PWSRCAC take stand against dispersants

Council says decision was made due to known harms and potential risks

Board members of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council are taking a firm stand against use of chemical dispersants in an oil spill in Prince William Sound and the Exxon Valdez oil spill region, saying the emphasis should be on prevention and mechanical spill recovery. Chemical dispersants are sprayed to break down oil into smaller droplets that more readily mix with water.

The update on the council’s 2006 position on dispersant use notes that conditions in Prince William Sound often limit the feasibility of dispersant application and dispersants have not been shown to be effective in marine environments with similar temperatures and salinity levels as the Sound.

“The known harms and potential risks caused by dispersants, in addition to a lack of proven effectiveness and safety, preclude the council from supporting dispersants,” the council said in its statement, released in early October. The council’s board noted that uncertainty exists over the toxicity caused by adding chemical dispersants to an oil slick and the long-term effects of dispersants application are not well understood.

The spill disrupted commercial fisheries for several years and killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales.

The new position is not very different from what the board approved in 2006. Rather, it’s more clarified, expanded and better justified, using updated information, including research that resulted from dispersant use during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, said Brooke Taylor, communications director for the council.

Oil spill prevention remains a top priority of the council because once oil is spilled, there will always be adverse impacts on human health and the environment. The council has also recommended that oil spill response research and development focus on enhancement and improving mechanical recovery technologies and methods.


The council’s previous position on dispersant use came only after years of promoting research and testing to increase knowledge about dispersants and environmental consequences related to their use. In the intervening years, the council has continued to track developments and analyze peer reviewed scientific literature regarding use of dispersants. Discussion and work to develop the updated position came over the past year, with final approval at the directors’ meeting in Seward on Sept. 23.

A detailed explanation, as well as the reasoning behind it, are on the council’s website, along with literature reviews and research database on dispersants

Further materials on the evidence and rationale supporting the position update are currently being finalized by the council for publication in early 2023, Taylor said.

Cordova marine toxicologist and activist Riki Ott, a former commercial fish harvester, said the council’s latest position on chemical dispersants, prevention and mechanical spill recovery is founded on the latest science, “the bulk of which shows that dispersant use makes oil spills more toxic to people and wildlife than oil alone.

“The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard, the co-chairs of the National Contingency Plan, set dispersant use policy, yet these federal agencies are refusing to restrict dispersant use based on the bulk of the latest scientific findings,” Ott said. “This means that all contingency plans around the U.S. – like the Alaska Regional Contingency Plan and the PWS Area Contingency Plan that allow dispersant use during an oil spill – will put response workers and residents at risk during the next spill,” she said.

Ott is the author of two books on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its consequences: Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.