Political Flavors

Wonkery on the EPA and Dispersants

Posted in Editorials on April 25th, 2013

On Monday, the Daily Beast published an article titled, “What BP Doesn’t Want You To Know About the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill” an expose that was in part about the toxic effects of Corexit, a dispersant manufactured by Nalco and used by BP in the Gulf of Mexico to clean up the oil spill.

It appears that people who were exposed to Corexit are now suffering severe health problems, including headaches, fatigue, muscle spasm, short term memory loss, bloody coughing fits, and painful nerve damage. BP was allowed to use Corexit, but they did not follow the safety instructions for use as outlined by the manufacturer, Nalco.

I was very curious as to how a dispersant like Corexit was approved in the first place, and to understand what it meant for the government to approve a dispersant with “confidential” ingredients.

In 1990, during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. One provision of the act was that companies must have a “plan to prevent spills that may occur” and have a “detailed containment and cleanup plan” for oil spills. This provision led to an update to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan which is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1994, the EPA finalized rules which, in part created the National Contingency Plan (NCP) product schedule.

EPA maintains the NCP Product Schedule, which lists the following types of products that are authorized for use on oil discharges:

-Surface washing agents
-Surface collecting agents
-Bioremediation agents
-Miscellaneous oil spill control agents

The full rules for the NCP are a part of the Code of Federal Regulations, and with regards to the process a manufacturer must undergo to have their dispersant listed in the NCP Product Schedule they state, in part:

300.915.a.10 Dispersing Agent Components.
Itemize by chemical name and percent-age by weight each component of the total formulation. The percentages will include maximum, minimum, and average weights in order to reflect quality control variations in manufacture or formulation. In addition to the chemical information provided in response to the first two sentences, identify the major components in at least the fol­lowing
agents, solvents, and additives.

Additionally, it is stated that,

The submitter may assert that certain information in the technical product data submissions… is confidential business information… Such information must be submitted separately from non-confidential infor­mation, clearly identified, and clearly marked ‘‘Confidential Business Infor­mation.’’ If the submitter fails to make such a claim at the time of submittal, EPA may make the information available to the public without further no­tice.

It appears that Corexit was initially one of the products submitted with the ingredients marked confidential. But a quick perusal of the database shows that most of the products in the NCP schedule have at least some of their ingredients listed as “CONFIDENTIAL.”

The special handling instructions and worker precautions for Corexit state:

Avoid eye contact. In case of eye contact, immediately flush eyes with large amounts of water for at least 15 minutes. Get prompt medical attention. Avoid contact with skin and clothing. In case of skin contact, immediately flush with large amounts of water, and soap if available. Remove contaminated clothing, including shoes, after flushing has begun. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. For open systems where contact is likely, wear long sleeve shirt, chemical resistant gloves, and chemical protective goggles.

But as the Daily Beast detailed, these instructions were ignored.

In response to public outrage after Corexit had already been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, the ingredients were released, and listed them on a Q&A page about dispersants designed to respond to Frequently Asked Questions about the Gulf Oil Spill.

The ingredients for Corexit 9500A and 9527A are still not listed in the NCP database. This is probably a bureaucratic oversight. But unless you knew about the special FAQ, you couldn’t find the full list ingredients of Corexit.

In response, EPA Chief Lisa Jackson and Senator Lautenberg supported the “Safe Dispersants Act” introduced in July 2010, which

would require better testing, approval, and disclosure of the health effects of dispersants used in response to an oil spill under the National Contingency Plan. It would also require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a study to determine whether additional regulations are needed. The legislation would achieve the following:

Require testing on a wide range of acute and long-term environmental and health effects of specific chemical dispersants before they could be added to an approved products list.

Ban the use of dispersants that cannot be proven better for the environment and health than natural or mechanical removal of oil.

Require the public disclosure of both chemical dispersant ingredients and ingredient concentrations.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and no further action has been taken. Perhaps it’s time for another letter writing Sunday?

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