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Oil Spill Commission: Government Not Prepared for Large-Scale Dispersant Use

The federal government was not prepared to determine how chemical dispersants should be used to break up oil in the event of a massive oil spill, a draft report released today by the national oil spill commission says.

According to the report, which was released in conjunction with three other draft staff reports today, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — two federal agencies that played a major role in the oil spill response — did not consider the possibility that a major spill would require such large quantities of dispersant.

The report says:

EPA clearly did not anticipate the potential demands of an oil spill of the kind the nation faced after the Macondo well explosion. In particular, EPA did not consider, in its roles on the National Response Team and the relevant Regional Response Teams, the possibility that dispersants might have to be used in the massive volumes required in the Gulf. And EPA did not consider the distinct possibility that massive volumes of dispersants might be needed at the subsea level.

Though the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting spill were unprecedented, the oil spill commission does not excuse EPA’s lack of preparation. According to the report:

The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years. This is not a new, unanticipated development. Nor is deepwater drilling.

And NOAA deserves some of the blame as well, the report says, because the agency did not test the impacts of large-scale dispersant use.

As a result, the National Incident Commander, the EPA Administrator, and the NOAA Administrator were seriously handicapped when the Macondo well explosion occurred and decisions had to be made immediately in the absence of adequate contingency planning.

The report says it is “too early to assess” whether the Obama administration made the right choice in using such massive amounts of chemical dispersant. The report says:

Based on the information currently available to the Commission staff, we cannot conclude that the government acted unreasonably in deciding to approve the use of massive volumes of dispersants at the subsea and surface.

But the report does lay out a number of “uncertainties” about the benefits of dispersant use:

For instance, less oil on the surface means more in the water column, increasing exposure for subsurface marine life. And, while the smaller droplets may accelerate biodegradation, their smaller size increases the dissolution of potentially toxic compounds and exposure to aquatic organisms. Moreover, according to at least some scientific literature, the assumption of increased biodegradation may not always be accurate.

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