There’s an old saying in legal circles that the cover-up is always much worse than the initial crime. It’s hard to say if that is exactly true with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — after all, the initial explosion killed 11 workers and caused roughly 5 million barrels of oil to spew into the rich marine environment. But the core of the ensuing cover-up carried out by BP with the blessing of the federal government — the massive, unprecedented spraying of a toxic chemical called Corexit in the hope that pushing the oil out of sight would also put it out of mind — was a catastrophe in and of itself.
Never before had so much dispersant — some 1.8 million gallons — been deployed, and never was so much sprayed at the bottom of the sea floor, where its impact has never been studied. Immediately, clean-up and recovery workers blamed the dispersant for an array of illnesses, while researchers speculated that so much Corexit in the food chain could have major impact on marine life — and the seafood that you eat.
Recently, scientists in Alabama came up with a new protocol for studying how the dispersant deployed after the BP spill may have affected the food chain in the Gulf. They pumped water from the area near Mobile into 53-gallon drums, them compared the results between control barrels and barrels with dispersant in roughly the proportions sprayed in 2010. Their findings are disturbing.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A study on possible effects of the 2010 BP oil spill indicates dispersants may have killed plankton — some of the ocean’s tiniest plants and creatures — and disrupted the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the nation’s richest seafood grounds.
Here’s what they discovered:
The researchers found that, within days, the numbers of plant-like phytoplankton and ciliates — plankton that use hairlike cilia to move — increased under an oil slick. But they dropped significantly in the drums with dispersant or dispersed oil, while the numbers of bacteria increased. The study was published Tuesday in PLoS ONE, one of the peer-reviewed journals in the online Public Library of Science.
“In those tanks, all of the energy seems to get trapped in the bacterial side. There were lots of bacteria left but no bigger things. It’s like the middle part of the food web is taken away,” said lead researcher Alice Ortmann of the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
Microbes are too small for fish to eat. Ciliates, on the other hand, “graze” on microbes. Phytoplankton and cilates both get eaten by larger zooplankton, which are fodder for tiny crustaceans that, in turn, get eaten by small fish.
Brian Crother, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, called the findings scary, though limited because the experiments spanned only five days. “If these guys are on the money, they have pointed to something really disastrous happening in the Gulf,” he said.
The significance of their research can’t be understated. This damage to the plankton could harm the food chain in ways that won’t show up for years. Indeed, the researchers noted that some fish species fared well in 2010, immediately after the spill, but this research suggests that the worst may be yet to come. Experts quoted in the article noted that the herring population in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, which had been flourishing in the late 1980s before the massive Exxon Valdez tanker spill, collapsed not right after the accident but four years later.
Remember, it’s only been two years since BP’s fiasco in the Gulf. That’s turned out to be plenty of time for BP to spending millions of dollars on ads telling tourists to come back to the Gulf and to serve as a “sustainability partner” of the 2012 Olympics in London. But that’s the fairy tale world of hype.
In the reality-based world of science, the worst is yet to come.
To read a report on the scientific experiments with the dispersants used in the Gulf, please read: http://www.chron.com/news/article/Study-Dispersants-may-have-hurt-Gulf-food-chain-3751059.php
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