A group of national, Louisiana and Alaska environmental and wildlife groups filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking the court to force the federal agency to come up with new rules to guide the use of dispersants during an oil spill.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on Monday, states that under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has failed to list information about when, how much and in what waters each of the dispersants can be used safely.
“They have an existing rule,” said Hannah Chang, associate attorney with Earthjustice which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the groups. “But the way the rule is, it violates the Clean Water Act.”
Specifically, the Clean Water Act requires that the EPA prepare a National Contingency Plan that includes a “product schedule” listing products that are allowed to be used in an oil spill response, according to the lawsuit.
However, the lawsuit alleges, EPA’s requirements of what it takes to be included on that list does not fulfill the requirements from the Clean Water Act. These requirements include identifying where dispersants can be used and how much can be used safely.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and will respond appropriately,” said David Bloomgren, EPA spokesman.
The lawsuit states that EPA has either listed or relisted 59 products on this product list for which the agency has not stated how much or where they can be used.
“Any manufacturer that submits certain information and does basic tests can get on the list,” Chang said.
During the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and the leak of almost five million barrels of oil, the response effort used 1.8 million gallons of dispersant, according to the lawsuit. Dispersants are used to break up oil slicks into smaller droplets with the intention being the oil will break down faster. However, there have been numerous concerns raised since April 2010 about the impact this effort might have on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.
“The effects of the dispersants are still coming out,” Chang said.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Shrimp Association, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inletkeeper and the Florida Wildlife Federation.
“The clients we’re representing here are groups in the Gulf (of Mexico) and Alaska where they’re going to be seeing offshore drilling soon,” Chang said.
A study published in PLOS ONE on July 31 presented findings that dispersants may, “negatively impact food chains for the smallest organisms, in particular phytoplankton, which could have significant implications for the rest of the ecosystem,” according to a news release from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. The research was led by Alice Ortmann, a marine scientist at the lab and with the University of South Alabama.
Jill Mastrototaro, senior regional representative with Sierra Club Delta Chapter, said the organization has collected petitions from Gulf Coast residents that show people are concerned. “That there are more questions than answers surrounding dispersants,” she said, adding that more studies on dispersants are needed.
“The dispersant issue translates to the rest of the country,” she said. “It’s not just about what happens in the Gulf Coast. It sets a precedent throughout the country.”