08/07/2015 05:02 EDT | Updated 08/07/2016 05:59 EDT

Why Do We Use Toxic Materials to Clean up Toxic Oil Spills?

FILE - In this June 15, 2010 file photo, a member of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's staff wearing a glove reaches into thick oil on the surface of the northern regions of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, in New Orleans, La., that BP acted recklessly and bears most of the responsibility for the oil spill. The ruling exposes BP to about $18 million in civil fines under the Clean Water Act. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

WWF-Canada recently sent a letter to Minister Leona Aglukkaq in response to Environment Canada's request for submissions on whether to add new products, such as the dispersant Corexit 9500A, to an approved list for use in oil spill clean-up operations.

Dispersants are products which are meant to break up slicks of oil into small droplets, making them easier to disperse throughout large volumes of water and speeding up the rate at which they biodegrade. Though some chemicals have been known to be effective in this manner, others have shown vast discrepancies in their success between lab tests and real-world applications.

WWF-Canada opposes the approval of Corexit 9500A as an oil spill-treating agent due to high levels of toxicity and its overall ineffectiveness at shielding shorelines, seabirds and marine mammals from oil spill damage.

The reason for this is that Corexit 9500A does not have a reliable enough track record in the field to be listed as a spill-treating agent. In some cases -- such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout -- it was shown to disperse less than 10 per cent of the oil from the water's surface, still leaving much of the oil to come into contact with shorelines, seabirds and mammals.

Even worse -- the product can add an extra layer of toxicity to an already disastrous situation, creating a scenario where the cure is worse than the disease.

Another major concern with adding products to the list of spill-treating agents is that it creates the impression that there is a simple fix when an environmentally ruinous blowout occurs. Large oil companies often seek regulatory approval for their activities on the basis that they have a clean-up plan, i.e. that they can deploy dispersants to "treat" such spills on a grand scale. However, evidence suggests that applying dispersants to oil spills is at best ineffective and at worst, an exacerbating factor.

This false impression of a quick fix for oil spills is of great concern to WWF-Canada, as melting sea ice opens the North to increased economic development, including oil and gas extraction in both the western Arctic in the Beaufort Sea, and the eastern Arctic in Baffin Bay. For the past several years, WWF-Canada has, along with Ecojustice, made several submissions to the National Energy Board demanding that the board not grant any exceptions to strict safety regulations of offshore drilling activities.

There is no doubt that the petroleum industry has been an important source of economic development in this country. Unfortunately, its activities routinely damage ecosystems, as demonstrated by the just-discovered Nexen spill in Alberta. Our greatest concerns with the activities of this industry are the ecological risks associated with offshore oil development and marine shipments of petroleum products. We have all witnessed the unacceptably high cost of the industry's failures to manage these risks. The consequences of incidents such as the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon disasters are grave, widespread and long-lasting. These incidents inflict terrible damage to ecosystems and to the wellbeing of communities.

In reality, there is only one effective way to treat an oil spill: prevent it from happening in the first place.


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