WWF Says No to "Quick Fix" Dispersants

A U.S. Air Force Reserve plane sprays Corexit over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By The Maritime Executive 2015-08-04 23:44:16

WWF-Canada has sent a letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq in response to Environment Canada’s request for submissions on whether to add new products, such as the dispersant Corexit 9500A, to an approved list for use in oil spill clean-up operations.

WWF-Canada opposes the approval of Corexit 9500A as an oil spill-treating agent due to high levels of toxicity and its overall ineffectiveness at shielding shorelines, seabirds and marine mammals from oil spill damage.

Dispersants are products which are meant to break up massive slicks of oil into small droplets, making them easier to disperse throughout large volumes of water and speeding up the rate at which they biodegrade. Though some chemicals have been known to be effective in this manner, others have shown vast discrepancies in their success between lab tests and real-world applications.

Corexit EC9500A, produced by Nalco, mainly consists of hydro-treated light petroleum distillates, propylene glycol and a proprietary organic sulfonate.

Track Record

“Corexit 9500A does not have a reliable enough track record in the field to be listed as a spill-treating agent,” says WWF-Canada President and CEO David Miller. “In some cases—such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout—it was shown to disperse less than 10 per cent of the oil from the water’s surface, still leaving much of the oil to come into contact with shorelines, seabirds and mammals.”

Even worse: The product can add an extra layer of toxicity to an already disastrous situation, says Miller. “You can end up with a scenario where the cure is worse than the disease.”

A U.S. Temple University study released this year concluded that the dispersants used to remediate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were more toxic to cold-water corals at lower concentrations than the spilled oil.

Simple Fix

Another concern with adding products to the list of spill-treating agents is that it creates the impression that there is a simple fix when an environmentally ruinous blowout occurs, he says. 

Large oil companies often seek regulatory approval for their activities on the basis that they have a clean-up plan; that they can deploy dispersants to ‘treat’ such spills on a grand scale. However, evidence suggests that applying dispersants to oil spills is at best ineffective and at worst, an exacerbating factor, Miller says.

The Arctic

This false impression of a quick fix for oil spills is of great concern to WWF-Canada, as melting sea ice opens up the North to increased economic development, including oil and gas extraction in both the western Arctic in the Beaufort Sea, and the eastern Arctic in Baffin Bay. For the past several years, WWF-Canada has, along with Ecojustice, made several submissions to the National Energy Board demanding that the board not grant any exceptions to strict safety regulations of offshore drilling activities.

“There is only one effective way to treat an oil spill,” says Miller. “Prevent it from happening in the first place.”