Big Oil Uses Toxic Chemicals to Clean Up Spills. Will the Feds Finally Make Them Stop?

Mother Jones

Oil and dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico, a month after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill began James Edward Bates/TNS/ZUMA

Five years ago this week, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst oil spill in US history. The images are unforgettable: The Gulf of Mexico on fire. Pelicans emerging from the water entirely covered in thick, black oil. Planes flying overhead, spraying more than a million gallons of an oil-dispersing chemical called Corexit in an attempt to control the spill.

Fast forward five years, and dispersants like Corexit are at the center of a growing political battle, as scientists and policymakers raise questions about their potential to harm the environment, wildlife, and human health. Right now in Washington, DC, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing new rules governing dispersant use—rules many experts worry won’t go nearly far enough to protect the public and natural resources. On Tuesday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), introduced legislation to temporarily ban dispersants until more tests are done to guarantee their safety.

Corexit is a go-to product for energy companies like BP when they’re dealing with massive spills. Dispersants don’t actually get rid of oil. But by breaking the oil up and submerging it in the water column, the chemicals make it easier for microbes to consume the oil. At least in theory. These days, some scientists are raising questions about how effective the 1.8 million gallons of Corexit dumped into the Gulf really was in achieving this. Dispersants have other benefits for oil companies, though. By moving oil out of sight, they quell public fears, facilitate PR, stabilize stock prices, and—potentially— help the polluters avoid stiff fines.

But all that Corexit may have done significant damage in the Gulf. One 2012 study found that in laboratory tests, mixtures of Corexit and oil were up to 52 times more toxic to microscopic animals known as rotifers than oil alone. Several leading scientists believe that the use of dispersants contributed to the environmental catastrophe that occurred throughout the Gulf, including the destruction of coral reefs. Studies have found that dispersants—as well as dispersant/oil mixtures—are more deadly to coral and coral larvae than oil by itself. A new report from the Government Accountability Project, a national whistleblower organization, describes the damage to Gulf coral as “arguably the most devastating and revealing of impacts documented in the five years since the BP spill.” This is particularly significant because coral reefs form a natural barrier against hurricanes and provide a habitat for thousands of marine species.

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Big Oil Uses Toxic Chemicals to Clean Up Spills. Will the Feds Finally Make Them Stop?

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