Scientists: BP oil missed by government pollutes sea floor, taints seafood


More than three years out, the pace of independent scientific research into the aftermath of the BP oil spill is increasing. These new reports are exactly the kind of outside analysis that both the oil giant and the federal government worked so hard to discourage in the months immediately after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in April 2010. As many feared, scientists are gathering new evidence that the environmental consequences of the spill of as much as 5 million barrels or more of crude oil will last for years.

One paper, just published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, looked closely at what impact the BP spill has had on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and the microorganisms that live there. The report found significant damage to the biodiversity of these tiny organisms on the sea floor, and the impacts grew worse as they looked closer to BP’s failed oil rig. A summary notes:

These conclusions were based on analyses of deep-sea sediment samples collected at 68 sites throughout the Gulf. The sampling locations, which were visited in autumn 2010, were selected because they radiate outward along a contamination gradient stretching away from the wellhead from which the crude oil flowed. The nearest sampling points were less than 1km from the wellhead, while the farthest were 125km away.

At each site, researchers characterised the physical properties of the benthic sediment and tested for signs of oil and other contaminants. They also quantified the abundance and diversity of benthic organisms commonly used as bioindicators: larger bottom-dwelling creatures known as macrofauna, and smaller species called meiofauna. A statistical technique called a principal component analysis (PCA) was then employed to look for relationships between these ecological variables.

The analysis revealed a clear link between contaminants associated with drilling (especially barium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and total petroleum hydrocarbons) and the diversity of benthic creatures. Specifically, areas with more contaminants had very high abundances of nematodes relative to copepods, but low overall diversities of both nematodes and copepods. The driver of these results is unclear, but the researchers hypothesise that the influx of organic material from the oil spill might have led to a bacterial bloom. This would have been advantageous to bacteria-eating nematodes, but could have been harmful to copepods and nematodes with other diets.

Meanwhile, a second new report — this one by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and published in  the peer-reviewed scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin — finds that government testing of the Gulf in 2010 missed much of the worst pollution, most likely because it was driven below the surface by nearly 2 million pounds of the toxic dispersant Corexit. The result, according to researchers, was that fishing areas were opened to the public that almost certainly were not safe:

“Dr. Paul W. Sammarco, the lead scientist on the paper from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Chauvin, LA, pointed out that, “given the approximately 100-300 million gallons of oil spilled and 1-3 million gallons of Corexit dispersants released, the results from this study are not surprising”.

Dr. Sammarco went on to say that he believes that the “dispersants created a patchy dispersal of oil and dispersant beneath the surface of the water, and that the patches were not readily sampled by government scientists and regulators through ‘point sampling’ which is generally used to sample seawater for nutrients and contaminants.” He believes it is possible that this could have yielded low estimates of petroleum hydrocarbon concentrations in the sub-surface environment leading to some premature sector reopening of GOM fisheries which had been closed as a result of the BP Macondo spill.”

This report also raises troubling questions about whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased thresholds in 2010 that allowed for excessive dumping of the toxic Corexit in the Gulf, and also about findings of elevated levels of oil-related compounds in seafood and other marine life on the Gulf. Taken together, these two reports add more weight to a growing body of research suggesting that the massive use of dispersants — meant to keep unsightly oil slicks off the surface — merely drove the spill below the surface, with a harsh impact on marine life.

This is something that we have been warning about since late 2010. In December of that year, NBC News reported on findings by the scientific consultants to my law firm that showing that the government seafood testing program, in focusing on some measures aimed at showing seafood was free of carcinogens, had overlooked other harmful elements. Our own comprehensive testing showed high levels of hydrocarbons from the BP spill that are associated with liver damage.

“What we have found is that FDA simply overlooked an important aspect of safety in their protocol,” William Sawyer, our toxicologist, told NBC then. “We now have a sufficient number of samples to provide FDA with probable cause to include such testing, really. They need to go back and test some of their archived samples as well.”

Now, as an article summarizing the new scientific research notes, the findings of extensive pollution below the Gulf surface should reverberate in ongoing legal efforts to assess billions of dollars in damages against BP. How can you put a fixed pricetag on environmental destruction that will linger for years?

To read more about the long-term effect of BP oil pollution on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico, check out:

To find out more about the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium Report, please read:

Read the Dec. 28, 2010, NBC News coverage of our research and warnings about Gulf seafood safety at:

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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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