Thirty Years after Exxon Valdez, US Oil Spill Response Is Still All Wrong

Environmental groups are suing EPA over outdated rules on oil dispersants that harm people and wildlife

Thirty years ago, on March 24, 1989, communities in Prince William Sound, Alaska, awoke to horrific news: the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, had run aground and leaked 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Chaos ensued. Fishermen desperately began collecting oil in five-gallon buckets. Exxon, meanwhile, responded by burning floating oil and dumping toxic oil-based chemicals called “dispersants.” Dispersants break oil apart into smaller droplets, and this was assumed to enhance natural dispersion and degradation of oil, thereby “cleaning up” a spill. Instead, the dispersants formed chemically enhanced oil particles that proved to be more toxic to humans and the environment than the oil alone.

photo of oil dispersant exercise
An air force plane during an oil dispersant exercise. Chemical dispersants were used to “clean up” both the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills. Photo courtesy of US Air Force.

Twenty-one years later, on April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, releasing 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The subsequent response was all too familiar — burning oil and dumping dispersants once again. Two million gallons of dispersants were applied to “clean up” the spill. Instead, these chemicals led to unprecedented oil deposition on the ocean floor, resulting in severe impacts to marine wildlife from the sea floor to the upper ocean — including large dolphin die-offs, fish kills, and deformities — and devastating pulmonary, cardiac, and central nervous system illnesses for response workers and coastal residents.

This is why our coalition of environmental justice organizations, conservation groups, and individuals from Alaska to Louisiana directly affected by dispersants gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notice this week of our plan to sue the agency to compel it to update its rules regulating the use of chemical agents known to be harmful to the environment and everything in it. We are concerned that the EPA is putting at risk the 133 million or so Americans who live near the coasts, making up 39 percent of the US population, and the millions more who live near lakes, rivers, or along oil pipeline corridors and who are in harm’s way of the next “big one.”

The use of these dispersants is a response method outlined in a set of federal regulations called the National Contingency Plan, which governs our nation’s oil and chemical pollution emergency responses. The Clean Water Act directs the EPA to periodically review the plan and update it to account for new information and new technology. By requiring periodic updates of the plan, Congress sought to ensure it would reflect current understanding of response methods and facilitate actions that minimize damage from oil spills.

The EPA last updated the National Contingency Plan in 1994. That it does not reflect the advances in understanding of dispersant toxicity that came after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at best, a gross understatement. In fact, the 1994 update did not even incorporate lessons learned from the long-term ecosystem studies following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. In 2011, EPA’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that the plan urgently needed revision.

It took a public petition filed by Dr. Rikki Ott and members of the grassroots organization now known as ALERT (A Locally Empowered Response Team) to prompt the EPA to modernize the plan; in 2013 the EPA finally initiated a rulemaking proceeding. In 2015, the agency invited and received over 81,000 public comments, a majority of which called for reducing use of oil-based chemical dispersants and better efficacy and toxicity standards.

But since the comment period closed in April 2015, the EPA has been silent on the issue. Meanwhile, the Trump administration, under the new National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas leasing program, plans to open 90 percent of US coastal areas to oil and gas drilling, putting communities back in harm’s way. Given the history of offshore oil drilling, it is simply a matter of when — not if — another devastating spill will occur. Delaying updates to the National Contingency Plan is a dangerous dereliction of EPA’s duties under the Clean Water Act.

We can no longer stand on the sidelines and hope the agency will act. On behalf of those who have already lost their homes, their livelihoods, their health — and even their lives —we are going to court to demand action.

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