EPA Ordered to Update Regs on Toxic Chemical Use in Oil Spill Responses

A federal district court for the Northern District of California has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update regulations on the use of toxic chemical dispersants in oil spill responses.

The decision handed down in San Francisco on Aug. 10 by Judge William H. Orrick gives the EPA until May 31, 2023 to take final action on listing and authorizing the chemicals involved. In the interim, the court ordered the EPA to file status reports every 180 days.

The lawsuit filed in early 2020 sought to require the EPA to take into account current science on the use of chemical dispersants in response to oil spills.

The plaintiffs included Earth Island Institute’s ALERT project, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inletkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, an Alaska Native health aide and a Gulf Coast commercial harvester. Earth Island Institute is an international environmental organization and fiscal sponsor for over 75 projects in the areas of conservation, energy and climate, international and indigenous communities, sustainability and community resilience.

The plaintiffs contend that instead of mitigating environmental harm, chemical dispersants have proven, when mixed with oil, to be more toxic to humans and the environment than the oil alone.

They noted that in the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, coastal communities along the Gulf of Mexico suffered from serious dispersant-induced health effects. First responders, including many Coast Guard workers, suffered negative health impacts, including respiratory problems ad severe skin blistering, they said.

Orrick ruled that the EPA has violated the Clean Water Act by failing to update dispersant regulations issued in 1994 that are demonstrably inadequate. The agency also violated the Administrative Procedure Act in failing for years to finalize draft regulations issued in 2015.

“This ruling sets us on a path toward protecting the health and well-being of our waters, wildlife and people from exposure to dangerous dispersant chemicals that exacerbate the toxicity of oil,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Miller added that the decision “marks the end of the collusion of the EPA with the oil industry” in allowing the practice to continue without consideration of the science and adverse health consequences.

The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California Berkeley served as lead counsel for the case, representing most plaintiffs. The Center for Biological Diversity served as co-counsel and represented itself only.