Kindra Arnesen’s fishing boats are still parked near Venice, La., but she left years ago. Her family was driven out by the toxic odor from a chemical dispersant sprayed in the Gulf of Mexico to break up oil from the massive 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill.
Before they fled, her husband experienced respiratory problems. Her daughter broke out in rashes. Arnesen, 41, had headaches and other skin problems. “We live in the middle of an oil field,” she said, referring to the thousands of oil platforms in the gulf. Oil continues to seep a few miles off Venice from a Taylor Energy operation destroyed during a hurricane nearly 15 years ago. “People don’t realize how many spills we have here.”
Fearing the next spill, Arnesen joined a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that the agency has allowed 25 years to go by without updating the National Contingency Plan to respond to oil spills. On Monday, the University of California at Berkeley Environmental Law Center issued the agency a 60-day intent to sue notice on behalf of several groups and individuals “for failure to perform a non-discretionary duty” under the Clean Water Act.
In the absence of an update, the EPA has continued to allow emergency responders to use a chemical mixture called Corexit to disperse oil into droplets that allow microbes to further break it down, the groups say.
About 20 percent of nearly 5,000 Coast Guard personnel who responded to the BP spill and were exposed to the toxin reported persistent coughing. Others experienced wheezing and trouble breathing, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health.
“The combination of both oil and oil dispersants presented associations that were much greater in magnitude than oil alone for coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing,” the report said.
A Louisiana State University study two years prior reported a similar finding: that symptoms from exposure resulted in “burning in nose, throat or lungs, sore throat, dizziness and wheezing."
That was evident during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup efforts, when “dispersants and oil combined to form droplets of chemical enhanced oil that is more deadly than oil alone to people,” said Riki Ott, the marine toxicology director for Alert, a project of Earth Island Institute, one of five plaintiffs in the suit.
The other plaintiffs come from Alaska, where the Trump administration is pushing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil leasing for the first time. They include an activist inletkeeper, a community group and an Inuit woman.
As the Trump administration pushes an unprecedented proposal to offer oil and gas industry leases on 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf, the plaintiffs say the EPA’s guidance using new science related to dispersants is crucial.
Under the proposal, leases also would be offered off the Atlantic seaboard for the first time in decades. A bipartisan coalition of Atlantic coast governors who oppose the plan say it stands to destroy beach communities and a rich tourism industry that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs from Massachusetts to Florida.
“This leasing program, combined with the [administration’s] planned dismantling of federal drilling safety standards, puts coastal communities at serious risk of disastrous oil spills,” the law center said in a statement. “Given the history of offshore oil drilling, it is simply a matter of when — not if — a devastating oil spill will occur.”
EPA spokesman John Konkus said, “We are reviewing the NOI letter,” with no further comment.
Some scientists say the use of Corexit should be eliminated and replaced with a system that uses microbes to break down and naturally consume large volumes of oil.
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, Alaska, “is deeply concerned that ... dispersants will exacerbate the harms to the wildlife and arctic ecosystem central to her community,” which is enclosed by oil infrastructure, such as rigs and pipelines, the letter said.
Researchers for a study in 2013 found that “when Corexit and oil are mixed, toxicity increases 52-fold” for a microscopic zooplankton at the bottom of the marine food web, a major source of nutrition for ocean animals.
A 2018 study of U.S. Coast Guard respondents to the Deepwater Horizon disaster showed a strong correlation between their exposure to dispersant and higher rates of coughing and gastrointestinal problems, Ott said.
Arnesen said her family moved about 15 miles north from Venice to Buras on a spit of Louisiana land that extends into the Gulf of Mexico.
She said her husband, George, was on one of eight shrimping boats that sped out into the ocean to collect shrimp before the oil reached a productive fishing area. When six of the boats turned around because their crews could not endure the odor, her husband’s captain stayed.
“Men started to feel nauseous and dizzy,” she said. Eventually, the odor reached land. “It just depended on which way the wind was blowing. For me it was severe skin problems, upper respiratory problems and severe headaches, the worst I’ve experienced in my life.”
Arensen said that she tried to take her boat out about a year after the spill, but there were so few shrimp “it wasn’t worth it,” and the fish were skinny.
“I want people to understand this isn’t just about what happened to us,” she said. It is also about what happened to the fishery. “It seems like we’re not going to get anything done until we go to court.”