Unfortunately, she was right. A month after the spill, Ott went to Louisiana, where she saw fishermen being evacuated from their boats with acute respiratory failure. She learned that Corexit — a line of chemical dispersants that have been found to be less effective and more toxic than others — was being applied aerially to the slick and pumped directly into the leak, a spill-management technique that had never been tried before. Such a large volume of Corexit was applied to the spill that, had it been petroleum, Ott said, it would have amounted to the sixth largest oil spill in US history.
Response workers and Gulf Coast residents were exposed to toxic oil chemicals and dispersants through their airways and skin, and emergency response workers were denied proper safety equipment to protect themselves. According to a 2015 Government Accountability Project report, Gulf Coast residents continue to suffer chronic health impacts, including respiratory illness and skin lesions. These ailments are so common that they are locally known as “BP Syndrome.”
“I saw the difference in the oil texture and different ways the oil was changing due to chemical dispersants that we used,” Jorey Danos, a lifelong Gulf Coast resident who helped with the Deepwater Horizon disaster response, told the Journal. “It was changing the water, and it was changing me. I broke out with hives, I broke out with bumps, headaches, fatigue, irritability.”
Corexit is toxic enough to be banned in nearly two dozen countries, but it is still widely used in the US during oil-spill responses. The safety data sheet for Corexit 9527A, one of the dispersants used after the BP spill, notes that it contains 2-Butoxyethanol, a toxin that “may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver” with “repeated or excessive exposure.”
To learn more about this Earth Island Project, go to alertproject.org
Despite the well-known risks, Corexit and other chemicals are listed — though not technically approved for use — on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s National Contingency Plan (NCP) Product Schedule, a list of products available for use on oil spills in the US.
Use of dispersants is “woven into our country’s oil dependency,” Ott said. Rather than developing oil spill prevention measures and response plans, the industry falls back on dispersants as the foundational contingency plan for dealing with oil spills, she added. And because use of dispersants is, in effect, authorized by the federal government by way of the NCP, which governs oil-spill disaster response, corporations are shielded from liability when people and the environment are impacted — placing the burden of harm on the public.
“It’s like a big externality on their bottom line. If industries were actually held accountable for making people sick,” Ott said, “they wouldn’t be doing this. It would be too risky.”
After decades of working with communities affected by exposure to oil pollutants and chemical dispersants, Ott founded the ALERT Project in 2014, to help concerned citizens develop local disaster response measures and push for policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels. In collaboration with frontline communities, ALERT has developed trainings and accessible scientific resources to help educate residents about the threat of oil-chemical exposure, identify ways to reduce exposure, and build individuals’ capacity to advocate for themselves when it comes to medical care.
This past April, on the eleventh memorial of the Deepwater Horizon spill, ALERT, along with other environmental groups, a Native Alaskan health aide, and a Gulf Coast commercial fisher, filed a motion for summary judgement in a lawsuit seeking to compel the US Environmental Protection Agency to update NCP regulations governing the use of toxic chemicals in oil-spill response. The hearing on the motion is scheduled for July. The suit follows a June 2020 ruling by a US District Court that the Clean Water Act imposes a legal duty on the EPA to update the NCP to reflect current science.
“Guess what?” Ott asked. “The new science shows dispersants do more harm than good.”