filed a citizen suit under the provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act today to compel the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a rule on the use of chemical dispersants used in the aftermath of oil spills.

“We’re disappointed that the agency doesn’t seem to understand the widespread public urgency to initiate this rulemaking process,” said Jill Mastrototaro, Sierra Club Gulf Coast Protection Campaign Director. “If a spill or blowout happened tomorrow in the Gulf of Mexico, or any U.S. water for that matter, any dispersant that is used would not necessarily be safe for the waters, ecosystems, response workers, or nearby communities.”

The petition by the groups comes just one week after researchers at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama released a report showing that chemical dispersants -- such as the those used following the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 -- may have deep and long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems.

"Our study was interested in the tiny organisms that support the base of the food web," said Alice Ortmann, who led the study. "These are the small things support all the big things in the ocean."  What they found was that under controlled conditions, the dispersants seem to  "significantly reduce" the growth of phytoplankton and ciliates that species higher up the ocean food chain depend on for food.


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Brian Crother, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, called the findings scary, though limited because the experiments spanned only five days. “If these guys are on the money, they have pointed to something really disastrous happening in the Gulf,” he said.

Over more than 3 months following the BP spill, according to an Insurance Journal report, the company used more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants — more than 770,000 gallons of it at the oil’s source on the ocean floor — to break up the oil into tiny droplets. "Earlier research hadn’t found significant problems for the environment and marine life but dispersants had never before been used a mile underwater or in such large amounts."

“The oil industry learned from the Exxon Valdez that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is its preferred spill response strategy, so the first tool out of the box these days is dispersants,” said Bob Shavelson with Alaska-based Cook Inletkeeper, a member of the coalition petitioning the EPA.  “But dispersants add toxic insult to injury for Alaskan fisheries and Alaskans have a right to know about toxic pollution around our coastal communities.”

“The damage in the Gulf has already been done. Nearly two million gallons of dispersants with essentially unknown environmental effects were released into the waters,” said Marc Yaggi, Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance.“We need more effective and responsible EPA dispersant rules so that we are never caught unprepared and uninformed in a crisis situation again.”

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