Protecting Oceans and People from Toxic Chemical Dispersants


Earth Island's ALERT Project, along with a coalition of environmental justice groups and individuals, successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compel the issuance of rules on the use of chemical agents, such as Corexit, to clean up oil spills. Instead of mitigating environmental harm, Corexit dispersants have proven to be more toxic to humans and the environment than the oil alone. The use of dispersants like Corexit is an oil spill 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 EPA to periodically review the plan and update it to account for new information and new technology. But the EPA has not updated the plan since 1994, and that update did not even incorporate lessons learned from the long-term ecosystem studies following the Exxon Valdez disaster that occurred on March 24, 1989 — much less the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In response to public pressure from Dr. Riki Ott, ALERT's project director, and other plaintiffs involved in the filing, the EPA finally initiated a rulemaking proceeding and invited public comment on the use of Corexit in oil spill response actions. By the time the rulemaking comment period closed in April 2015, the agency had received more than 81,000 responses, the majority of which called for reducing the use of chemical dispersants while decreasing their toxicity and increasing their efficacy. But, EPA never concluded the rulemaking process.

As a result of this lawsuit, the EPA finalized its rulemaking on May 31, 2023. This ruling impacts approximately 133 million Americans who live near the coasts, making up 39 percent of the U.S. 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.”

A fact sheet on Corexit is available here.

Significant Developments

June 14, 2023: In the News - The Guardian

US government toughens rules on chemicals used to break up oil slicks

May 31, 2023: Case Update

EPA signs the final rule governing dispersant chemicals.

August 9, 2021: Press Release

Court Orders EPA to Address Use of Oil Dispersants on Offshore Spills

August 9, 2021: Case Update

Judge grants plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and orders EPA to update it plan for offshore oil spills.

April 20, 2021: Case Update

Plaintiffs file a motion for summary judgment asking the court to compel EPA to update its 25-year-old plan for oil spill response.

June 26, 2020: In the News - Alaska Native News

Judge's ruling on EPA chemical dispersants lawsuit impacts Alaska

June 3, 2020: In the News - Times-Picayune/

'Game-changer' ruling could restrict chemical dispersants on next big oil spill

June 3, 2020: Press Release

Judge: EPA Must Update 26-Year-Old Plan for Offshore Oil Spills

June 2, 2020: Case Update

Judge denies government's motion to dismiss Clean Water Act claim, and denies American Petroleum Institute's motion to intervene.

January 30, 2020: In the News - Earther

EPA Is Getting Sued Over the Toxic Chemicals Used to Clean Up Oil Spills

January 30, 2020: In the News - Associated Press

Lawsuit: EPA Has Dragged Feet on Oil Spill Dispersant Rules

January 30, 2020: Case Update

Complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to compel EPA to issue rules restricting use of chemical agents such as Corexit to clean up oil spills.  

March 26, 2019: In the News - The Washington Post

Chemical that EPA allows to help clean up oil spills sickens people and fish, lawsuit claims

March 26, 2019: In the News - The Guardian

Thirty years after Exxon Valdez, the response to oil spills is still all wrong

March 25, 2019: Blog Post - Legal Planet

Coastal Communities Demand EPA Update Decades-Old Spill Regulations

March 25, 2019: In the News - Alaska Native News

Environmental Advocates Announce Lawsuit Over EPA's Dangerously Outdated Response Plan for Oil Spills

March 25, 2019: Case Update 

Notice of Intent to Sue sent to EPA for its failure under the Clean Water Act to update the National Contingency Plan with respect to the use of chemical dispersants during oil spill response actions.


ALERT Project

Legal Team

Claudia Polsky, Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic

Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity

Focus Area

Pollution and Toxics