3 years later, “the canary in the coal mine” is dying in the Gulf


Like most people, I try to stay optimistic in life, but I have to say that the latest flurry of news out of the Gulf region — which coincided with the three-year anniversary of BP’s massive oil spill — has been discouraging. Every day for the last week or two, it seems, my contacts in the environmental community send me a new news report, or a scientific study, bearing bad news. The theme is always the same — that the unprecedented spill of some 5 million barrels of crude oil, made worse by the bone-headed decision to use 1.8 million gallons of a toxic chemical called Corexit to try to make the oil disappear from view — has had a major negative impact on the Gulf’s once-bountiful marine life, or on the health of the humans who live along the coastline.

I’ve written about some of these negative impacts recently. Barren oyster beds. Fisherman pulling up deformed fish. Insects silenced. Protective mashlands shrinking. And proud coastal residents who offered their services to help clean up BP’s mess after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy are sick with headaches, nausea and bleeding. This is exactly what many of us feared was coming.

Many of remember what had once been the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster that devastated the coastal environment off Alaska. In that case — much as has happened here in Louisiana — the media intensely reported the story for several months, then disappeared…and the environmental impacts actually grew worse three, four, five years down the road. That’s because it took time for the corrosive impact of the spilled crude to work through the food chain.

Today, in the Gulf, that history is repeating:

Lingering oil residue at the bottom of Gulf Coast marshes caused heart defects and hindered reproduction in a small fish seen as an environmental bellwether, researchers said Thursday.

The Gulf killifish spends its whole life in the marshes of the Gulf Coast, with few in their lifetimes venturing more than a football field’s length from where they were born. Because of that, they’ve been the subject of several studies since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill erupted off Louisiana in April 2010.

The latest, conducted by scientists from Louisiana State University and University of California-Davis, found killifish embryos that were exposed to oiled sediments hatched at a rate 40% lower than those cultivated in samples from un-oiled sites. Those that did hatch were smaller, had lower heart rates and had cardiovascular deformities that were likely to hurt their chances of survival, said Ben Dubansky, an environmental toxicologist at Louisiana State University.

“Early life exposure affects heart function, and these abnormalities persist until adulthood and make it harder for fish to survive, evade predators and eat,” Dubansky said.

The findings were published online this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology. Co-author Andrew Whitehead said the killifish is the “canary in the coal mine” for the Gulf Coast, where scientists are still trying to catalog the effects of the 2012 disaster.

As the article notes, this is troubling for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, other marine species that share the same waters as the killifish could be suffering similar health impacts. What’s more, if the killifish population begins shrinking it will certainly have a negative impact on other fish that typically feed on them. The lingering impacts of BP’s recklessness has wreaked havoc already on Gulf fishing fleets in terms of diminished catches — and that is taking a toll in other ways

Through our research, published this week in the journal Social Science Research, my colleagues and I have demonstrated the deep impact the spill had on coastal residents.  We conducted the study during the BP spill, several months after the well was capped, and a year after the spill erupted, and we have documented how stressful that event has been on the psyche of the affected citizens.

Not surprisingly, households involved in the fishing industry were particularly impacted, and unlike households employed in other industries, their stress levels actually got worse over the year following the event, not better.  We know that a number of factors affected the mental health of this population, but it is safe to say that personal economic status was a top contributor.

Look, everybody wants to see a “feel-good story” out of the Gulf, about how life is back to normal after the spill and the party rolls on. That’s why BP’s multi-million dollar ad campaign is so effective, because it is telling people what they like to hear. But things won’t really start to get better in the region until we start facing the difficult truths. And one of these truths should be self-evident: That it is going to take years and a lot of hard work to undo the results of BP’s act of carelessness.

To learn more about the Gulf oil spill’s devastating impact on killifish, please read: http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/02/us/gulf-oil-fish/index.html?hpt=hp_t5

For more information about the psychological aftermath of the spill, please read: http://www.mnn.com/home-blog/guest-columnist/blogs/psychological-scars-run-deep-after-bp-oil-spill

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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