Case closed: BP killed a lot of dolphins with its oil


The relentless spin doctors at BP headquarters apparently don’t agree with me, but I think it’s time to close the book on the supposed debate over whether the massive 2010 BP oil spill was lethal to large numbers of dolphins. The evidence — first merely anecdotal, later more scientific — that dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico were getting sick and dying prematurely because of exposure to crude oil started accumulating that initial summer. Yet officials at BP headquarters continued to deny what seemed intuitively obvious to practically everyone else, that the between 4 and 5 million barrels of oil was the reason for the high mortality rate. The company’s PR flacks blamed the warm weather, or pollution from runoff, or purely biological factors — anything else besides its own reckless actions at the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Now, more than 5 years after the worst oil spill in American history, a key federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has completed the most comprehensive study to date of what happened to our spectacular bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf. The results are even more depressing than might have been predicted from the earlier research:

The 2010 BP oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, is tied to an unusually high number of bottlenose dolphins washing up dead on beaches in the northern Gulf of Mexico, according to a new report by federal researchers.

Dolphins that beached in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had injuries consistent with breathing and metabolizing oil, said the report released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It said that most of those dolphins had lesions in their lungs and shrunken adrenal glands, which help regulate body function. The three states bore the brunt of the 130 million-gallon oil spill from BP’s Macondo well.

Forty-six bottlenose dolphins from the northern gulf states underwent necropsies for the study. The results were compared with a similar evaluation of 106 bottlenose dolphins that beached outside the northern gulf, mostly on Florida’s west coast. Dolphins in the north were 22 percent more likely to suffer from bacterial pneumonia and 33 percent more likely to suffer from thin adrenal glands.

“In 70 percent of dolphins with primary bacterial pneumonia, the condition either caused or contributed significantly to death,” according to the report published in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS One. “The rare, life-threatening, and chronic adrenal gland and lung diseases identified in stranded dolphins are consistent with exposure to petroleum compounds as seen in other mammals.”

Scientists who worked on the study said the evidence connecting the oil to the death and disease in the Gulf dolphins was overwhelming, including shockingly high rates of lung disease. What’s more, NOAA said the most of the dead dolphins were found in the area in and around Barataria Bay in Louisiana, the area where scientists have seen the most impact from BP’s oil.  The findings of this report are truly heartbreaking.

It’s almost shocking at this point that BP would continue to deny the connection between the oil spill and the dolphin deaths — but that’s exactly what’s happening. “The data we have seen thus far, including the new study from NOAA, do not show that oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident caused an increase in dolphin mortality,” the BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said. The British oil giant isn’t even trying to be creative with its lies at this point.

There’s a bigger point here, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. When you have an oil spill as large as the one that occurred in the Gulf in 2010, some very bad things are going to happen to the natural environment. The reason it’s so troubling to read the reports that have been coming out of Santa Barbara this week is the knowledge that the impacts of that spill, which now covered some nine miles of Pacific beachfront, are going to harm wildlife there in some of the same ways. And long as we keep expanding poorly regulated offshore oil-and-gas operations in America’s waters, tragedies like these dolphin deaths will happen again.

Read more about the link between the BP spill and dolphin deaths in the Washington Post:

Learn  about some of the other severe impacts of the BP oil spill in  my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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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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