Gulf Oil Spill: Two Years Later, Scientists Still Unsure of Eco-Impact

More than two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about its impact continue to surface. Contrary to what BP, the drilling industry, and some government officials would have us believe, the effects of the spill have not washed away into the dark recesses of the Gulf of Mexico.

But newly published papers authored by some of the country’s top marine scientists and supported by the heads of three government agencies have gone on record saying the environmental impacts of the spill are still unknown. “Much more work needs to be done,” admitted Steve Murawski, formerly the chief federal fisheries scientist and University of South Florida marine science professor, told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s very frustrating.”

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Concerns focus on a handful of aftereffects of the spill that many have worried about from the time it started gushing. The papers were authored by a heavyweight team that included (now outgoing) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco, (soon to be outgoing) Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and U.S. Geological Survey head Marcia McNutt in a special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The look-back at the Gulf Spill comes at a significant moment as another oil spill occurred last week off the coast of New Jersey caused by a leaking cargo tanker threatening nearby coastlines and wildlife sanctuaries.

The reports agreed with earlier published studies that estimate that one-quarter of the oil spilled during the spring and summer of 2010 is still unaccounted for.

Given that lack of accounting, the impacts on marine life in the Gulf are thus still impossible to accurately predict. The papers also suggest:

1) By dumping 1.8 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit into the Gulf BP may have made the oil even more toxic to wildlife. The whole effort was a grand experiment; while the EPA had previously tested the dispersant on fish and shrimp, no one had ever attempted spraying it beneath the surface of the ocean directly onto gushing oil. A study by the Georgia Institute of Technology has shown that combining the dispersant with oil made it more toxic by a factor of 52.

2) The notion that all an oil spill of that magnitude can be cleaned up by raking it off the surface now seems to be quaint. Both skimming and putting out miles of boom, both done by the legions of workers hired by BP to help “clean up” the spill, ultimately proved ineffective.

3) Given the lack of previous knowledge about the true health of marine life in the Gulf—the last published report on disease among its fish had been done in 1996—means that measuring the spill's impacts on the fisheries health are hard to assess today.

4) Where did all that missing oil go? Not too far, it turns out: In the sea grass that lines the Gulf’s marshes, barely buried under sand beaches and on the Gulf floor, covered by a few inches of dirt and debris, waiting to be stirred up by animals and the next hurricane.

5) Despite the sizable payments paid by BP for Gulf restoration ($35 billion and mounting) the papers suggest that no one has put appropriate money into a Gulf-wide monitoring system that will help protect it in the future.

Do you think marine life in the Gulf will ever return to its pre-spill normalcy? 

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A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook. @jonbowermaster  Email Jon