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EPA should slow down on E15 and hurry up on oil dispersants

One day I’m emailing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to say it should slow down on any approvals for year-round sales of E15 that will be a disaster for millions of us (as I wrote recently.)

The next day I’m emailing EPA to demand that it speeds up issuing badly needed rules for oil-spill dispersant use in oil disasters. For four years the EPA has raised foot-dragging to a new art form on this issue. While it’s not as widely discussed as the E15 debacle, this issue has deep ramifications, too.

We can all recall that the issue of using oil dispersants goes back to Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, followed by the infamous BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that began April 20, 2010 and spewed oil for 5 months. It was the largest marine spill in our history, with 4.9 million barrels of crude gushed into the Gulf waters.

An enormous effort was made to protect shorelines and wetlands in 5 states from the relentless spread of oil. Skimmer ships, floating booms, and controlled burns couldn’t contain it. The damage to wildlife habitat and fishing was disastrous. As part of this effort, 1.84 million gallons of oil dispersants were poured into the Gulf. That brings us to now.

Oil dispersants are a mixture of emulsifiers and solvents designed to break oil into small droplets that become easier to disperse through the water column. To be clear, the use of dispersants is a trade-off between oil floating on the surface as opposed to exposing marine life to ingesting dispersed oil. It’s a double-edged sword — fish and mammals are subject to increased toxicity from both the dispersant and dispersed oil. So, while the dispersant may reduce the amount of oil that can land ashore, it triggers faster, deeper penetration.

It has been almost four years since EPA took public comments about dispersants rules, according to recent reports by Janet McConnaughey of Associated Press. Contending that families are fed from the ocean and a clean environment for such animals is necessary, groups in Alaska and Louisiana are preparing to meet EPA in court under the Clean Water Act.

A letter has been sent indicating that the groups will sue if action isn’t taken by EPA in 60 days.

The EPA’s oil-dispersant guidelines haven’t been updated since 1994 and don’t reflect research done on the effects of dispersants since the Valdez and BP disasters, says the letter telling EPA of the intent to file suit. Without directly referring to the Trump administration’s announced plans to open waters in Alaska, California, the Gulf and the east coast to more drilling (the plan is currently held up in court), it’s undoubtedly a factor in the decision to move on the dispersant issue now.

The public comment period on dispersants ended back in April 2015. When the overall history of offshore oil drilling and related spills is considered, not including the Valdez and Horizon disasters, there’s a well-founded belief that it’s simply a matter of time before another devastating oil spill will happen.

Recognizing the impact and promulgating rules for dispersants based on research conducted since those times is clearly in order. So, while EPA rushes to pander to the ethanol lobby on E15, I give a salute to those in Alaska and Louisiana who are saying enough is enough to the years in which EPA has failed to get things done regarding the impact of dispersants on our food stocks and environment.


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