Chemical oil spill dispersants are substances applied to spilled oil in order to disperse the oil into the water column rather than leaving it floating on the surface in a slick. The council has long endorsed mechanical recovery as the primary tool to combat an oil spill. Unlike dispersant use, mechanical recovery with booms and skimmers removes oil from the water.
Current state and federal laws and regulations hold that dispersants should be used only if it is clear that mechanical cleanup methods such as booming and skimming won’t work.
Council’s Position on Oil Spill Dispersants
After years of promoting research and testing to increase knowledge about dispersants and the environmental consequences of their use, the council in 2006 adopted a position against the use of dispersants in the Exxon Valdez oil spill region.
Among the council’s concerns is the scarcity of reliable scientific data about the efficacy, toxicity, and persistence of dispersants and dispersed oil in Prince William Sound/Gulf of Alaska conditions. There has not been a conclusive demonstration that chemical dispersants work in the extremely cold waters of Prince William Sound. Although effort has been put into evaluating chemical dispersant use over the last 30 years, a good portion of this effort was conducted by the formulators of dispersants and not by independently funded surfactant scientists.
The council seriously questions dispersant use based upon recent photoenhanced toxicity concerns and other outstanding questions regarding long-term effects. Photoenhanced toxicity occurs when a chemical becomes more toxic if exposed to the ultraviolet light present in natural sunlight.
In 2013, the council added to its position on oil spill dispersants in response to changes proposed by the Alaska Regional Response Team to their Oil Spill Dispersants Guidelines (see more about the ARRT below).
A summary of scientific counter observations from our decades of research:
For more information, read the council’s public comments on the proposed changes from 2013, and a series of documents explaining the issues: Public comments on guidelines for use of dispersants in Alaska
Regulations and Guidelines for Oil Spill Dispersants in Alaska
Alaska Regional Response Team – The ARRT is an advisory board to the federal and state on-scene coordinators. It provides federal, state, and local governmental agencies with means to participate in response to pollution incidents. The ARRT also provides the guidance document for the use of dispersants in Alaska.
ARRT Oil Dispersant Guidelines for Alaska (PDF on ADEC website) – Spill responders must use these guidelines when considering the use of dispersants. The council closely follows changes to these guidelines and provides input to the ARRT during public comment periods.
For more information on regional dispersant use policies around the nation, visit the United States Coast Guard’s dispersants page.
More related information:
Our Hydrocarbon Toxicity Project is closely related to our dispersants work. Read more about our research to address the gaps in knowledge regarding chronic toxic effects of oil, dispersed oil and in-situ burn (burning spilled oil) residue under study conditions similar to the cold marine waters in our region: Hydrocarbon Toxicity
Dr. Merv Fingas talked about dispersants at a council-sponsored workshop in 2006. View this 1 minute video clip on our YouTube channel: What are dispersants?