A citizens’ advisory entity established in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound (PWS) has taken a tightened stance against use of dispersants in cleanup operations, saying prevention and mechanical recovery are the preferred alternatives.
The updated position of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (PWSRCAC) says that chemical dispersants used on floating oil slicks should not be used on Alaska North Slope crude oil spills in the PWS region.
Chemical dispersants are substances used on floating oil slicks to break the oil into smaller droplets that disperse into the water column.
The council has for years supported mechanical recovery, with use of booms and skimmers as the primary tool for cleaning up oil spills.
The council said conditions in Prince William Sound often limit the feasibility of dispersant application and that dispersants have not been shown to be effective in marine environments with similar temperatures and salinity levels to those found in the Sound.
The council has also questioned the long-term effects of dispersant application as not well understood.
“The known harms and potential risks caused by dispersants, in addition to a lack of proven effectiveness and safety, preclude the council from supporting dispersants,” they said in a statement issued in early October.
The spill disrupted commercial fisheries for several years and killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales.
Council members also recommended a focus on oil spill response research and development to enhance and improve mechanical recovery technologies and methods.
The council’s previous position on dispersant use was adopted in 2006, after years of promoting research and testing to learn more about dispersants and their impact on the environment.
Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist, activist and former commercial fish harvester in Cordova, Alaska said the council’s updated statement is founded on the latest science, the bulk of which shows that dispersant use makes oil spills more toxic to people and wildlife than oil alone.
“The EPA and U.S. Coast Guard, the co-chairs of the National Contingency Plan, set dispersant use policy, yet these federal agencies are refusing to restrict dispersant use, based on the bulk of the latest scientific findings,” Ott said. “This means that all contingency plans around the U.S. – like the Alaska Regional Contingency Plan and the PWS Area Contingency Plan that allow dispersant use during an oil spill – will put response workers and residents at risk during the next spill.”
A number of people who worked on cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill suffered serious medical issues, as did area residents who were not part of the cleanup crews. Similar consequences were reported from the workers who helped clean up after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as area residents.