SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard violated the Clean Water Act by authorizing use of toxic oil dispersants on oil spills without knowing whether the chemicals will harm endangered species and habitats, the Center for Biological Diversity claims in Federal Court.
Joined as plaintiffs by the Surfrider Foundation and Pacific Environment, the groups call for the EPA to study immediately the effects of dispersants on endangered and threatened species, including whales, sea turtles, salmon and seabirds in the Pacific and polar bears and walruses in the Arctic.
"If chemical dispersants are going to be used after an oil spill, we have to know whether they'll hurt or kill whales, sea turtles and other wildlife. So far, the EPA has no idea," the Center for Biological Diversity's Deirdre McDonnell said in a statement.
"Unprecedented amounts of dispersants were dumped into the sea during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and they're likely still affecting the Gulf of Mexico, where dead dolphins continue to wash ashore," McDonnell said.
Chemical dispersants break oil spills into tiny droplets. They work by breaking the outer membranes of cells: oil and organs alike. This theoretically allows the oil to be eaten by microorganisms and become diluted faster than if left untreated.
However, dispersants allow oil to enter the bodies of marine life more readily, adding the dispersant chemicals to the oil that can accumulate in the marine food web.
Though not mentioned in the lawsuit, at least one scientific study of the effects of the Corexit, a heavily used dispersant during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, showed that the dispersant may cause serious harm on a microbial level, hindering the oil bioremediation process.
According to a March 2011 studyby the Inter-Research Science Center, scientists studied the presence of Corexit in oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion along the Louisiana coast and found that Corexit was toxic to two crucial, naturally occurring bacteria that aid the bioremediation process of breaking down oil so it becomes nontoxic to other life.
The study found that Corexit was nontoxic to a third bacteria prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico, which does not contribute to breaking down oil but is highly toxic to marine life, especially to marine and land mammals, including humans. This is the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio vulnificus has been found in high concentrations in tar balls along the Gulf Coast.
Several news stories this month have warned people not to touch the tar balls that have littered Gulf Coast beaches ever since the oil spill, because they contain bacteria that can cause severe illness or death.
According to the study from Auburn University, Vibrio vulnificus - which can kill and injure people who eat oysters contaminated by it - is found in tar balls along the Gulf with concentrations of the bacteria more than 100 times greater than the ambient water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "V. vulnificus typically causes a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blood-tinged blistering skin lesions (hemorrhagic bullae). Overall, V. vulnificus infections are fatal about 40 percent of the time." (Parentheses in original.)