Over 34 years after Exxon Valdez EPA finalizes new rules for oil spill clean-ups

Over 34 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and the hazardous waste cleanup that followed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a final rule requiring improved testing of the toxicity of dispersants used in such cleanup and remediation projects.

That final rule, published on Monday in the Federal Register, and effective on Dec. 11, came on the heels of a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Earth Island Institute and several other environmental entities. The entities were concerned over the long-term health and environmental impacts of the nation’s two largest maritime oil disasters, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which began on April 20, 2010.

The lawsuit resulted in the EPA being compelled by court order to update its regulations governing the use of chemical products in oil spill response, including what products may be used, waters where these products may be used, and quantities that can be used safely in specific locales.

For Riki Ott, who holds a master’s and doctorate in marine pollution, and was commercial fishing in Cordova at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill, it was a victory a long time coming.

“I spent 29 years on this; 36 if you count involvement before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We can all breathe a little easier with this,” Ott said. 

Ott is the director of Earth Island Institute’s ALERT Project, the lead plaintiff in the case.

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A marine toxicologist and first-hand witness to the long-term health and environmental impacts of the nation’s two largest maritime oil disasters, Ott documented the history of the Exxon Valdez spill, the people, wildlife and environment harmed in the book “Not One Drop,” and the cleanup and litigation that followed.

Many of the hundreds of people who worked on cleaning up after that spill suffered lingering health issues, as also noted by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Kim Murphy in a 2001 article in the Los Angeles Times. Those injuries ranged from traces of oil in their lungs and blood cells to chemical burns, headaches, nausea and respiratory problems that never went away, Murphy noted.

A ProPublica report in June of 2010 noted that cleanup workers in the Deepwater Horizon disaster also suffered illnesses, none of them recorded in a way that noted possible causes or chemical exposures.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) directs EPA to develop a National Contingency Plan, to include a schedule identifying what products may be used during an oil spill response, what waters they may be used in, and that quantities of these products may be used in specific locals. That plan was last revised in 1994, nearly 30 years ago, without benefit of long-term lessons learned from those two big oil spill disasters and associated response efforts.

The regulatory revisions, which will go into effect in December, include testing of the efficacy and toxicity of dispersants before they are listed on the National Contingency Plan’s product schedule as permissible for use in oil spill response, and public notification of when chemical and biological agents are deployed in emergency response situation.

They also call for significantly greater public disclosure of data relevant to dispersants’ chemical constituents, environmental fate, intended uses and health and safety effects by prohibiting manufacturers from withholding this as proprietary business information, and removal of products based on misleading inaccurate outdated or incorrect statements regarding product composition or use. While manufacturers of such substances do not have to provide formulas, they must identify all substance ingredients.

“Dispersants will now have to pass much more stringent testing protocols to be listed for use. And misinformation in any communication about dispersants is now grounds for product delisting under the new rules,” Ott said. “The new rules authorize state and regional planners to obtain the quality information they need to make informed decisions about whether dispersants can be used safely in any waters.”

“This final rule gives us access to the tools and information we need to protect the health and well-being of our waters, wildlife, and people from exposure to dispersants that make oil spills even more toxic,” said Pam Miller, executive director of plaintiff Alaska Community Action on Toxics in Anchorage.  “This final rule gives us access to the tools and information we need to protect the health and well-being of our waters, wildlife, and people from exposure to dispersants that make oil spills even more toxic. It increases transparency and accountability. It requires complete disclosure of allthe ingredients in a product. I can’t imagine why people would allow dispersants when they learn that some of the ingredients are carcinogens or teratogens that kill or deform developing embryos, including human babies.” More information can be found in the document filed by the EPA in the Federal Register, which is online at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/06/12/2023-11904/national-oil-and-hazardous-substances-pollution-contingency-plan-product-schedule-listing-and

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