The National Contingency Plan (NCP) for oil and chemical spill prevention and response was designed in 1968 for maritime spills of conventional crude that floats. The latest revisions were 20 years ago. Since then, scientists and medical researchers have learned that crude oil is more toxic thought, and that oil and dispersant combined are actually more toxic to humans and wildlife than oil alone. Since then, industry, some regulators, and people in harm’s way have realized that booms and skimmers­–conventional tools for conventional oil–won’t work for oil that sinks or explodes. We have identified major gaps in the NCP and petitioned EPA for a rulemaking to revise the NCP.


For example, when the NCP was created 46 years ago, there was only one type of crude oil–the kind that floats. This creates problems for the public and regulators. In Whiting, Indiana, BP only reported that it spilled “crude oil.” However, residents suspect otherwise, as the refinery now processes 85 percent tar sands oil. This is an important distinction, because Chicago’s six water cribs that provide drinking water for some 10 million people are 200 feet beneath the lake surface, and one crib is only two miles from where the “crude oil” was spilled. Oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez traveled over 1,500 miles from the spill site. How far would non-buoyant oil travel along the lake bottom? It’s likely no one knows––or what to admit. Industry and some federal agencies are hosting an international forum in Detroit in September on “the challenges” posed by oils that sink when spilled such as tar sands oil and Dilbit, among others. But this raises a critical question: should industry be allowed to ship oil it doesn’t know how to clean up?


People in Petoskey, Michigan, think not. Over 200 attended Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s public meeting. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) stated that the federal agency would not know if or when Enbridge would run Alberta tar sands oil through Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinaw in Lake Michigan, because industry only has to report crude oil and tar sands oil is included in the definition of “crude oil.” At the same meeting, EPA told people that “crude is crude,” even stating that tar sands oil would float. (ALERT’s debriefing report interprets the industry-agency double-speak at the Petoskey meeting.)


In Tulsa, Oklahoma (and many, many other communities in America), there is a whole different problem with highly flammable Bakken shale, also considered “crude oil” under the NCP. After St. Louis banned large “Bomb Trains” carrying frack oil through its city for safety reasons, Oklahomans rallied at the Drillers Stadium before a game to raise awareness about the issue in their backyard. Clean Energy Future OK rallied a work crew to make giant banners with Riki, who shared her Backbone Campaign training.


Another example of a gap is the required preferential use of one technology (dispersants) over the use of others–despite any new and improved technology. Scientific studies have found that dispersants don’t work in cold water and that dispersants cause more harm than good. However, by simply listing this technology in contingency plans, companies are allowed to proceed with drilling in the Arctic and deepwater. For instance, a now defunct federal agency, BOERME, issued a Notice to Lessees in late 2010, requiring subsea dispersant injection capabilities on all new offshore drilling permits, so companies would have “viable” contingency plans­–despite warnings from scientist Samantha Joye and others, that the Gulf ecosystem will “take years, if not decades, to recover” from dispersant use. Just having an approved plan allows even deeper drilling (double the depth of the Deepwater Horizon) under the pretext of safety and pollution mitigation, even though companies are using the same faulty design in blowout preventers (one of the causes of the BP disaster).


A final example of a gap in the NCP is the lack of protection for public health and safety, despite the stated “number one priority” for oil spill response of protecting human safety. The NCP includes details for wildlife rescue and protection, but nothing for protecting workers or the public from exposure to oil and chemicals used during spill response.