June 5, 2020 

EPA Obliged to Update Oil-Spill Contingency Plan 

On June 2, San Francisco Federal District Court ordered an end to federal inaction on dangerous dispersants used to “clean up” offshore oil spills.  The court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) halegal obligation  to update its National Contingency Plan (NCP) for oil-spill cleanup. Environmentalists and whistleblowers have won the first major legal battle in the effort to protect citizens and the environment from chemical reactions from dispersants that are far worse than the original oil spills.   

The lawsuit,  Earth Island Institute, et al., v. Andrew R. Wheeler, et al., was filed in January2020 by the University of California-Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBDon behalf of CBD, Earth Island, and several other individuals and environmental groups. Kindra Arnesen, one of the named individual plaintiffsis a witness to the disastrous cleanup efforts following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion who has provided statements for three Government Accountability Project investigative reports on dispersant use in the Gulf of Mexico. 

In his ruling, Judge William Orrick not only denied EPA’s request to dismiss the case, but he also found that EPA has a nondiscretionary duty to update the NCP. He also refused to allow the fossil fuel industry – through the American Petroleum Institute (API) trade association – to intervene in the case.He noted that API has no say in the procedural aspects of the rulemaking, but will be able to have its say – along with any other interested parties – during the period for public comment that would proceed the obligatory rulemaking to update the NCP. 

While neither the ruling nor the Clean Water Act – the statutory basis for the lawsuit and source of the NCP  specifies a timeframe for updating the plan, it has been 26 years since its previous update, and spills such as Deepwater Horizon underscore the urgency for modern safeguards. In response to Deepwater Horizon, the Obama administration proposed but did not finalize environmental protection regulations for dispersants. That initiative has stalled during the Trump administration despite its plans to increase offshore drilling.  

The recent 10-year memorial of the Deepwater Horizon disaster makes the suit particularly timely. Government Accountability Project recently shared its 10-year report on continuing or worse medical impacts with plaintiffs in the case. .  The report serves as  a stark warning of the challenge ahead and the necessity to meet it with a record as base for the substantive work to comecreating a National Contingency Plan that effectively cleans up oil spills with minimal acute or long-term impacts to human health and the environment.  

In response to the ruling, Government Accountability Project’s Tom Devine stated: 

While Deepwater Horizon is becoming a hazy memory, the gruesome nightmare for those exposed to phony dispersants like Corexit is forever. Federal action is essential so public health nightmares do not become routine whenever an oil company’s response to new spills is to cover up rather than clean up.  

Government Accountability Project’s Environmental Counsel Adam Arnold said: 

This dual ruling both affirms the need to update a dangerously outdated plan and asserts that industry is at least legally prohibited from interfering with the procedure of keeping the NCP up to date. The rulemaking process will be crucial, though, because the industry may have significant impact on the substance of the needed update, potentially rendering a new NCP more dangerous than the existing one – especially if reliance on harmful dispersants is allowed to continue, safety protocols are not improved, and strict adherence to those protocols is not mandated. 

Contact: Andrew Harman  

Phone: (202) 457-0034 ext. 156  

Government Accountability Project  

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.