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SAN FRANCISCO, California -- Conservation groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard today for authorizing toxic oil dispersants without ensuring that these chemicals would not harm endangered species or their habitats. The groups want the EPA to immediately study the effects of dispersants on endangered and threatened species in all U.S. waters, including threatened and endangered whales, sea turtles, salmon and seabirds in the Pacific and polar bears and walruses in the Arctic.
"If chemical dispersants are going to be used after an oil spill, we have to know whether they'll hurt or kill whales, sea turtles and other wildlife. So far, the EPA has no idea," said Deirdre McDonnell of the Center for Biological Diversity, which brought suit with Surfrider and Pacific Environment. "Unprecedented amounts of dispersants were dumped into the sea during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and they're likely still affecting the Gulf of Mexico, where dead dolphins continue to wash ashore."
Dispersants are chemicals used to break oil spills into tiny droplets. In theory, this allows the oil to be eaten by microorganisms and become diluted faster than it would if left untreated. However, dispersants and dispersed oil can also allow toxins to accumulate in the marine food web.
Once put on an official EPA list, chemical dispersants can immediately be used in oil-spill responses in any U.S. waters, including the Atlantic, Pacific or Arctic oceans. But the EPA has not taken steps to ensure that the use of these chemicals will not jeopardize endangered wildlife. The EPA should determine the safety of a dispersant before it goes on the list, not afterward as it did in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
More than 2 million gallons were used in the Deepwater Horizon response. Yet the effects of using such large quantities of dispersants and injecting them into very deep water, as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, have never been studied; scientists believe it may be linked to the spread of underwater plumes of oil.
The groups are also asking the government to apply lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to oil-response plans for the California coast, where dispersants have been preapproved for vast areas of the Pacific. They want the agencies to reexamine a regional response plan to determine whether these toxins would harm endangered wildlife.
"The Pacific Ocean encompasses some of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world, providing habitat for many endangered and threatened species. In the Arctic, dispersants would not only affect these animals, but the indigenous peoples who have subsisted on marine resources for centuries," said Colleen Keane, Alaska program associate for Pacific Environment. "The EPA needs to take the precautionary approach in order to prevent future harm to the health of the environment and people."
The Center, Pacific Environment and Surfrider filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit seeks to force the EPA and Coast Guard to comply with the Endangered Species Act and examine the impacts of these toxins on endangered wildlife and consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"These chemical dispersants are dangerous to human health in addition to wildlife, and shouldn't be allowed to threaten a family's enjoyment of the beach. Surfrider members in Florida are so concerned about the aftereffects of the BP spill, they have taken it upon themselves to test the Gulf sand and coastal waters, and have found likely traces of Corexit attached to undissolved tar product in the coastal zone," said Surfrider Foundation's Legal Director Angela Howe.
"From Santa Barbara to the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon, we've seen the destruction that oil spills leave in their wake," said McDonnell. "We shouldn't add insult to injury by using dispersants that could have long-term effects on species already fighting for survival."
Studies have found that oil broken apart by the dispersant Corexit 9527 damages the insulating properties of seabird feathers more than untreated oil, making the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death. Studies have also found that dispersed oil is toxic to fish eggs, larvae and adults, as well as to corals, and can harm sea turtles' ability to breathe and digest food. Formulations of the dispersants being used by BP, Corexit 9500 and 9527, have been banned in the United Kingdom due to concerns over their impacts on the marine environment.