Citing lessons learned during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed sweeping changes in regulations for the use of chemical dispersants and other substances in future spills.
The 247-page proposed rule includes more stringent standards for toxicity. It also would mandate that the inclusion of the chemicals in regional spill response plans, and the way they are used, be reviewed every five years. The rule would ban the use of dispersants in freshwater.
“Our emergency officials need the best available science and safety information to make informed spill response decisions when evaluating the use of specific products on oil discharges,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, in a news release announcing the proposed rule.
“These requirements are anticipated to encourage the development of safer and more effective spill mitigating products, and would better target the use of these products to reduce the risks to human health and the environment,” said a summary statement included with the proposed rule.
The new rule was praised by Christopher Reddy, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher who tracked oil and dispersants from the BP well in the aftermath of the 2010 spill. In December, Reddy and another scientist co-authored an opinion piece for CNN that urged the public not to dismiss the use of dispersants in future spills.
“These are entirely reasonable recommendations that ideally will
provide decision-makers more content when faced with the reality of
using dispersants and other agents,” Reddy said Tuesday.
“I also hope that these efforts will help limit the concerns of people
who fear using them,” he said. “Ultimately, we should continue to strive to stop
spills and reduce damages when they occur. And when dispersants are
needed, we can increase the net environmental benefit of their usage.”
The rule is aimed at assuring that those overseeing oil spill responses — the on-scene coordinators, regional response teams of federal and state environmental officials, and the companies responsible for the spills — have a list of preauthorized dispersants, oil absorbing materials, biological agents that promote oil degradation, and chemicals that help promote burning of the oil at the beginning of such an incident.
In the case of the BP oil spill, officials were limited in the choice of chemicals to a handful that already were on hand and were recommended for use by BP and its contractors.
According to the rule summary, more than 1 million gallons of dispersant chemicals were used on surface slicks over thousands of miles of the Gulf during the 3-month uncontrolled release of oil from the well.
The new rule also addresses the unprecedented injection of close to 750,000 gallons of dispersants directly into the stream of oil leaving BP’s Macondo well a mile below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface by requiring comprehensive monitoring in the future if that method is repeated.
BP used Corexit 9500A, which contains the potentially toxic chemical dioxtyl sodium sulfosuccinate, or DOSS. Measurable amounts of Corexit and DOSS were found near the well for longer than two months after the well was capped in 2010. An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for information on whether the new rule would prohibit the use of the Corexit product or of products containing DOSS.
The summary warns that dispersing oil below the surface increases the potential exposure of aquatic organisms to both dispersants and oil, requiring new monitoring conditions that can be conducted in deep water, and even in colder, Arctic waters.
Monitoring of subsurface use of dispersants would be required for oil discharges of more than 100,000 gallons in a 24-hour period, and when surface use of dispersants occurs for more than 96 hours.
Monitoring would include sampling of the water column in areas not yet affected by the spill immediately after the incident and then daily sampling in areas where the oil might be flowing as the incident continues.
The monitoring program also would include characterization of the “ecological receptors” — the aquatic species, wildlife, or other biological resources — their habitats, and exposure pathways.
The rule also would require the company responsible for the spill to immediately report whenever the use of subsurface dispersant is deviated by more than 10 percent in the hourly application rate, warning that such deviations could “confound sampling interpretations.”
Manufacturers of the dispersants and other spill-fighting materials would be required to produce more detailed information about how their products are applied, as well as ecological toxicity data and human health and safety information, including detailed instructions on how the product should be used.
EPA estimates the new rule would cost industry between $668,000 and $694,000 a year, but would result in a better understanding of how the products will be allowed to use and the development of less toxic products..
Dispersants are a mixture of solvents and surfactants that break down oil into tiny droplets that are more quickly degraded into less harmful substances. Portions of the droplets dissolve and mix with water, and some of the droplets are eaten by microorganisms.
The new rule would require that regional and local preauthorization plans for use of dispersants must specify limits on the quantities and duration of use, and must contain parameters about where they can be used, including water depth, distance to shoreline, and how close they will be to populated areas.
“The agency believes that clearly stating the use parameters in a preauthorization plan will make it easier for planners to address concerns of preauthorizing agent use and in turn for responders to authorize their use,” the summary said.
And those officials will be required to address regional factors in their plans, the summary said.
“Regional factors include the likely sources and types of oil that might be discharged, various discharge scenarios, and the existence and location of environmentally sensitive resources or restricted areas that might be impacted by discharged oil,” it said. “Logistical factors include inventory, storage locations and manufacturing capability of available agents, availability of equipment needed for agent use, availability of adequately trained operators, and the availability of appropriate means to monitor agent use.”
The rule defines environmentally sensitive resources to include fish, wildlife and their habitats and other special areas of ecological sensitivity. Restricted areas could include biologically sensitive features such as coral reefs and submerged rock formations colonized by a species.
And while all members of a regional response team, including state and local officials, will be invited to review draft preauthorization plans, only response team members from EPA, the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce, which includes the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the affected state will have approval authority.
In addition to mandated 5-year reviews of those plans, the plans must also be reviewed after a major spill, to reflect new listings of threatened or endangered species, or for other major changes such as new or revised worst-case discharge estimates for potential spills, the summary said.
The rule allows on-scene coordinators to make an emergency decision authorizing the use of materials not on the official schedule under limited circumstances when protection of human life is paramount. The proposal used the case of a spill of a highly flammable petroleum product in a harbor or near an inhabited area as an example.
Among materials prohibited from use are so-called “sinking agents,” chemicals or other materials that bond with oil and make it sink to the water bottom.
The proposed rule also prohibits two chemicals that had been used in some dispersants in the past, called nonylphenol and nonlylphenol ethoxylate. The two chemicals, often found in laundry detergent, are considered endocrine disruptors because they alter hormonal and homeostatic systems in humans and wildlife. The hormonal effects could include causing fish to change genders or disrupting their reproduction, and the homeostatic effects could include an inability to maintain proper internal body temperatures.
The summary said other chemicals that cause endocrine disruption were not being banned, but said such bans could occur in the future, once a national EPA of such chemicals is completed.
Chemical constituents of the dispersants and other materials also must pass more stringent laboratory tests for acute toxicity, generally requiring that 10 parts per million of the chemical in water can’t kill more than 50 percent of certain test organisms.
For chronic toxicity, the chemicals must meet a “No Observed Effect Concentration” requirement of 1 part per million in water during a seven-day period resulting in no problems for the test organisms.
EPA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule for 90 days after the it is published in the Federal Register, which should occur later this week.