On January 13, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed amendments to Subpart J of the National Contingency Plan governing the use of dispersants and other chemical and biological agents used to respond to oil spills in waters of the United States. The revisions were partially prompted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with the goal of ensuring that chemicals used to clean up oil spills don’t exacerbate the environmental damage.

Events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill prompted EPA's proposed more stringent  controls on the use of dispersants. (Source:  US Chemical Safety Board)

Events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill prompted EPA’s proposed more stringent controls on the use of dispersants. (Source: US Chemical Safety Board)

 

In 2010, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling published a staff working paper regarding the use of dispersants during the BP spill, which provides a useful overview of the benefits and challenges associated with using dispersants.

Dispersants change the distribution, not the amount, of oil within a marine environment. They are chemicals typically applied directly to oil on the water surface in order to break the oil into small droplets that can then mix with water below the surface. The dispersed oil is rapidly diluted, mixing both vertically and horizontally in the water column. While this alleviates high concentrations at the surface, it may expose organisms to lower, but more widespread, concentrations of oil. –National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (2010)

As explained in an EPA fact sheet on the rulemaking, the agency’s proposed amendments seek to ensure that chemical and biological agents have met efficacy and toxicity requirements; that product manufacturers provide important use and safety information; and that the planning and response community is equipped with the proper information to authorize and use the products in a judicious and effective manner. EPA is accepting comments on the proposed rule for 90 days following its publication in the Federal Register.

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