A significant ruling came down recently in a lawsuit regarding the use of oil spill chemical dispersants that has an Alaska connection. In addition to its relevance to the oil industry in Alaska, several plaintiffs in the case are based in Alaska:
Alaska’s Cook Inletkeeper, whichhas spent the past 25 years holding the oil and gas industry accountable, plays an active role in the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Councils to help oversee industry activities.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics, an environmental justice organization, whose founder and executive director Pam Miller discovered long-term health harm among ExxonValdez spill response workers.
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 has more coastline than all the Lower 48 states combined, so we’re uniquely vulnerable to oil spills and the use of toxic dispersants. This is especially true now, as climate change opens new shipping routes in the Arctic and the Trump administration pushes more offshore oil development across the state. That’s why we need modern, up-to-date spill response tools that don’t rely on toxic dispersants so we can protect our coastal fisheries and the families and economies they support,” said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper.
“This ruling is an important step toward protecting the health of oil spill workers and our coastal communities from exposure to dangerous dispersant chemicals. Offshore oil and gas production is inherently harmful and should be stopped. In the meantime, it is critical to prevent the use of these highly hazardous dispersant chemicals that exacerbate the toxicity of oil spills,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
“All of our hunting, gathering, and harvesting would be impacted from any event where dispersants are used,” said plaintiff Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who has successfully advocated for over a dozen tribal resolutions opposing the use of dispersants in the spill response plans for the Arctic. “An oil spill would devastate my community’s food security,” she said.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in January, compels the Environmental Protection Agency to issue rules restricting the use of chemical agents, such as Corexit, to clean up oil spills. Instead of mitigating environmental harm, these chemical dispersants have proven to be more toxic to humans — and often to the environment — than the oil itself.
The lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of environmental-justice and conservation groups, including Earth Island Institute, the lead plaintiff, and its ALERT Project, as well as individuals who personally experienced Corexit’s toxic effects in the 1989 ExxonValdez tanker spill or the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a significant decision in the ongoing lawsuit, the judge ruled on June 2 that the Clean Water Act requires the EPA to keep the nation’s oil spill response plans current and effective and also denied a motion by the fossil-fuel industry’s motion to intervene. This is a “game-changer” as it relates to the nation’s oil-spill response plans, said Claudia Polsky, director of the UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic. “This is the first time a court has addressed whether EPA has a duty to keep the cleanup plans current and effective. The court said: yes.”