In-Depth: The Gulf Is Still Sick


On April 15, 2014, with the fourth anniversary of the massive Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico just days away, British Petroleum – the rig’s operator — issued a press release that caught many people off-guard. BP announced that its “active cleanup” of oil pollution in the Gulf had officially ended. The statement by the British energy giant did not say that the spilled oil was gone – such a claim would be impossible, with frequent ongoing reports of tar balls and larger globs of crude called tar mats frequently washing up on white sandy beaches in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The news that BP was bringing the operation “to a close” actually meant merely that the company’s crews would still respond to reports of pollution, but would no longer regularly scour the Gulf looking for oil.  The move seemed geared more toward protecting BP’s reputation, and perhaps its bankbook, than toward actually protecting the environment. At the very same time as the annoucement, the oil company’s lawyers were undertaking an aggressive campaign to challenge billions of dollars in claims to Gulf business owners, both on an individual basis and by trying to undo the broad settlement terms that BP had agreed to in 2012. Convincing the public that the Gulf was entirely cleaned up could help make its case.

The problem was that nobody else on the Gulf Coast believed the oil spill was close to being cleaned up. Certainly not the U.S. Coast Guard, whose spokesman responded to the announcement by stating, “The response is not over, not by a longshot.”BP’s assertion was also immediately contradicted by local officials who continue to remove thousands of tar balls – highly toxic, many of them laced with flash-eating bacteria – from beaches in the Florida Panhandle, or by researchers who’ve studied high rates of disease and increased mortality among fish, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life – not to mention troubling reports of illness among 2010 cleanup workers.

Indeed, the notion that things are back to normal along the Gulf Coast was almost laughable to journalists and environmental activists who – in the very same week of the BP statement – conducted a tour of Cat Island and other shore points closest to the site of the April 20, 2010 catastrophe. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the visitors let out “a collective gasp” at the condition of the once vibrant island in Louisiana’s Baratria Bay. “Today the only green thing on the beach is a glass bottle,” it reported. “There are no pelicans, no mangroves, and worse, much of Cat Island itself is washing away. It and most of the barrier islands and marsh in Barataria Bay are steadily degrading, losing their battles with coastal erosion and subsidence faster than ever.”

The truth is that 51 months after the BP oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico is still very sick. Here is a summary of some of the critical ways that marine organisms, wildlife, wetlands, beaches – and humans – continue to suffer.

The most obvious sign of the ongoing environmental impact is quite simply this: Hundreds of millions of gallons of highly toxic crude oil is still submerged in the Gulf, or trapped in marshland or under sandy beaches, and washing ashore during major storms. This oil continues to poison marine life – either through contact or entering the food chain – and poses an ongoing risk to humans who interact with it as well.

Some research has suggested that as much as one-quarter to one-third of the oil that was spilled by BP – which would be considerably more than 1 million barrels – is unaccounted for in the initial clean-up and may remain at the bottom of the Gulf, dragged there by what experts call “a dirty blizzard.” Last year, a team of academics sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, found that the deep sea sediment for miles around the Deepwater Horizon site may take decades to recover from the oil pollution, with reduced biodiversity at the bottom of the food chain.

But not all of the oil is on the sea floor. Large amount of crude from the 2010 spill came ashore in marshy areas where it was trapped by tall reeds — and is thus highly difficult to clean up. One major study found that BP oil had killed many salt marsh plants some 15 to 30 feet from the shoreline – covering an expanse of some 1,100 miles — and that the rate of wetlands erosion had doubled, stripping the populated areas of South Louisiana of their natural wall of protection against flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms.[v]

But a surprising amount of oil continues to wash up on the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast in the form of these globules known as tar balls or larger tar mats. For the last four years, tons of this material has been churned up and then assaulted the coastline during tropical storms; for example, 2012’s Hurricane Isaac washed up oil – later conclusively linked through testing to the BP spill – on beaches from Florida to Texas and closed a 12-mile stretch of Louisiana’s coastline to fishing for weeks. But with little fanfare, officials are also continuing to find surprisingly large amounts of washed-up oil during normal weather conditions.

For example, 1,400 pounds of oil washed ashore at a beach near Pensacola in March of this year, not far from where crews had just the year before dug up 450 pounds of oil under the sand, using a backhoe. Since June 2013 (in other words, a time period beginning more than three years after the BP spill), officials in Florida have officially reported finding more than 44,000 tar balls, and that is probably just a fraction of the actual amount. On a recent day this June, workers in Escambia County, Fla., covering only about 1,000 feet of beachfront, harvested some 1,544 pounds of oil, believed to have come from BP. Other times officials encounter much larger tar mats – massive rectangles of oil in the water or the sand; one such tar mat, found this June on Fort Pickens beach in Florida, weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Again, remember: This oil that continues to come ashore nearly four years after the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig was finally capped.

Marco Kaltofen, a leading environmental chemist from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who has studied the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill since its early weeks, said that while crude oil is composed of tens of thousands of compounds, it is the most toxic ones that do not biodegrade as well and remain in the environment.  “The oil that remains is more toxic than the original material because the less toxic stuff has metastasized,” Kaltofen said in an interview. “It was millions of years old before it hit the beach, and it will be there for decades.”

In the summer of 2013, Kaltofen analyzed samples from washed-up crude oil on Gulf beaches, and reported that he found alarmingly high levels of toxic and persistent polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). He wrote: “The PAH level was three times higher than any other sample tested from Louisiana to Florida throughout the life of this oil spill.  The tar mat is particularly rich in the most toxic of the cancer-causing PAHs, including the benzo(a)pyrene, a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen.”

That is not all. Around the same time, Dr. Cova Arias, professor of Aquatic Microbiology at Auburn University, reported on the discovery of high concentrations of vibrio vulnificus, also known as a type of flesh-eating bacteria, in Gulf tar balls. These bacteria not only can cause severe infection for swimmers or beach-goers who come in contact with the oil – and with little publicity, several Gulf swimmers and visitors have indeed already been contaminated – but they are a leading cause of seafood-borne diseases.[ix] 

One reason that we don’t know the full-extent of the oil that remains in the Gulf is that BP – with the backing of the federal government – sprayed 1.8 million gallons of the highly toxic dispersant Corexit at the height of the 2010 spill. This action made oil slicks disappear from the surface – and the TV cameras – but the oil itself did not go away. At the same time, there is growing evidence that that the hazardous dispersant has entered the Gulf food chain, meaning that its toxic effects will be felt for years to come. Jose Victor Lopez, a marine biologist at Nova Southeastern University, studied the impact of Corexit on so-called Golf Ball Sponges that exist in coral reefs off Florida and “detected lost tissue and genetic changes — signs that exposure to oil and dispersants are harmful to basic organisms.”

The mere fact of the lingering presence of hundreds of millions of gallons of BP oil on the Gulf – and the long-lasting effects of both crude oil and Corexit in the food chain – makes a mockery of BP’s assertions that the Gulf is mostly cleaned up, as well as its current effort to dispute and undermine claims by small-business owners and residents.

Later this week: The BP spill’s lingering — and devastating — effect on marine life.

Check out more from Nature about BP’s “dirty blizzard” of oil:

Here’s more about the spill’s impact on the deep sea:

Read Science Daily on the problems with Louisiana marshes:

My July 11, 2013 blog post on BP spilled oil getting more toxic:

Check out the science of tar balls and flesh eating bacteria:

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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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