An oil spill cleanup could harm our waters

By Riki Ott

Last October, the Washington Department of Ecology conducted an oil spill drill on the west side of Blake Island, just north of Vashon.

The drill tested the ability of six area oil companies to mount a rapid, effective response. The usual boom, skimming vessels, aircraft and response boats appeared on the scene. Noticeably absent was a simulation for spraying dispersants on the water’s surface.

Dispersants are industrial solvents designed to break apart the surface oil slick and “disperse” oil droplets into the water column. The chemically-dispersed oil does not go away. Dispersants simply disappear some of the oil off the ocean surface, making it impossible to clean up.

Here there is some good news about dispersant use as dispersants have never been used in Washington state, according to Washington Department of Ecology’s Curt Hart.

“Here in the Pacific Northwest, we know dispersants don’t get rid of oil,” he said. “ They just push it down into the water column.”

But this doesn’t mean that dispersants would never be used in state waters as dispersants are included in the Northwest Area oil spill response contingency plan.

Dispersant use has been controversial for more than four decades. The oil industry and the Coast Guard are staunch proponents, arguing that the “ecological risk tradeoff” of sacrificing life below the sea surface is worth saving seabirds and “amenity beaches” or those that tourists frequent. Fishermen, understandably, and many scientists do not favor dispersant use, pointing out that no studies have quantified the ecological risk tradeoff — what gained for what lost? Further, industry’s claim that dispersed oil is more accessible to oil-eating bacteria and, therefore, more quickly degraded was an unproven assumption.

Following BP’s unprecedented use of more than two million gallons of Corexit dispersants after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, emerging evidence of extensive harm to sea life and humans sheds new light onto this controversy.

From microscopic oil-eating bacteria, rotifers and coral, to shrimp, crabs and killifish, to sea turtles, dolphins, humans and more, scientists are reporting that Corexit plus oil is far more toxic to life than oil alone. Findings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Unusual Mortality Event” study on dolphins and other cetaceans in the region most impacted by BP’s oil disaster are a tightly held secret. However, it is no secret that baby dolphins are dying at exceptionally high rates across this region.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP), the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, took testimonies and sworn affidavits from two dozen government contractors, spill response workers and coastal residents exposed to Corexit plus oil, as well as medical doctors who treated them. The accounts detail severe negative health and long-term health impacts, including that of Jorey Danos, son of Margaret Curole, who is in the documentary “Dirty Energy,” which screened recently at the Vashon Theatre. GAP’s recent report calls for a ban on toxic dispersants, among other things.

People in Gulf Coast communities realized that Corexit plus oil was making them sick almost immediately and have consistently called for a ban on toxic dispersants since June 2010. Instead, the federal government now acknowledges a “human health risk tradeoff” (not quantified) with dispersant use. BP and other oil companies will continue to use Corexit and other toxic dispersants as long as the government permits doing so.

Dispersants are permitted for use in federal waters under the national contingency plan. Washington is one state that has opted not to pre-approve dispersant use within state waters (from shore out to three miles) as part of the Northwest Area contingency plan. Instead, dispersant use would be considered on a case-by-case basis and likely only in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, according to Washington Department of Energy (WDOE) Spill Response Manager David Byers.

Washington stockpiles 15,000 gallons of Corexit 9500 in Port Angeles and Everett. Corexit 9500 is one of the dispersants that was used in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster response. Washington got rid of its stockpiles of Corexit 9527A, banned in Britain, by sending all of this product to the Gulf. Given the emerging science from the Gulf of Mexico, the WDOE is open to discussing its dispersant use policies with concerned citizens.

People living on Vashon, in the Puget Sound region and along Washington’s coasts might want to heed the voices and stories from the Gulf Coast and reassess use of toxic dispersants, especially within state waters. A coalition of concerned citizens and scientists is coordinating efforts to ban Corexit dispersants and other toxic products in oil spill response in U.S. waters.

Response efforts should not and need not be more harmful than the spilled oil. Banning these products will force the industry to prioritize mechanical containment and recovery of oil — or develop nontoxic products that actually do more good than harm. Even massive use of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico did not prevent beaches or seabirds from getting oiled. It’s time to accept the truth: The oil industry has been using dispersants to hide oil rather than clean it up.


— Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist, author, educator and part-time islander.

Riki Ott will give a talk on banning toxic dispersants from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 22,  at Chautauqua Elementary School. She will provide information about the dispersants, laws that authorize their use, the Pacific Northwest Contingency Plan and opportunities for change.

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