Oil spill cleanup is a hot topic in meetings
Concern over the use of chemical dispersants, even in a hypothetical drill scenario, has prompted a series of public meetings throughout the state aimed at gathering public comment and presenting information about the controversial response to an oil spill in Alaska waters.
Last week, the Alaska Regional Response Team, a federal inter-agency body that is given the task of formulating response plans to oil spills and other hazardous substance discharges in Alaska, began to hold public meetings in five regions around Alaska to present its revised oil spill response plans. The first meeting took place in King Salmon on Nov. 13, where the team presented information indicating that revised plans that did not involve the use of chemical dispersants were not going to be considered.
Dr. Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist, former commercial fisherman, and an advocate for the Citizen's Coalition to Ban Toxic Dispersants. According to Ott, the reasons that the use of chemical dispersants has not been banned are its cost effectiveness and the seemingly immediate results. However, Ott said appearances aren't everything.
"It's mind-blowingly cheaper to use these dispersants compared to other, safer ways of getting rid of the oil," Ott said. "You spray these chemicals on the surface of the spill and it almost completely disappears for the media cameras to see, but that isn't the end of it."
Last month, an affiliation of Alaska tribes, commercial fisherman, tourism representatives, subsistence users and Alaska residents obtained a temporary restraining order against any and all chemical dispersants in oil spill response within Alaska state and in federal waters. Under this order, the United States Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on-site coordinators are not permitted to authorize the use of dispersants or any other chemical products during the Spill of National Significance exercise. The Coast Guard sponsors a SONS exercise every three years to test the national preparedness and response to a larger maritime oil disaster.
The team meetings are continuing across Alaska, with an open discussion between the U.S. Coast Guard, the team, concerned citizens and organizations that stand against the use of chemical dispersants. The next meeting is scheduled this week in Valdez.
"The Coast Guard understands that the use of these dispersants is a complex and sensitive topic, and we want to provide face-to-face opportunities for people who want to voice their concerns," said Lt. Veronica Colbath, an external affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard. "These meetings are a way to have these discussions with federally recognized tribes and Alaska residents and let them voice their opinions."
Chemical dispersants were used heavily during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and again in 2010 during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. During the 2010 BP oil spill, an unprecedented amount of more than 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants were used. Emerging evidence from before and after the spill found that in direct contradiction to the industry's claims, the use of chemical dispersants delays biodegradation and forms long lasting and biologically harmful subsurface plumes of oil dispersants. The natural dispersion of the oil has been found to be less toxic to birds, mammals and fish and other sea life than the oil itself. The oil-dispersant combination was also found to be more toxic to humans than the oil alone, largely because of the properties that allow the movement of the dispersant through the oil also making it easier for the chemicals to move through cellular walls, skin barriers, and the membranes within the human body.
"The dispersants sink into the water and causes the oil to bond to biological tissue," said Ott. "It also binds to sand grains, making it almost certain that beaches will be contaminated, as all of these sand grains are coated in these micelle micro droplets, which is the result of these dispersants bonding to the oil. Because the Coast Guard and EPA has rubberstamped the use of these chemicals for the past 40 years, the oil industry hasn't developed any alternatives, but other industries have. The chemical dispersants sink it into the water and create these huge plumes of toxic mass and these protocols have never stopped these chemical dispersants or the oil from coming to shore."
The Coast Guard said that the drill, which was called the Polar Tanker exercise, was a worst-case scenario drill. Colbath said that the use of chemical dispersants in the event of a similar spill would be a "heavily weighed decision" and that their use was not authorized in this drill because there was not enough information available on the conditions at the time.