It’s been two years since the oil spill and all is well. BP says so.
For months leading up to the second anniversary this month of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP has lavished the airwaves with sparkling ads touting the region’s recovery. The company reports that the oil has been cleaned from the pristine beaches and restoration efforts are underway.
BP spokesperson Isis Cross strolls leisurely through the commercial, reassuring everyone around the country that the Gulf Coast is just fine. Open for business. Come on down, y’all.
“I was born here,” she says. “I’m still here. And so is BP.”
The irony in the BP spokeswoman’s words is haunting. BP’s oil disaster was born here, too. It’s still here. The question is what is it doing to the Gulf Coast?
“Now, there’s a lot going on out there in the Gulf that we don’t know,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) informed an early morning collection of local officials recently.
Early Studies Alarming
In an upstairs boardroom at Pensacola State College, the senator talked about the killifish—“it roots around in the sand, out in the marsh”—and about how researchers have pegged the unfortunate fish as an early victim of spill. A study recently showed that the killifish’s cellular function has been altered in ways predictive of developmental abnormalities. In short, the species is having difficulty reproducing.
“The study is alarming because similar health effects seen in fish, sea otters and harlequin ducks following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska were predictive of population impacts—from decline to outright collapse,” National Wildlife Federation senior scientist Doug Inkley said last fall when the study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Senator Nelson appeared alarmed about the killifish findings, as well. He said continued study of the Gulf region must be done in an ongoing effort to determine the unfolding tolls of the spill.
“If that’s happening to a little fish that is part of the food chain in a marsh,” he asked, “what does that portend to the overall health of the Gulf? We just don’t know.”
Researchers have been studying the impacts of the oil spill since before the first waves of Louisiana crude hit shore. Gradually, their emerging studies are contributing pieces to an overall disturbing puzzle.
Linda Hooper-Bui, an entomologist with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, has been studying insects and spiders inhabiting coastal Louisiana marsh grass. She spends her days sweating in the swamps collecting bugs in a net, or with a vacuum.
“Just got off the water, actually,” she answered the phone last week. “Three days worth of work—I’m kind of wasted.”
The LSU researcher is concerned about the ants or, the lack thereof. She’s been studying about 20 sites around coastal Louisiana since before the oil spill. Some of the sites received oil damage, while others did not.
“We’ve gradually watched the population of ants decline in the oiled areas,” Hooper-Bui said, adding that the result was to be expected. “Eventually, when you have a stressor in the ecosystem you start to see that effect on what we call ‘higher trophic levels.’”
While the researcher expected to see impacts in oiled areas, she was surprised by what else she found.
“The hypothesis was there is going to be certain insects that are going to be effected by the oil, and we thought it’d be the ones that were in direct contact with the oil, but clearly it’s more widespread than that,” Hooper-Bui said after a day in the field. “My buddies are 20 meters into the marsh. There’s no visible oil there and we’re still seeing impacts.”
Offshore from Hooper-Bui’s sites, out in Barataria Bay, researchers are concerned with dolphins. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released preliminary results from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment study that indicate dolphins in oiled areas may not be faring well.
The study looked at 32 dolphins in Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011. Preliminary results showed that many of the dolphins were underweight, anemic, had low blood sugar and showed symptoms of liver and lung disease. Half the dolphins in the study also exhibited abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.
NOAA scientist Lori Schwacke has said these finding have not been tied to the oil spill. She reported the findings are, however, “consistent with oil exposure.”
Further out in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers are finding disturbing signs of the spill’s impact on the seafloor. Recently, a group of scientists published a study linking, what one of the biologist connected with the work referred to as, “a graveyard of coral” with the 2010 spill.
“These are deepwater corals,” said lead researcher Helen White, a chemical oceanographer with Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
White explained that her team found coral colonies located close to BP’s Macondo well to be bare skeletons coated with a heavy mucous. In the recently released study, the researchers were able to prove that oil from the Macondo well devastated the coral, which is sparse to begin with on the Gulf’s sandy bottom.
“We don’t know exactly how the oil killed them,” White said, adding that other studies had shown that coral can suffocate when covered with oil.
Another study recently published raises concerns about the oil spill’s impact on the Gulf’s food chain. In showing that Macondo oil was present in zooplankton, Eastern Carolina University’s Dr. Siddhartha Mitra was able to demonstrate that the oil compounds—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs—are working their way up the food chain.
“Zooplankton are close to the bottom of the food chain, they eat phytoplankton—they’re basically a conduit for energy and food,” Mitra said, explaining that the concept of “bio-magnification” dictates that a pollutants impact will increase as it travels up the food chain. “The reason that’s important, at the highest level of the food web are humans.”
Mitra’s team only identified that the spill has impacted a base layer of the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico. The researchers did not study the ramifications of such a revelation.
“We didn’t look at effect,” Mitra said. “That was not part of our study.”
Another study for another time. By the third anniversary of the spill we will know even more about the impacts of the disaster.
Out in the Louisiana marshes, Hooper-Bui used to study the effects of storm surge and hurricanes on insect and spider populations. That seems so quaint now. She’s learned enough about the impacts of the spill thus far to know it will consume her—and the Gulf Coast region—for years to come.
“Yeah, I pretty much dropped my expectations of ‘how-long?’” the scientist sighed.