Two Canadian government agencies are claiming that a highly toxic chemical dispersant used in a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 is safer than baby shampoo, after Environment and Climate Change Canada approved an exploratory drilling plan off Nova Scotia put forward by BP—the same company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.
In separate conversations with The Energy Mix, officials with Environment Canada and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) spontaneously laughed when they heard their agencies had made the comparison to the most innocuous of day-to-day household products. Yet both organizations stand by the analogy, The Mix has learned, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is chiming in.
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The story traces back to a comment last month on the Energy Mix site, where a subscriber contrasted the Trudeau government’s promise to “make environmental assessment credible again” with the offshore oil and gas approval process in Nova Scotia, where the government has since green-lighted BP’s three-year plan to explore for oil at up to twice the depth of its Deepwater Horizon well. “The proponents are the oil companies, but it is the CNSOPB (the petroleum board) going around to Nova Scotia’s South Shore municipalities shilling for the projects and providing slanted information, such as the erroneous notion that the toxic oil dispersant ‘Corexit’ is as ‘harmless as baby shampoo’,” a subscriber wrote.
Just Like Soap and Shampoo
A CNSOPB handout for the South Shore information sessions claims that “dispersants contain the same ingredients as many common household products such as dishwashing soap and shampoo,” citing testing by Environment and Climate Change Canada. An accompanying chart lists dish soap as moderately toxic to consume, baby shampoo and laundry detergent as slightly toxic, and Corexit 9500 oil spill dispersant as “practically non-toxic”, along with all-purpose cleaner.
CAPP added its own conclusions in a July 2014 brochure, stating that “Corexit 9500, one of the more widely used dispersants, was found in an Environment Canada study to be 27 times less toxic than a common dish soap. Dispersants contain ingredients that are commonly found in skin cream, mouthwash, shampoo, air freshener, and household cleaning products. These ingredients have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for either human contact or consumption.”
CNSOPB Communications Director Stacy O’Rourke told The Mix the Board circulated its own safety claims in response to public questions.
“In engagement sessions with stakeholders, we were asked questions about what dispersants are, how they work, and discussed concerns around the toxicity level; specifically impacts on fish,” she explained in an email. The comparison was based on a toxicity test standard, lethal concentration 50 (LC50), which measures the concentration of a substance that will kill 50% of a sample species over a given period of time.
“We committed to provide information and results from testing that has been conducted on dispersants so that stakeholders could better understand,” O’Rourke wrote. “The toxicity diagram included in our fact sheet is meant as an illustrative and easy to understand comparison of toxicity test results for Corexit 9500A and common household products.”
O’Rourke cited a January 2014 study published in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment that commissioned two separate labs to “put dispersant toxicity in context”, by testing Corexit’s impact on two separate aquatic species compared to eight common household cleaners. For Americamysis bahia, a shrimp-like crustacean, four of the products were less toxic than Corexit, and four were more so. For Menidia beryllina, a silverside fish, the study concluded that seven of the cleaners were more toxic than Corexit.
But by the time Environment and Climate Change Canada approved Corexit as an oil spill dispersant in 2016, the product was already receiving much more mixed reviews.
“Real-world experience in the Gulf of Mexico proved that Corexit can be deadly: scientists who studied the spill found that the substance makes oil up to 52 times more toxic to marine plankton and decreases survival rates for baby corals exposed to the oil-chemical mix,” National Observer reported. “It can also damage the gills of marine life like zebrafish and blue crabs, according to One Green Planet, which linked Corexit to the deaths and injuries of more than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and other marine mammals over six months after the devastating spill.”
At the time, aquatic toxicologist Vince Palace of the International Institute for Sustainable Development explained the science as a trade-off for fossils and governments.
“Over the long term, by increasing the surface area of the oil, you’re also increasing the potential for the oil to be degraded by microbes in the environment,” he told the Observer’s Elizabeth McSheffrey. “But it can actually increase the toxicity of it over the short term.”
So “are we going to have an oil slick that will persist for a longer period of time and be exposed to more biota [organisms], or a more acutely toxic plume by applying the Corexit but for a shorter time?”
But several environmental campaigners and analysts contacted by the Observer and The Tyee described serious conflicts of interest for government regulators—including the National Energy Board as well as the CNSOPB—that are simultaneously responsible for regulating the fossil industry, promoting it, and protecting the public in the event of a spill.
Veteran environmentalist Daniel Green, deputy leader of Quebec’s Green Party, said Corexit “is a much cheaper solution than deploying an arsenal of industrial booms, skimmers, and the personnel to operate them,” the Observer reported. “And in dispersing the oil rather than collecting it, the chemical makes the problem disappear more quickly—visually, at least.”
“It’s polluter decides,” Green told McSheffrey. “And oil companies—the first the thing they think about when they see oil on the water is how to minimize costs. This is why oil companies immediately stand up and say, ‘It’s our spill we’ll take care of it.’ Because they control the cost by doing that.”
“It is sham,” agreed John Davis, director of Nova Scotia’s Clean Ocean Action Committee, a consortium of fishers and fish plant operators. “It doesn’t do anything to clean up an oil spill. It allows the toxicity in the oil to become more biologically available. The last thing you want is for oil to accumulate in the gills of a lobster.”
Fossils Claim Environmental Benefit
In a 2013 submission to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, CAPP claimed Corexit would deliver a “net benefit to the environment” in the event of a major oil spill. “Much of the industry’s wording in the report matches the language in the new legislation approving Corexit,” The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk noted.
A year later, Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists dismissed the CAPP report as incomplete, unscientific, and inaccurate.
“Many of the assumptions within the document have been challenged as invalid or untrue and should be revisited, corrected, and reanalyzed to determine if they impact on the conclusions regarding the net environmental benefits of dispersant use,” they concluded.
“The main argument of the [CAPP] study is that the dispersant will break down oil molecules and facilitate biodegradation,” DFO noted. “However, it does not address the removal of oil from the water and associated mortality of marine organisms exposed to it.”
Ottawa-based oil spill technology specialist Darryl McMahon wrote to the government at the time, citing new studies which “documented that Corexit didn’t work well in cold waters or with heavy oils and actually damaged microbes that break down oil,” Nikiforuk added.
“Use of Corexit EC 9500A will not have a net benefit for the environment, and will almost certainly not remove the spilled oil from the environment,” McMahon said. “It will just make the oil harder to see by media cameras.”
Months after the dispersant was approved, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc was still concerned that the chemical’s U.S. manufacturer, Nalco, had refused to provide samples of a related product, Corexit 9580, for analysis by government scientists.
“We obviously have a huge concern about a potential corporate interest that appears to not want to have robust, thoughtful, independent scientific analysis of their product,” he said in Halifax.
“LeBlanc would not speculate on whether Ottawa would consider delisting Corexit if samples are not forthcoming,” CBC reported at the time. “He did suggest cooperating with scientific authorities is one of the best ways to ensure a company’s product remains available.” Nalco Director of Global Communications Roman Blahoski said samples had already been provided to Environment Canada, and told CBC the company had encouraged DFO to “connect with their contacts” there.