Science of the Spill: Two years later, the Gulf is fuel-injected

Almost two years ago, eleven men lost their lives in a fiery blowout on a deepwater rig. That astonishing conflagration was an alarming signal that the Gulf of Mexico would never be the same.Two years later, NOAA has a single boat, the Okeanos Explorer, that can deploy an ROV into the Gulf and survey the deepwater environment. But, as published in Bioscience recently, recognizing the impact of the BP disaster will mean a sea change in how we think about and respond to oil disasters in the deepwater. Most of the response and assessment has been focused on the coastal environment, although most of the impact is happening in water deeper than 1000 meters. How the BOEM can approve an environmental impact statement for drilling in the Gulf without NOAA’s limited research, without knowing what kind of environment will be impacted, is a mystery revealed only to the cynical.New permits for deepwater drilling have been approved post-BP based upon what we knew of the Gulf environment before BP’s drilling disaster, despite our ignorance of what the industry is damaging, and without conditions on drilling permits that oil companies share and collect data that would add to our knowledge of the Gulf ecosystem.Like Plato’s prisoners of the cave, we can’t see the light, but we see the shadows it casts on the cave wall. Those shadows do not show much good news. Fromthe deepwater to the land, BP’s oil is present. From the bottom of the food chain to the apex predators, we see signs of BP’s damage. [right: Peterson et al., 2012’s diagram of what has been studied (in blue), and what remains to be investigated (red). The second spider chart is what is being investigated by the NRDA process.]The oil is still here[1], continuing to surface in Louisiana’s marshes[2]. We can expect oil to remain in the marsh soils for decades,[3] decreasing grass cover and increasing the effects of erosion. Rookery mangroves on Cat Island, more sensitive than marshes[4], havedisappeared rapidly. Tons of tar balls and tar mats continue to be removed and excavated[5]. Tar balls washing up on Dauphin Island are filled with dangerous bacteria[6] and mutagenic oil compounds [7].Deep water corals have been severely damaged[8]; and we expect to see sublethal effects–decreases in coral cover, growth, reproductive output, and speciesdiversity [9].Traces of BP’s oil remain in plankton (the base of the food chain) [10] in the deep waters of the Gulf.Gulf killifish, an important bait fish, are showing gill damage.[11] These kind of sub-lethal impacts led to the collapse of the herring fishery four years after the Exxon Valdez spill.[12] These and larger fish are being caught with lesions and bacterial infections[13], signs of illness or chronic exposure to toxins. If the Gulf reflects Prince William Sound, we can expect to see these signs of exposure for at least a decade.[14]Dead dolphins continue to wash ashore in record numbers[15] and dolphins in heavily-oiled Barataria Bay are extremely ill[16]; fewer whale sharks are being spotted in the Gulf.[17]Top to bottom, the Gulf is hurting. Two years later the scientific community has only begun to get to the bottom of this disaster. Our government has not asked enough of the industry it is supposed to be regulating, and we remain unprepared for another disaster.Scott Eustis is the Coastal Wetland Specialist for GRN.[1] ,[2][3] Burns, K.A., Garrity, S.D., and Levings, S.C. 1993. How many years until mangrove ecosystems recover from catastrophic oil spills? Mar. Pollut. Bull. 26(5): 239-248. doi:10.1016/0025-326X(93) 90062-O.[4] Culbertson, J.B., Valiela, I., Olsen, Y.S., and Reddy, C.M. 2008. Effect of field exposure to 38-year-old residual petroleum hydrocarbons on growth, condition index, and filtration rate of the ribbed mussel, Geukensia demissa. Environ. Pollut. 154(2): 312-319. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2007.10.008. PMID:18045755.[5][6] Tao, Zhen; Bullard, Stephen; and Arias, Covadonga. “High number of Vibrio vulnificus in Tar Balls Collected from Oiled Areas of the North-Central Gulf of Mexico Following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Spill”, International Association for Ecology and Health, 23 November 2011.[7] Findings of Persistency of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Residual Tar Product Sourced from Crude Oil Released during the Deepwater Horizon MC252 Spill of National Significance[8] White, Helen et al. “Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 23 March 2012. .[9] Haapkyla, J., Ramade, F., and Salvat, B. 2007. Oil pollution on coral reefs: a review of the state of knowledge and management needs. Vie Millieu, 57(1/2): 91-107.[10] Mitra, S., et al. (2012), Macondo-1 well oil-derived polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in mesozooplankton from the northern Gulf of Mexico, Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L01605. 14 January 2012.[11] Physiological Footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,[12] A Precautionary Tale: Assessing Ecological Damages After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Sanne Knudsen[13] Tampa Bay Times,; EPA overview of scientific study, AMscientificoverview.pdf USF Data,[14] Jewett, S.C., Dean, T.A., Woodin, B.R., Hoberg, M.K., and Stegeman, J.J. 2002. Exposure to hydrocarbons 10 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill: evidence from cytochrome P4501A expression and billiary FACs in nearshore demersal fishes. Environ. Res. 54(1): 21-48. doi:10.1016/S0141-1136(02)00093-4. PMID:12148943.[15] “2010-2012 Cetacean Unusual Mortality Event in Northern Gulf of Mexico”, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Fisheries, Office of Protected Resources. Current to April 8, 2012.[16] “Study by NOAA and Partners Shows Some Gulf Dolphins Severely Ill”, NOAA Gulf Spill Restoration, March 2012.[17] Eric Hoffmayer of NOAA, quoted in “Evidence shows Gulf oil spill caused widespread ecological damage” (page 5), Sarasota Herald Tribune, 7 November 2011.

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