Controversial Chemical Used in Oil Spills, Banned in Many Countries, Can Be Used in Narragansett Bay

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

A chemical dispersant that is linked to making thousands of members of the Coast Guard as well as clean-up workers sick in the Gulf oil spill of 2010 is authorized to be used in Narragansett Bay.

The chemical dispersant called COREXIT is banned in nearly two dozen countries including the United Kingdom and Sweden.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest U.S. oil spill and second-largest overall oil spill in world history. COREXIT 9500 and 9527’s became a global controversy during the BP oil spill and cleanup in the Gulf Coast in 2010.

“The nearly 2,000 Coast Guard members who reported exposure to oil dispersants suffered a range of illnesses — lung irritation, skin rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — at higher rates than members who were not exposed to the chemicals or were exposed to oil alone, according to research by the Uniformed Services University, a Maryland health sciences and medical school run by the federal government,” reported in 2018.

“With increased levels of exposure there was a higher prevalence of reporting cough and shortness of breath, and more reporting of wheeze than non-exposed people,” said Jennifer Rusiecki, a USU researcher involved in two recent studies on the health of Coast Guard personnel who responded to the disaster.

Authorized for Use in Rhode Island

Both Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management officials and the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed to GoLocal that COREXIT is authorized for use in Rhode Island waters.

“These kinds of dispersants are typically used for large-scale oil spills and before use would require approval by DEM, the US Coast Guard, and/or USEPA. Here’s how the specific RI reg (Oil Pollution Control Regulations Section 2.12D) reads: “No chemical agents, dispersants, surface collecting agents, biological additives, burning agents, or sinking agents shall be used without prior consent of the Office of Emergency Response,” said RIDEM spokesman Michael Healey.

And the Coast Guard confirms the authorization.

“In response to your question, ‘is the petroleum dispersant CoRexit 9527 and 9500 still allowed for usage in a spill response?”, The answer is yes, dispersants COREXIT 9500 and COREXIT 9527 are currently on the NCP Product Schedule (Subpart J) and are approved for use,’” wrote Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Wyrick of the Coast Guard 1st District for External Affairs in an email to GoLocal.

COREXIT was developed after Rhode Island’s two major spills — one in 1989 and in 1996. If a spill of those sizes took place today, COREXIT is authorized to be used.

The dispersant is applied through air drops or injection into the contaminated waterbody.

U.S. EPA staff had repeatedly made recommendations to discontinue the use of COREXIT according to a federal lawsuit, but neither the Obama nor the Trump administration took action.

Rhode Island Oil Spills – If Today, COREXIT Would Likely Be Used

In 1989 and 1996 Rhode Island waters suffered two significant oil spills.

First, on June 23, 1989, the M/V World Prodigy oil tanker ran aground on Brenton Reef, off Newport, pouring 290,000 gallons of home heating oil into the water that encompasses a 123-square mile area of Narragansett Bay. The spill closed the bay and impacted wildlife, shellfish and lobster beds.

The pollutant was a lighter oil and as the temperatures were high and the oil stayed primarily on the surface much of the pollutant burned off over the weekend.

Hundreds of RIDEM workers and contractors worked for weeks in the emergency response and the ongoing cleanup.

“The tanker World Prodigy, which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into Narragansett Bay in June 1989, was not under the control of any of her officers for several minutes before she ran aground, the National Transportation Safety Board said today. In a report on the accident, the safety board blamed the ship’s captain, Iakovos Georgudis, for the spill, saying he was so tired after nearly a day and a half without rest that he allowed himself to get distracted with paperwork while the vessel passed on the wrong side of a buoy and onto a reef several hundred feet off Rhode Island,” wrote the New York Times in 1990 followup on the review of the spill. “The captain and the Greek concern, the Ballard Shipping Company, pleaded guilty in August 1989 to Federal charges of causing the spill, a misdemeanor, and agreed to pay fines of $510,000. Although many details of how the accident occurred have been known for a year, today’s report is the first official and comprehensive explanation.”

On January 19, 1996, the tank barge, North Cape, and the tugboat, Scandia, grounded off Moonstone Beach in southwestern Rhode Island, spilling an estimated 828,000 gallons of home heating oil. This spill was the worst in Rhode Island history.  Oil spread throughout Narragansett Bay and spread to Block Island Sound and beyond, including shoreline of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, the spill killed massive numbers of marine animals including 9 million lobster, 150 million surf clam, 4.2 million fish, and over one million pounds of other organisms such as worms, crabs, and mussels.

A 250-square mile area of Block Island Sound was closed to fishing and shellfishing for an extended period following the spill, and 3,300 lost commercial charter-boat trips resulted. In the coastal salt ponds, one-half million fish, 6.5 million marine worms, amphipods, and more than one million crabs, shrimp, clams, and oyster were killed by the spill.

Additionally, 2,100 marine birds, including 402 loons, died as a result of oiling.

COREXIT’s Long-Term Health Impacts on Clean Up Teams

For ten years, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has tracked the impact of the Gulf spill on the workers.

In one of GAP’s initial reports, “Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the New Norm for Oil Spill CleanUps?,” it concluded: [C]leanup efforts were more destructive to human health and the environment than the spill itself. British Petroleum (BP) and the federal government intend for their joint response to be the precedent for a new cleanup standard operating procedure (SOP), centered on the widespread use of the chemical dispersant COREXIT. When this product is mixed with oil, a deadly synergy occurs that scientists have estimated is over 50 times more toxic than oil alone. The only so-called advantage of COREXIT is the false impression that the oil disappears – in reality, the more toxic chemical mixture spreads throughout the environment, or settles on the seafloor.”

A 2020 GAP report recapped a Coast Guard study. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Coast Guard Cohort Study: A Cross-Sectional Study of Acute Respiratory Health Symptoms, found USCG personnel exposed to dispersants and oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster response and clean-up experienced acute respiratory symptoms at higher rates than USCG personnel exposed only to oil. In a related article, USCG Director of Health and Safety Rear Admiral Erica Schwartz acknowledged that USCG personnel were “terrified of the concept of dispersants” during the response. Those fears, though well-founded, are in stark contrast with the USCG and federal government’s official position on the safety of COREXIT.

Legal Action

In January of 2020, the University of California-Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to issue rules restricting use of chemical agents such as COREXIT to clean up oil spills.

The lawsuit asserts, “Instead of mitigating environmental harm, these chemical dispersants have proven to be more toxic to humans and the environment than oil alone. According to the lawsuit, “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Inspector General, Report: Revisions Needed to National Contingency Plan [NCP] Based on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Aug. 2011). 113. On November 14, 2012, Plaintiff ALERT, along with Plaintiffs Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and Kindra Arnesen, petitioned EPA to amend the NCP regulations.”

The suit goes on the claim, “The petition’s principal concern was that the 1994 NCP and its chemical testing procedures allowed for the massive release of Corexit into U.S. waters in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, harming human and marine life. The petition highlighted the documented harms of dispersants to human health and sea life dating back to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The petition noted that the combination of dispersants and oil is more harmful to life than oil alone, and that dispersants kill beneficial oil-eating bacteria. The petition implored EPA to issue a final rule that discontinues use of harmful chemical dispersants, that has more protective testing standards, and that has a protocol for the public to petition for delisting of products and removal from the Product Schedule.”

The rule-making change to ban COREXIT continued to meander through the process until 2017, but then was eliminated by the Trump administration.

Victims’ groups, whistleblowers and environmental groups are expected to pressure President Joseph Biden’s administration to move forward with the change to ban COREXIT. There has been no effort by Rhode Island legislators to take action and RIDEM continues to follow the federal model.