Oil Spill Dispersant Proposal Incorporates Lessons From Deepwater Accident, EPA Says

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By Anthony Adragna

Jan. 13 — The Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed updates to procedures for listing materials available to respond to oil spills to incorporate “lessons learned” from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The proposed revisions to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan would, according to the EPA:

• require manufacturers to include broader information on toxicity and effectiveness, ecological information and human health and safety impacts;

• implement revisions to the authorization process. Regional response teams and area committees would have to approve products for use in oil spills based on local conditions;

• mandate additional monitoring of products once applied;

• add up-front limitations or prohibitions on the use of certain materials;

• require information-sharing with first responders to ensure they have proper information to respond to spills;

• provide a “better balance” between proprietary confidential business information and public access to information on the products; and

• bring in the concept of green chemistry.

Agency Wants More Rigor in Evaluations 

“We want to bring in a broad rigor in terms of evaluation of these tools,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, told Bloomberg BNA. “We quickly realized [during the Deepwater Horizon spill] that the current rule was dated and didn't bring to bear the broadest examination of science.”

He added, “We now want to reflect those lessons learned into the rule.”

The proposed revisions, issued under 40 C.F.R. 300.900, will be open for public comment for 90 days after publication in the Federal Register, and the EPA doesn't have a time frame for finalizing its proposal, according to Stanislaus.

Costs from the regulation to industry are estimated at between $668,000 to $694,000 annually, while benefits are expected to include greater regulatory clarity and the use of fewer toxic products.

While regional response teams and area committees would have to approve the use of materials for local use in oil spills, Stanislaus said they would hopefully “pre-authorize” the materials ahead of any spill. If they didn't, local responders would have to evaluate the material “at that moment,” but he said that is a situation the EPA is “trying to avoid.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget cleared the revisions Dec. 18 after beginning its review of the proposed rule in July 2014.

Lessons Learned From Deepwater

Between 2.45 million and 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 spill. The well blowout that caused the spill also resulted in the deaths of 11 workers.

In responding to the accident, more than a million gallons of dispersants were deployed on surface slicks over a three-month period, and about 750,000 gallons of the dispersants were injected directly into the location of fracture.

“This use of dispersants raised many questions about efficacy, toxicity, environmental trade-offs, and monitoring challenges that EPA seeks to address through the proposed revisions to Subpart J,” the EPA said in its proposed rule. “The proposed amendments would help to ensure that only products that perform effectively in laboratory testing would be listed on the NCP Product Schedule (Schedule) for use in mitigating the effects of oil discharges in the environment.”

Wouldn't Ban Dispersant, Other Tools

Stanislaus said the proposed rule wouldn't explicitly ban any dispersant or other oil spill-mitigation tool because the agency wants “to make sure that all the necessary tools are made available.”

While the EPA is the lead federal agency in responding to inland oil spills, the U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency for any spills occurring in coastal waters and deepwater ports.

Environmental advocates have previously called on the EPA to mandate additional or expanded toxicity testing, clear toxicity criteria for safe use of chemicals and require full disclosure of chemical or dispersant ingredients prior to use in response to an oil spill.

Advocacy organizations welcomed what they described as a “long overdue” proposed rule and said they would review it carefully.

Waterkeeper Alliance Applauds Rule

“For fourteen years, waterfront communities who experience oil spills have waited for EPA to modernize the regulatory process to safely evaluate and manage the use of dispersants,” Marc Yaggi, executive director for Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement. “We are glad to see this proposed rule finally issued, and will closely evaluate its technical and legal merit to ensure it protects waterways, wildlife and water-dependent businesses.”

The American Petroleum Institute previously said the use of dispersants was an “essential tool” in many oil spill responses though the group also said the use of dispersants wasn't appropriate in all instances. That group wasn't immediately available for comment on the proposed rule.

Stanislaus said he believed there would be general agreement that all tools should be available in responding to oil spills, though he declined to predict how industry groups would receive the proposed rule.

Want to Improve Science for Fighting Spill

“We are seeking to bring to bear new science for the fighting of an oil spill, and I think everyone—be that the response community or those that are involved in the production field—want to be sure all the tools are available in this worst case scenario,” Stanislaus said. “I think there is going to be general agreement on that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The proposed revisions to Subpart J of the National Contingency Plan are available at http://1.usa.gov/1suT0MS.

A fact sheet on the proposed rule is available at http://1.usa.gov/14Wwhyy.