Shocking new study suggests BP oil poisoned fish on Fla. west coast


A stunning scientific study, released earlier this year with little fanfare, found that undersea currents pushed oil from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as far as Florida’s Tampa Bay and is linked to diseased fish populations off that state’s lower Gulf waters.

The report, published by researchers from the University of South Florida, shows that BP’s toxic oil damaged a much wider swath of the Gulf of Mexico than previously believed. The scientists cite new evidence that subsurface currents carried some of the 5 million barrels of crude oil after the April 2010 rig explosion as far as 500 miles to the east. In simpler terms, the damage caused by BP’s reckless actions appears to cover a much wider swath than previously known — or acknowledged by officials.

Here’s a good summary:

They found “plausible and consistent” evidence that currents caused by “an anomalously strong and persistent upwelling circulation” drove oil compounds through subsurface waters to the WFS. The researchers published their findings in the February 2014 edition of Deep-Sea Research II Topical Studies in Oceanography: Did Deepwater Horizon hydrocarbons transit to the West Florida Continental Shelf?

The coastal ocean region known as the WFS includes waters east of the DeSoto Canyon and south to the Florida Straits. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead landed on northwestern Florida panhandle beaches in June of 2010. For three weeks, satellite and aerial images with accompanying model simulations showed oil moving on surface waters further east, close to Cape San Blas, then it receded and was no longer visible in that area.  However, public and scientist findings were emerging that indicated compounds from this oil – though no longer visible – continued to impact the WFS marine environment.

Fisherman reported anecdotally that reef fish caught in the WFS region had lesions and deformities.  Then scientists conducted systematic sampling of reef fish in the area and as far south as the Dry Tortugas, and their catches had lesions and other indicators of fish disease. Researchers then examined fish livers. Their results found signatures of oil compounds, similar in composition to that from oil samples taken from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, in some reef fishes. Scientists for this study sought to demonstrate if conditions could have been such that subsurface currents transported oil through the WFS that would be consistent with these findings.

Over the years researchers have developed and combined several numerical circulation models to understand the complex current systems that work throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Already established was that the “WFS experienced a strong and persistent period of upwelling that began within one month of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and then lasted through the end of the year.” The strong current data motived this research team to use the West Florida Coastal Ocean Model (WFCOM), which consists of the Finite Volume Coastal Ocean Model (FVCOM) nested in the Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM), and add a passive tracer (a proxy for oil) to track where this current could have transported hydrocarbons.

Broadly speaking, the West Florida Shelf is the long expanse of sea floor that runs from the eastern end of the Panhandle Coast past the Tampa metro area towards the southern tip of the state. The harsh impacts of the BP spill on the more northerly Panhandle beaches — including regular episodes of tar balls and tar mats washing ashore to this day — have been well documented, including on this blog.

But this new evidence of contaminated marine life as far south as the Dry Tortugas — the uninhabited islands just west of the Florida Keys — is heartbreaking news. Expanding the Deepwater Horizon impact zone to the West Florida Shelf opens up a whole new area where merchants whose businesses depend upon healthy seas — fishermen, seafood processors, charter boat captains — have a legitimate claim of harm against BP.

How does this fit into the big picture? Florida, one of the Gulf states with a pending case against BP, now can and should claim much more extensive damages caused by the oil giant’s negligence — and so should the federal government. More broadly, this is another and especially damning piece of proof that — quite the opposite of BP’s ridiculous claims — the BP spill is an ongoing event that has caused more damage across a wider area than the public has been misled to believe. This is why we continue to fight for a fair final resolution that takes into account the real pain and suffering that BP has caused up and down the Gulf Coast.

You can read a summary of the groundbreaking University of South Florida research here:

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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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