MMO consults on testing oil spill treatments

The Marine Management Organisation’s approach to approving products used to clean up oil spills may need modification in light of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is seeking views on the need to update the regulation of oil spill treatment products.1

These include dispersants, sorbents, surface cleaners and bioremediation agents. They may only be used in UK waters if they have been approved by the relevant authority under the Food and Environmental Protection Act 1985 and the Deposits in the Sea (Exemptions) Order 1985. Products for use in waters 20 metres deep or less must also be specifically approved.

The MMO inherited responsibility for spill response equipment used in English and Welsh coastal waters from the Marine and Fisheries Agency. This last conducted a review of the scheme in 2007. Since then, 2010’s Gulf of Mexico disaster has lead to “a period of self-examination and renewal for UK marine pollution response,” according to the consultation paper.

The huge releases of crude oil required an unprecedented use of response equipment, including dispersants. Some were applied at the broken wellhead, 1,500 metres below the surface, a method never used before. The consultation asks how the MMO should deal with requests to use such products in UK waters.

The document also notes that current methodologies for efficacy and toxicity testing are outdated. They are geared towards dispersants alone, which increase the rate at which slicks break up into small droplets. They also fail to take variables such as temperature and salinity into account.

The regulator also suggests a simplified ‘pre-test’ to indicate whether a product is likely to pass or fail a full analysis.

The consultation also asks if harmonising product approvals internationally would be sensible, considering it might reduce the rigour of the system. Independent laboratories might also become involved in the testing regime. If so, the MMO would need to devise an accreditation system to ensure reliable results.

The suitability of the standard test oil, a light Kuwaiti crude, is also under question. A range of oils may better represent the risks to UK waters.


Since 1996, all treatment products have had to pass toxicity tests for rocky shore and deep sea conditions. But this could be changed to allow products to be used for offshore or onshore use alone.

The toxicity protocols could be changed to reflect natural conditions. Currently, they do not include exposure to ultraviolet light, which can raise the toxicity of dispersants and dispersed oil.

The present approach may also make more effective dispersants register as more toxic, as they raise exposure of the test organism to the oil.

The growing number of marine-protected areas is also considered (ENDS Report 427, p 6). “How should the MMO ensure that these sites are protected from inappropriate dispersant use?” asks the consultation.

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