Oil dispersants

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Oil dispersants are chemicals designed to break up oil. They have been released into the ocean in large quantities following major oil spills, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the 1978 Amoco Cadiz spill off the coast of Normandy, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. However, dispersants are ineffective in cleaning up the spilled oil, only serving to effectively hide it from public view and TV cameras by dispersing it throughout the water column. Chemicals used as oil dispersants are frequently toxic and releasing them into the ocean adds to the toxic effect of the oil on the ocean ecosystem and makes the oil harder to clean up. According to Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist in Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division, "the concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own."[1]

Disperants in the 1978 Amoco Cadiz Spill

In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker released 227,000 tons of oil three miles off the coast of Normandy, France. Some areas were treated with dispersants, whereas other areas were not. Five years after the spill, the areas not treated with dispersants had recovered. However, the areas treated with dispersants had not recovered 30 years later, according to ecological studies.[2]

Dispersants in the 1989 Exxon Valdez Spill

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska, impacting 1300 miles of coastline. Dispersants, rich in phosphorous and nitrogen compounds, and fertilizers were released as part of the clean-up effort. The treated areas were "dramatically cleaner" after the first year, but following the second year, scientists observed no improvements and have "grim" hopes for the long-term prospects of the treated area.[3] Microbial ecologist Terry Hazan believes that the nutrients added to the environment, which was naturally low in nutrients, sped up the degradation of oil but also "upset the ecological balance of the system." He predicts, "the severe environmental damage resulting from the spill is expected to persist for decades to come."[4]

Dispersants in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Spill

In 2010, a blowout at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico caused a massive oil spill that gushed from April until August. BP, the company responsible for the spill, emptied millions of gallons of the dispersants Corexit 9527A and Corexit 9500 into the Gulf. BP claims it used 1.8 million gallons of dispersants, a number that is under question and may not be the actual amount actually released.[5]

BP Refuses to Use Less Toxic Dispersants

On May 20, 2010, the U.S. EPA called on BP to use less toxic dispersants instead of Corexit 9500 in its "May 19th Directive". They gave BP "24 hours to find one or more products that are available in sufficient quantities, and are as effective and less toxic." Then, they gave BP 72 hours after submitting their list of products to EPA and receiving approval to begin using the new dispersants and to stop using Corexit.[6] BP responded that Corexit was their best option and refused to stop using it.[7]

U.S. Government Cover-Up of Toxicity of Dispersants

The Coast Guard and others frequently referred to the dispersants as "approved," implying their safety. However, the so-called list of approved chemicals, the EPA's National Contingency Plan Product Schedule was treated by the Coast Guard and others as an "approved" list, was no such thing. It was more or less simply a list of available dispersants on the market. First, a manufacturer would nominate itself and provide data to indicate that its product(s) are effective. Although the manufacturers also had to vouch for the safety of their products, there was no threshold of toxicity that would disqualify a product from inclusion in the EPA's list.[8]

White House energy adviser Carol Browner famously compared oil dispersants to using dish soap to clean oily pans in the sink.[9]

The EPA defended BP's release of dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon spill, insisting that the mixture of oil and dispersants are no more toxic to two marine species tested than oil alone. Also, they maintain that Corexit is "generally no more or less toxic" than other available dispersants.[10] In a letter to the EPA, Rep. Jerrold Nadler challenged their statements, asking about a Swedish study, that used EPA's data but found that "a mixture of oil and dispersant give rise to a more toxic effect on aquatic organisms than oil and dispersants do alone."[11] For more information, see the article U.S. Government Cover-Up of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

August 4, 2010 Senate Hearing on Dispersants

In an August 4 hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned the effectiveness and toxicity of the dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon spill.[12] Some Senators characterized the dispersants as a perhaps toxic (but government approved) method of saving the shoreline, whereas others expressed sentiments that the dispersants made an already toxic situation even worse. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) spoke of his bill, the Safe Dispersants Act, which would "require long-term testing and disclosure of all ingredients in a dispersant before it can be used in response to a spill."[13] See more in the article on the August 4, 2010 Senate Hearing on Oil Dispersants.

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. "Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up, Bioremediation Expert Says"], Science Daily, May 4, 2010.
  2. "Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up, Bioremediation Expert Says"], Science Daily, May 4, 2010.
  3. "Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up, Bioremediation Expert Says"], Science Daily, May 4, 2010.
  4. "Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up, Bioremediation Expert Says"], Science Daily, May 4, 2010.
  5. Mark Sappenfield, "New Gulf oil spill mystery: How much dispersant did BP use?", Christian Science Monitor, August 1, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010
  6. "A Toxic Debate: BP Rejects EPA Directive to Stop Using Corexit", Food and Water Watch, June 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010.
  7. Douglas J. Sutiles, "BPs May 20 Response to Dispersant Directive", BP, May 20, 2010.
  8. Jonathan Tilove, "EPA official defends role of dispersants in Gulf of Mexico oil spill response",, August 4, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010.
  9. Kate Shepherd and David Corn, "Hey EPA: How Are Those Dispersant Tests Going?", Mother Jones, June 23, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010.
  10. Ben Gemen, "House Dem questions EPA dispersant defense", The Hill, August 6, 2010.
  11. Ben Gemen, "House Dem questions EPA dispersant defense", The Hill, August 6, 2010.
  12. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, Use of Dispersants in Gulf Oil Spill, Government Panel, C-Span, August 4, 2010
  13. Andrew Restuccia, "Lautenberg Bill Will Require Chemical Dispersant Testing", The Washington Independent, July 27, 2010, Accessed August 7, 2010

External resources

External articles