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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Catastrophe: After 7 Years, We’re Still Stuck with Toxic Corexit

Louis Clark, April 21, 2017

Exactly seven years ago last night, late into the evening, I remember first hearing of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. My immediate suspicion was that the disaster was far worse than the companies were reporting, there were probably whistleblowers and they were ignored. All assumptions based on bitter oil industry practices and incompetent federal government oversight proved true.

In addition to the deaths and horrific injuries, BP’s Macondo Well uncontrollably gushed oil for three months, spilling nearly 5 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil fouled thousands of miles of ocean floor and coastline, killed vast amounts of marine life, and devastated the regional economy. Meanwhile no one incurred personal, criminal or any other form of liability for actions taken or not taken.

Under the terms of a 2016 consent decree, BP is paying an unprecedented $20.7 billion settlement, the largest environmental settlement in history, to compensate victims and rectify the damage. But even this huge amount of money cannot undo the harm to human health caused by the accident, and it certainly hasn’t restored the environment to its state before the disaster.

The Government Accountability Project's ongoing investigation into the disaster has now attracted over 40 whistleblowers disclosing significant environmental and public health threats. GAP remains concerned that neither the government nor the oil industry has learned from the mistakes made during the response to the Macondo blowout. The nation is just as unprepared now as it has ever been for the next inevitable oil spill.

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill was managed through several methods, none of which was completely successful in mitigating the harm to the environment, beaches or marine life. Using booms (floating barriers) and other devices to skim the oil off the surface contained some of the spill. On-site burns, while somewhat effective in controlling the spill, caused significant pollution. The use of a chemical dispersant, called Corexit, was the most problematic practice used during the clean-up. This dispersant is popular in the oil industry because it quickly hides the oil from view. However, it did not remove the oil or render it harmless; in fact, one study showed the resulting chemical cocktail of oil and dispersant was over fifty times more toxic to small marine life than the oil on its own because it broke it down into more easily consumable parts.

Nearly 2-million gallons of Corexit were dumped onto spilled oil in the Gulf or injected into the leaking wellhead after the spill. Dispersants act similarly to dish soap – but are not as benign, despite BP’s frequent comparisons. Dispersants like Corexit contain chemicals that are harmful to human health and to sea life; the small droplets not only disperse more widely than the oil itself while being harder to see, but are also more easily ingested by organisms up and down the food chain, threatening entire ecosystems in the Gulf.

BP and the government made a tradeoff using Corexit. They believed it was more dangerous to allow oil to reach the shoreline and vulnerable estuaries than to use dispersants in the Gulf, to break up the oil to accelerate biodegradation. But the risks of using dispersants in such quantities and at such depths have never been fully analyzed. The harm to life on the sea floor, in the water column, and along the shoreline should be enough to halt future use under such conditions until the long-term impacts of the use of dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon aftermath can be adequately assessed.

Harm to sea life and the environment are just some of the many downsides to the unprecedented use of dispersants following the BP disaster. In Nalco’s application to the EPA for Corexit, they recommended using protective gear when applying the dispersant to avoid skin or eye contact, and seeking medical attention in case such an accident occurs. GAP has previously documented the harmful health effects of contact with Corexit to Gulf responders who cleaned the spill. Some of these impacts are severe, rendering victims incapable of carrying on their normal lives.

Seven years later, Corexit is still the go-to dispersant for major oil companies in case of another major offshore oil spill. GAP staff met with BP shortly after the 2010 blowout in the Gulf: they made it clear that unless the government changes the rules, they plan to use Corexit for any future spill.

In 2015, the EPA announced it would revise its rules governing the use of chemical dispersants like Corexit after oil spills, based on lessons learned after the Deepwater Horizon spill. The new rules would require dispersant manufacturers to provide more information on the toxicity and efficacy of dispersants along with their potential impacts on human health, which we support. But the new rules were never finalized under the Obama administration. Under the new administration, which has uniformly expressed disdain for environmental protection generally and the EPA in particular, it is difficult to imagine positive action on this rule-making before the next oil spill disaster. And given the new policy directives to accelerate domestic oil extraction, future spills are inevitable.

We all now know that when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs offshore, it will be far worse than originally reported, and Corexit will only exacerbate the problem. There have already been over forty whistleblowers who alerted the public to the dangers of this chemical. The question is, will we heed their warnings in the future, or be doomed to repeat this costly mistake from our past?