Legal, Water Quality, Oil Spill
September 22 2011

Surfrider Foundation Jointly Sues EPA for Lack of Study on Oil Dispersants

by Angela Howe

Today, Surfrider Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment jointly filed an official Notice of Intent to Sue against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") for allowing the use of toxic oil dispersants without ensuring that these chemicals would not harm our coastal environment and coastal users.

 The 60-day notice letter enumerates violations of the Endangered Species Act related to the approval of using chemical dispersants in U.S. waters.


Oil Dispersants are chemicals used to break oil spills into tiny droplets. In theory, this allows the oil to be eaten by microorganisms and become diluted faster than it would if left untreated. However, dispersants and dispersed oil can also allow toxins to accumulate in the marine food web. The effects of using large quantities of dispersants and injecting them into very deep water, as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, have never been studied; scientists believe it may be linked to the spread of underwater plumes of oil. Even EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has conceded that the long-term effects of dispersants on aquatic life are unknown

The EPA must preapprove the use of chemical dispersants in the event of an oil spill, but has not taken steps to ensure that the use of these chemicals will not jeopardize endangered wildlife. The groups urged the agency to immediately study the effects of dispersants on endangered and threatened species in all U.S. waters, including polar bears and walrus in the Arctic; sea turtles, endangered whales, piping plovers and corals in the Gulf of Mexico; and seabirds and marine mammals in the Pacific.

More than 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants were dumped into the sea as part of the response to last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The chemical dispersants on the nationwide list can be used in oil-spill response in any U.S. waters, be they Atlantic, Pacific or Arctic.  Not only are chemicals found in the listed dispersants toxic to aquatic organisms, but they are also associated with carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, rashes, burns, eye irritation, respiratory toxins, and kidney toxins. The next spill can happen at any moment, and yet there are no scientific guarantees that the dispersants will not do more harm than good.  

Studies have found that oil broken apart by the dispersant Corexit 9527 damages the insulating properties of seabird feathers more than untreated oil, making the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death. Studies have also found that dispersed oil is toxic to fish eggs, larvae and adults, as well as to corals, and can harm sea turtles’ ability to breathe and digest food. Formulations of the dispersants being used by BP, Corexit 9500 and 9527, have been banned in the United Kingdom due to concerns over their impacts on the marine environment.

Surfrider Foundation is jointly bringing this suit in an effort to protect the invaluable coastal environment from harms that are currently being experienced in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon spill, which could potentially be exacerbated by the use of the Corexit 9500 and 9527 dispersants.

“The fact is that there are still many unanswered questions surrounding the chemicals we are using in the United States in response to an oil spill,” said Surfrider Managing Attorney Angela Howe. “We need to be certain of the impacts of dispersants in our oceans so that we can act accordingly to fully protect our coastal environment and the people who use it.”

“The Gulf of Mexico disaster was a wake-up call on the inadequacy of oil-spill response technology being used now,” said Deirdre McDonnell, Attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.  “From Santa Barbara to Exxon Valdez to the Deepwater Horizon, we’ve seen the destruction that oil spills leave in their wake.  We shouldn’t add insult to injury by using dispersants that could have long-term effects on species already fighting for survival.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Environment and Surfrider Foundation intend to file the full lawsuit unless the EPA begins to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) in the next 60 days. The ESA requires that the agency examine the impacts of these toxins on endangered wildlife and consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On a related note, Surfrider Foundation is also working to protect our coastal waters from the damages of the recent Gulf Deepwater Horizon disaster.  We are conducting tests to detect damage from the oil spill and use of toxic dispersants in coastal waters and sandy beaches along the Emerald Coast. For more information on this program, see: