EPA Issues Final Rule Regarding Chemical Dispersant Use During Oil Spills

Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized tougher standards for chemical dispersants used in oil spill response in federal waters and adjoining shorelines, giving considerable authority to regional and area planners on whether such toxic chemicals may be used.

The rule amending requirements of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, as published in the Federal Register on June 12, governs use of dispersants, other chemicals and other spill mitigating substances when responding to oil discharges into jurisdictional federal waters.

The EPA’s action came on the heels of a 2020 lawsuit filed by several environmental entities, including Earth Island Institute, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the Center for Biological Diversity and others, over concerns of the toxicity of these products to people, wildlife and the environment.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster of March 24, 1989 killed some 250,000 birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and other wildlife and sickened many of the people who stood in the midst of the oil-contaminated foam to clean oil off beaches, skim it from the water surface and hose oil off of rocks.

Medical exams later found many had traces of oil in their lungs and blood cells and fatty tissue of their buttocks, Pulitzer Prize winning author Kim Murphy wrote in a 2001 article in the Los Angeles Times. They also were treated for headaches, nausea, chemical burns and respiratory issues, Murphy wrote.

The new regulations, effective Dec. 11, mandate improved testing of the efficacy and toxicity of dispersants before they are listed on the EPA’s National Contingency Plan’s product schedule as permissible for use in oil responses.

They mandate public notification of when chemical and biological agents are deployed in emergency response situations and significantly greater public disclosure of data relevant to dispersants’ chemical constituents, intended uses, and health and safety effects by prohibiting manufacturers from withholding such details as proprietary business information.

The new regulations also call for removal of products based on misleading, inaccurate, outdated or incorrect statements regarding product composition or use, including advertisements, technical literature, electronic media and more.

“It’s a real big deal, a turning of the tide on product use,” said marine toxicologist Riki Ott, director of Earth Island Institute’s ALERT Project the lead plaintiff in the case. “It’s making it safer for the environment and us, especially for dispersants.”

Ott was a commercial fish harvester in Cordova, Alaska when the Exxon Valdez oil spill tanker disaster occurred, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound fishing grounds. 

“The new rules authorize state and regional planners to obtain the quality information they need to make informed decisions about whether dispersants can be used safely in any waters,” Ott said.

Still, she expressed concerns that the new rules do not prevent the ongoing use of potentially harmful chemical dispersants, especially in coastal waters near populated areas. 

“The final rule gives us access to the tools and information we need to protect the health and well-being of our waters, wildlife and people from exposure to dispersants that make oil spills even more toxic,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. Miller expressed concern about the lack of health and safety monitoring protocols for response workers and the public.

“Those rules also need to be updated for better protection of the public when they are needed to work oil spill response,” she said.