Just after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Louisiana fisher Kindra Arnesen saw gobs “like a brassy-looking peanut butter” in the water near her Louisiana home.
“It smelled like a mixture of petroleum products and death,” she wrote in a declaration submitted as part of a federal lawsuit.
The goo came from Corexit, a widely used chemical sprayed to disperse oil after a spill — and broadly suspected of being dangerous to people and wildlife. Arnesen’s family has since been plagued with health problems, and she worries about cancer and other longer-term effects.
Dispersants aren’t affecting just the oil-rich Gulf Coast. In her own declaration, Native Alaskan health worker and tribal organizer Rosemary Ahtuangaruak describes the impact the chemicals — which were used to clean up the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, among others — have had on the North Slope and surrounding areas. Native Alaskans eat a meat-heavy diet, she explained, and she’s concerned the healthy oils in that meat and fish might be compromised by the dispersants.
“The Arctic is like a totem pole for contaminants,” she wrote in her declaration. “Contaminants from all over the world end up in the Arctic because of the wind, the ocean currents, and the animal migrations.”
Both women are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by Berkeley Law’s Environmental Law Clinic against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The clinic sued in January to compel the EPA to update the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, which was last revised in 1994. The plan grants open-ended permission to use chemical dispersants for spills, and it does not sufficiently reflect abundant scientific research that shows dispersants can be toxic to people and marine life.
In June, U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California handed the plaintiffs what clinic Director Claudia Polsky ’96 called a “game-changing” win. Orrick ruled that the Clean Water Act does require the EPA to revise the plan, using current science as a guide.
Polsky expects the EPA to appeal the ruling but says “we won a big piece of the case already.” The case has been the subject of dozens of media stories nationwide.
The clinic is also pursuing a different kind of breakthrough: a California right-to-know bill forcing cosmetic manufacturers to spell out the fragrance and flavor ingredients that appear on various lists of known-toxic or known-allergenic chemicals.
The bill — co-conceived by the clinic and client Breast Cancer Prevention Partners — targets ingredients such as synthetic musks, which can disrupt hormone systems; the carcinogen styrene; and phthalates, which have been linked to asthma and early puberty.
“This is a chance for California to model sound environmental health policy and wait for Congress to catch up,” Polsky says.
—Gwyneth K. Shaw