Toxic Chemical Plagues Cleanup Crews Five Years after BP Oil Spill Disaster
by Amanda Starbuck, 4/20/2015
Five years ago, an offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The BP oil spill fouled the Gulf with over 172 million gallons of crude oil. The aftermath of the spill is still visible on certain coastlines, and a toxic chemical that BP used to "clean up" the oil is still injuring people and wildlife in the region.
To push the oil out of sight, BP used a highly toxic “dispersant” that makes the oil sink to the ocean floor, poisoning reefs and marine life
Rather than waiting for the oil to rise to the surface and removing it with specialized equipment, BP flooded the Gulf with dispersants, chemicals that break up oil droplets and cause them to disperse or sink to the seafloor. While this makes the water appear to be oil free, in reality, it poisons coral reefs and other marine life.
A chemical known as Corexit was the main dispersant used during the BP oil spill cleanup. It is 50 times more toxic than oil itself and contains several cancer-causing substances. Sweden and the United Kingdom (where BP is based) have banned Corexit.
Yet BP assured its cleanup crews that Corexit was safe. And Nalco – the company that manufactures Corexit – boasts that the product is "25 times as safe as common dishwashing liquid." BP actively discouraged workers from wearing respirators because it would send a negative public relations message and undermine its safety claims. Some workers who tried to wear masks anyway were harassed, and BP even threatened to fire them.
The toxic soup that BP cooked up in the Gulf is still making workers sick.
Not surprisingly, cleanup crews began complaining about health problems during their shifts, ranging from nausea and vomiting to dizziness and chest pains. The Government Accountability Project collected stories from BP cleanup crews, and blood tests confirmed that the majority of these whistleblowers had highly elevated levels of toxins in their blood. Those toxic substances were related to Corexit and oil and included many cancer-causing chemicals.
In response to these harms, workers filed a class-action lawsuit against BP for damages associated with Corexit; over 12,000 claims were included. To date, over 700 people have been compensated.
But some may never see justice. It’s challenging to show that a victim’s short-term symptoms were caused by a specific chemical exposure, and it’s nearly impossible to make the case for long-term damages. Cancer, kidney damage, and other health effects are associated with Corexit, but these problems usually develop a long time after exposure, making it difficult to prove a connection in court.
The oil and chemical industries want to keep using toxic Corexit and putting people at risk.
Thanks to our watered down national chemical oversight law, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, companies are not required to conduct long-term evaluations of the environmental or health effects of chemicals used in dispersants. which allows tens of thousands of untested chemicals to remain on the market.
This means that restrictions almost always come after a chemical is already in use. In May 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directed BP to switch to less-toxic dispersants. But the company claimed it could not find any suitable alternatives and said it was allowed to continue using Corexit. BP appears determined to keep using Corexit until it is formally banned from doing so.
EPA has proposed rules that would strengthen standards for dispersants used in oil spill cleanups. This would allow the agency to “delist” certain dispersants that are highly toxic and require companies to find alternatives. EPA has already received hundreds of comments on the rules, including industry opposition to any restrictions.
EPA can and must overcome industry pressure and ban toxic oil spill cleanup chemicals.
The BP oil spill was the second largest in history. The surface sheen covered up to 28,000 square miles of water (approximately the size of South Carolina). Marine and coastal wildlife still struggle to recover. The spill also devastated fishing industries and accelerated land loss across fragile coastlines.
The spill continues to undermine the health of former cleanup crews. If the EPA fails to ban the use of Corexit and other highly toxic dispersants, communities in the Gulf Coast and beyond will be affected when new spills occur. And if the oil industry succeeds in expanding offshore drilling operations, the need for a ban will become more urgent.
TAKE ACTION: You can submit comments on EPA’s rules before the comment period closes this Wednesday, April 22 (Earth Day). The Gulf-based ALERT Project has sample language that you can use and a tool to submit your comments electronically.
Photo by Flickr user John Amos, used under a Creative Commons license.