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FILE - In this June 12, 2010 file photo, crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala.

The Associated Press

Ottawa is on the verge of loosening the rules for oil spill clean-ups.

Bill C-22 is awaiting third and final reading in the House of Commons. It covers a number of issues regarding the oil, gas and nuclear sectors, including the use of dispersants.

Dispersants are a tool used in oil spill clean-ups. The chemicals dissolve oil particles into smaller pieces, break up surface slicks and allow oil to fall through the water column. One of the top three dispersants, Corexit, was heavily used in both the 1989 Alaska Exxon Valdez and 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico spills. It has subsequently been linked to health problems with clean-up workers. Although never used on a large scale in Canada, it is the industry's dispersant of choice for major oil spills and is approved for use in Canadian waters.

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Three pipeline projects propose bringing increased tanker traffic to our shores, and with an increase in exports comes an increased threat for spills. Northern Gateway, Energy East and Trans Mountain will deliver huge volumes of Alberta oil to Canadian coastlines. Northern Gateway's two lines, east and west, will carry over 700,000 barrels of oil per day.

Under current law, following an offshore oil spill, industry would call an emergency contact line, which then would contact federal environment minister Leona Aglukkaq for dispersant approval. While it has never been done in this country, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says this could take days.

The new rules would allow industry to report to provincial petroleum boards, made up of political appointees, civil servants and safety officials. Under the new law, each province would have its own petroleum board and dispersant use could be pre-approved. That would mean that if an offshore spill were to happen, no phone calls would be needed and oil companies could just spring into action.

With offshore oil activity in Canada ramping up, including exploration in the Arctic, industry says the current procedure wastes precious time that can be better managed if the feds are removed from this equation. "Government oversight doesn't make it safer," said Paul Barnes, manager for Atlantic Canada and the Arctic for CAPP.

Christopher McCluskey, director of communications for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, said the government was responding to a recommendation from the 2013 Tanker Safety Expert Panel. "Requiring experts to contact the office of the minister of environment for permission in the event of an incident is impractical and puts the environment at risk," Mr. McCluskey said in a statement.

Environmentalists warn that an oil spill could have devastating, long-term impacts, and say that dispersants make the situation worse.

Numerous U.S. studies show oil becomes more toxic when mixed with dispersants, including a 2013 paper in the journal Environmental Pollution that indicated oil mixed with dispersants was more than 50 times more toxic than oil alone. The World Wildlife Fund Canada, in conjunction with RSP Associates, modelled oil spill scenarios in the Arctic and found that if dispersants were applied to an oil spill more oil would be removed from the surface, but the mixture increased what they term toxic plumes.

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"The concern is damage done to the food web even if it's not readily apparent," according to Dan Slavik of WWF-Canada.

The Beaufort Shelf in the Arctic is home to the Beluga and Bowhead whales, key to the livelihoods of indigenous people. The proposed Northern Gateway route also cuts through an ecologically sensitive area, the Great Bear Rainforest.

The oil industry says dispersants are an effective tool in removing oil from surface waters and shorelines. According to Nalco LLC, Corexit's Illinois-based manufacturer, and an Environment Canada study accessed through CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), Corexit is 27 times safer than common dish soap.

Shanna Devine, legislative director and investigator for the Government Accountability Project, said that figure is "dangerously misleading."

"Five of Corexit's 57 ingredients are linked to cancer and the Corexit MSDS, (Material Safety Data Sheet, which lists a chemicals' potential risks), warns it can pose high and immediate human health hazards."

A representative from Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford's office said dispersants would only be used following a spill if there was deemed a net environmental benefit.

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Susan Shaw, a public health professor at State University in New York who has studied the impacts of dispersants, said by breaking oil into smaller particles, these chemical pieces can more readily move through the water and expose a greater area to the chemical compound. "Dispersed oil is harder to clean up," she said. Dr. Shaw said three million pounds of tar turned up in the Gulf of Mexico last year. She said companies should be looking at improved mechanical technology.

Mr. Slavik said he doesn't believe more control should be placed into the hands of industry. He cites a knowledge gap on dispersants as evidence following the BP spill and says that laboratory studies don't account for real world applications.

Joshua Axelrod, an environmental law and policy consultant at the Natural Resources Defense council says longer-term studies are required. "The idea that dispersants make an oil spill safe or safer is problematic."

Michelle Leslie is a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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