In-depth: The Gulf is still making marine life, and people, sick


Note: As promised, Part II of my in-depth report on the state of the Gulf. more than four years after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe:

When the full extent of the Deepwater Horizon spill became clear in the spring of 2010, experts predicted the impact on the Gulf’s diverse ecosystem would last at least for a generation, if not longer. Unfortunately, they were working off a known template: The 1989 Exxon Valdez shipwreck and oil spill in waters off Alaska, which had previously been the largest crude oil disaster in American history. Today, 25 years later, there is still active oil pollution from the Exxon ship on Alaskan shores, and the impact on biodiversity has been considerable. The government reported earlier this decade that only 13 of the 32 wildlife populations that it was monitoring had appeared to fully recover, including the looming extinction of an entire pod of orcas.

In the case of BP and Deepwater Horizon, we are now only four years down that road. But – given the much larger extent of the BP oil spill, and the unique richness of life in the Gulf of Mexico, it certainly appears that some of the more dire predictions are coming to pass. On the fourth anniversary of the 2010 rig explosion, the National Wildlife Federation released some alarming finding about the state of marine life. For example:

  • The NWF cited compelling evidence that ongoing disease among dolphins, in an area that was an epicenter of the BP oil spill, is related to the 2010 catastrophe.
  • It reported that sperm whales in the Gulf have higher levels of metals known to cause genetic damage than similar whales elsewhere on the planet—and these metals bear the fingerprints of the oil that spilled from Deepwater Horizon.
  • A chemical in oil from the Macondo field where the BP oil spill occurred has been linked to irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna – a condition that can cause heart attacks, or even death.
  • Approximately 500 rare sea turtles have been found dead annually in each of the previous three years for the past three years in the Deepwater Horizon spill zone – a sharp rise over the normal morality rate.
  • Oysters have reproduced at an unusually low rate in the northern sections of the Gulf between 2010 and the fall of 2012, the most recent period that was studied.
  • Loons that travel to the Louisiana coastline in winter now have increasing concentrations of toxic oil compounds in their blood.

The fate of dolphins living in the spill zone has been particularly discouraging. Earlier this year, a research with NOAA said of the Gulf dolphins that “I’ve never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals.” That’s because half of the 32 dolphins that the agency was following in the Gulf were seriously ill or in danger of dying. Some of these majestic  sea creatures had missing teeth, lung disease, pneumonia, or abnormal hormone levels – and a pregnant dolphin was discovered carrying a dead fetus. Meanwhile, a control group of dolphins from Florida, far from the scene of the spill, was found by the researchers to be healthy.

Additionally, sea turtle advocates reported this year that nesting by the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle dropped by 30 percent at the time of the BP spill and has flatlined since then.  “On the four year anniversary of the BP disaster little has been done to protect the world’s most endangered sea turtle – the Kemp’s ridley – from slipping into extinction,” said Carole Allen, the Gulf of Mexico director for Turtle Island Restoration Network in Houston.

Little attention has been paid to the devastating impact that the BP spill has had, four years later, on the bird population. In May, a team of researchers said that using the available data it had determined that at least 800,000 birds were killed by the oil spill, a much greater toll than first estimated. “Part of the reason they discovered so few carcasses is because the oceanographic currents for the most part moved them away,” one of the report’s authors, Jeffrey Short, told The New York Times. And the migratory patterns of other birds have now carried the toxic effects of the oil spill to far-ranging corners of North America; in 2012, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said its study of eggs from the largest colony of American white pelicans in Northern America discovered traces of both oil and the Corexit that was sprayed in the Gulf.

This is not just an ecological catastrophe. From tourism to seafood restaurants to our once-thriving fisheries, the economy of the region also depends upon a clean and healthy Gulf of Mexico. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but the seafood industry has taken a disproportionate hit, both because of the actual disappearance of seafood and the perception by consumers that Gulf seafood that is harvested remains unhealthy to eat. Al Sunseri, who runs P&J Oysters with his brother Sal in the French Quarter in New Orleans, told the International Science Times earlier this year that he’s handling only 15 percent of the shrimp haul he did before Deepwater Horizon. Jules Melancon, a Grand Isle oysterman, reported that he has not found a single oyster living in the leased offshore areas of the Gulf and that he makes now his living farming oysters onshore.

But in the long run, even more tragic than the economic health of the Gulf fishing fleets may be the endangered physical health of the clean-up and rescue workers and others who were exposed to the oil and Corexit during the peak of the spill in 2010, a population that some have estimated as high as 170,000. A study published in 2013 and conducted by doctors at Houston’s University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers and reported in the American Journal of Medicine found these workers now have significantly altered blood profiles because of that exposure — and are at greatly enhanced risk of getting ill.  “The combination of crude oil and Corexit is exponentially more toxic than either alone, since they contain many ingredients that target the same organs in the body,” said Dr. Susan Shaw, president and founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute and a toxicologist with the State University of New York. Other toxicologists report that since 2010, along the Gulf Coast, they have found what appears to be an elevated rate of ailments such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, respiratory problems, blood disorders and skin lesions. The exact number of such cases – and confirming the direct link to exposure to crude oil and the toxic dispersant —  is important work that remains to be done. Dr. Shaw said in a recent interview that she believes the number of affected cases of fishermen, rescue workers, and coastal residents suffering symptoms from exposure to the spill is in the thousands.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between worries about physical health along the Gulf Coast and the actual mental health of residents. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences began interviewing tens of thousands of people who played a role in the spill response for a long-term study in 2010. Its preliminary observations from the first round of examinations showed a 30 percent spike in anxiety and depression among Gulf cleanup workers. Its research continues amid signs that the BP health crisis will not be letting up any time soon.

In addition to the health woes and the plight of the fishing industry, Gulf Coast residents have a new reason to be anxious: BP’s newly confrontational approach of challenging claims and of asserting that the Deepwater Horizon Spill belongs to history – that its day-to-day impacts are over. To the contrary, millions of residents of the region continue to deal on a daily basis with the fallout – in ways both large and small – from the worst oil spill in American history. The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” – and that is especially true some 51 months into the BP oil spill. The giant oil company’s effort to evade responsibility for its reckless acts will only succeed if the public is not fully aware of the truth about the ongoing oil wash-ups and the extent of the ecological carnage. The sad reality is that the Gulf Coast region remains quite ill.

Read “After 25 years, Exxon Valdez oil spill hasn’t ended,” from CNN:

Check out the whole report from the National Wildlife Federation:

Read “BP oil spill update: Dolphins with missing teeth and lung disease found in Gulf of Mexico,” by Agence France-Presse:

Check out more from the Houston Chronicle on lingering effects of the BP spill:

Here’s “BP’s ‘widespread human health crisis,’” from Al Jazeera:

 The Advocate’s “4 Years After Spill Questions Remain About Health Impacts”:

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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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