Warning of “Next Big One” Under Trump Administration’s Expanded Drilling Plans,
Advocates Seek Urgent EPA Action on the Toxic Dispersant Corexit
San Francisco, CA-March 25—The University of California-Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic today announced a lawsuit to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue rules on the use of chemical agents such as Corexit (NASDAQ: ECL) to clean up oil spills. Instead of mitigating environmental harm, Corexit dispersants have proven to be more toxic to humans and the environment than the oil alone.
In the first procedural step for such a lawsuit, the groups today filed a “Notice of Intent to Sue” on behalf of environmental justice and conservation groups and individuals who personally experienced the toxic effects of Corexit in the Exxon Valdez or BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills or who have actively worked to ban these products in their waters.
“The EPA’s failure to update its oil spill response plan since 1994 is inexcusable, unlawful and very dangerous,” said Purba Mukerjee, a supervising attorney at the UC-Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, whose students are part of the legal team in today’s action.
“The next major oil spill is a matter of when, not if,” said marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott, director of the Earth Island Institute’s A.L.E.R.T. project and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “When it comes to Corexit, the EPA has had the benefit of more than 25 years of scientific knowledge, advice from its own Inspector General, and extensive public input. Given the Trump administration’s plan to open up 90 percent of our U.S. coastal areas to oil and gas drilling, the need for action is critical.”
In addition to Dr. Ott, individual and organizational plaintiffs in the case are:
- The Earth Island Institute, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization headquartered in Berkeley and acting as fiscal sponsor of A.L.E.R.T.
- Kindra Arnesen, member of a commercial fishing family in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, who were sickened by BP’s oil and EPA’s authorized use of Corexit dispersants during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
- Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Iñupiat living in the now oil-industrialized zone of the North Slope in Alaska who has worked with Tribal Councils to pass resolutions banning dispersant use in Arctic waters where Alaskan Natives hunt and fish.
- Alaska’s Cook Inletkeeper, which responded to the Exxon Valdez spill and spent two decades serving on a citizen oversight council created under the Oil Pollution Act.
- Alaska Community Action on Toxics, whose founder and executive director Pam Miller found long-term health harm among Exxon Valdez spill response workers.
“The Beaufort Sea is wide-open for oil and gas lease sales this year. That’s our grocery store—that’s where we hunt and fish,” said plaintiff Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who successfully advocated for over a dozen tribal resolutions opposing the use of dispersants in the spill response plans for the Arctic. “My community lives in fear of an oil spill —and dumping of toxic dispersants in Arctic waters. The Iñupiat people depend on the animals of the land and the sea to live and thrive. The EPA’s failure to act is putting our lives, our land and our future at risk.”
Plaintiff Kindra Arnesen, a commercial fisherwoman in Louisiana, saw her life turned upside-down in the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Along with countless members of her community, she, her husband David and their two children were sickened with migraines, lesions, rashes, and respiratory problems that persist to this day. The damage to the Gulf waters also decimated their once-thriving family fishing business. “One reason the oil companies like Corexit is because it causes the oil to sink and makes the water look clear, when in fact it’s actually increasing the toxicity,” said Arnesen, who has become a leading community activist. “We need an oil response plan that’s a clean-up, not a cover-up.”
As explained in today’s filing, the use of dispersants like Corexit is an oil spill response method outlined in a set of federal regulations called the National Contingency Plan, which governs our nation’s oil and chemical pollution emergency responses. The Clean Water Act directs EPA to periodically review the Plan and update it to account for new information and new technology. But the EPA has not updated the plan since 1994, and that update did not even incorporate lessons learned from the long-term ecosystem studies following the Exxon Valdez disaster that occurred 30 years ago on March 24, 1989 — much less the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
In response to public pressure from Dr. Ott and other plaintiffs involved in today’s filing, the EPA finally initiated a rulemaking proceeding and invited public comment on the use of Corexit in oil spill response actions. By the time the rulemaking comment period closed in April 2015, the agency had received over 81,000 responses, the majority of which called for reducing use of oil-based chemical dispersants while decreasing their toxicity and increasing their efficacy. Since that time, the EPA has been silent on the issue.
The EPA’s failure to conclude the process to issue updated regulations, the groups say in today’s filing, not only violates the agency’s administrative obligations under the law, but also puts at risk the 133 million or so Americans who live near the coasts, making up 39 percent of the U.S. population, and the millions more who live near lakes, rivers, or along oil pipeline corridors and who are in harm’s way of the next ‘big one’.
As Claudia Polsky, Director of the Environmental Law Clinic, explains: “Use of toxic dispersants poses tragic, unnecessary, and too-often-invisible harms on top of the obvious harms caused by upscaling oil production on a warming planet.”
The Notice names Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the EPA, as well as Attorney General William P. Barr. The EPA has 60 days from the date of today’s Notice to update its oil spill response plans and address the problems with the use of dispersants. If it fails to do so, the groups will file a lawsuit in federal court.