Equinor to spray banned chemical dispersant that harms whales and workers in the Great Australian Bight

SYDNEY, Nov 7, 2019 -  Regulators will bend the rules to allow Equinor to respond to an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight by deploying a banned chemical cocktail that doesn’t work and is toxic to humans and marine life, according to a new report by Professor Jodie Rummer and Greenpeace.

Equinor’s plans, due to be ruled on by the regulator next week, include the use of Corexit 9500, which was widely used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Corexit 9500 was banned in Australia in 2012, after evidence came to light of its toxic effects on response workers and the environment.  

“An oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would be apocalyptic for the region’s marine life – from endangered whales to the commercial species that underpin South Australia’s thriving seafood industry, and the plankton that props up the entire food chain”, Dr Rummer said at the launch of The Dispersant Delusion: Equinor’s plan to poison the Great Australian Bight with banned toxic chemicals.

“It’s hard to imagine that anything could be worse for the Bight than an oil spill but Equinor’s use of dispersants will make a terrible situation devastating. Studies from the Deepwater Horizon spill show that dispersants mixed with oil are often more toxic to marine life than oil alone. Equinor’s proposed solution will exacerbate the problem by exposing marine life to chemicals whose toxicity is so well-established it has led to their ban.”

Dr David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said dispersants also pose a health risk to workers who would be mobilised to respond to a spill in the Bight.

“It’s beyond doubt that an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would be an environmental catastrophe but what this report shows is that it would also be a public health crisis for workers exposed to dispersants and for many in the community,” he said.

“Numerous studies from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have shown that workers exposed to dispersants like Corexit suffered impacts ranging from nausea to memory loss, nervous system damage, weakness and irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. It is deeply concerning that Equinor has ignored these studies.

“Equinor and the Government have a duty to inform the public of these potential health impacts.”

As part of the approval process to drill for offshore oil, Equinor is required to submit an environment plan that lays out its emergency response plan in the case of an oil spill. Central to Equinor’s plan is the use of large quantities of dispersants such as Corexit, which is a cocktail of toxic chemicals that aims to break up an oil slick into small droplets and prevent it from reaching shores.

Dispersants are little more than marketing tools that oil companies use to give a false impression that they are somehow reversing the environmental damage their oil spills have caused, which is simply impossible,” said Greenpeace Australia Pacific Head of Research and Investigations, Dr Nikola Casule.

“BP used almost seven million litres of Corexit in the Deepwater Horizon disaster with possibly no mitigating effect on the spread of the oil spill yet potentially resulting in greater damage to the environment than would have occurred if they had done nothing at all. Corexit was put to the test in real-world conditions and failed spectacularly,” Dr Casule said.



Download the full report here


Images and videos of the Bight and its unique marine life here


[1] https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(13)00494-4/abstract

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/20/gulf-oil-spill-chemical-dispersant

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) no longer lists Corexit 9500 or Ardrox 6120 as acceptable chemical dispersants for procurement in Australia, due to concerns about their safety and ecotoxicity. Instead, AMSA classifies these dispersants as having only ‘transitional acceptance’ based on their having acquired an earlier, less stringent approval via an assessment process completed in 2012. However, this loophole allows Equinor to use the Corexit 9500 that remains in AMSA stockpiles in the case of an oil spill in the Bight, despite the fact that AMSA no longer considers it safe enough to pass its most recent standards. Dispersant use for oil spill response is banned outright in Sweden, while Corexit has been banned for coastal use in the UK since 1998 due to its damaging effects on marine life. 


About Jodie Rummer

Jodie Rummer is an Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow at James Cook University.  Jodie has received funding from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GMRI) to study the impact of oil on fish. Her research aims to understand how evolutionary pressures have shaped physiological systems and the degree to which adaptation and acclimation to natural and environmental perturbations, such as anthropogenic climate change, can occur.

She completed honours, BSc, and MSc degrees in Biology and Marine Biology in Illinois and West Florida before moving to Vancouver, Canada to commence a PhD at the University of British Columbia. Her PhD research investigated oxygen uptake and delivery mechanisms in fish during stress, but she has also done extensive research on buoyancy, exercise, and oxygen and temperature stress in fish. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Hong Kong (2010-2011), she joined the ARC CoECRS where she is applying her broad research interests in conservation physiology.

About David Shearman

David Shearman is a lifelong practising physician and founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. David is also Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide, South Australia. He has written a number of books about the health impacts of climate change.



Greenpeace Australia Pacific Communications Campaigner, Martin Zavan

0424 295 422

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