Scientists warn Deepwater Horizon disaster isn't over
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is widely acknowledged as one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. In the 56 days between the oil rig’s explosion and when the ocean-floor wellhead was capped, more than 200 million gallons of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of birds, turtles and other animals were killed, and Gulf Coast communities that rely on tourism and meetings lost billions of dollars in business.
Thank goodness that’s all behind us, right?
Wrong. Just because tar balls aren’t showing up on beaches and there aren’t images of oil-covered birds on the news anymore doesn’t mean that the environmental effects of the disaster are over. A group of researchers is finding evidence that lingering toxins in the Gulf may affect marine life for years to come.
“A lot of people tend to think it’s gone and it’s over,” says Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit whale conservation group. “It isn’t gone, and it isn’t over.”
Along with Dr. John Pierce Wise Sr. of the University of Southern Maine, Kerr was one of the organizers of a symposium on the effects of the spill. The presentations were part of the 51st annual meeting of the Society of Toxicologists on March 14 in San Francisco, bringing together several scientists who have been monitoring the presence of toxins in the Gulf and in the animals that call it home.
Kerr, who gave an overview of the spill, says the real danger may not have been the oil but the more than 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants used to break it up.
“I actually think the cure … was probably worse than the disease,” Kerr says. “They’ve never used those amounts of dispersants before.”
Ocean Alliance is finding elevated levels of nickel and chromium in sperm whales. Other presenters spoke about the effects of dispersed oil on trout and larval sheepshead minnows. Overall, the scientists agreed that more research is warranted and needed.
While it’s too early to say for certain what their findings mean, “I think there’s enough compelling data that we should not presume everything’s fine,” Kerr says. “I think people in the Gulf should be outraged. More research should have been done to try to understand the effects [of dispersants].”
Animals who died as a direct result of the oil won’t have much of an effect on the species’ populations. The real danger is long-term exposure to toxins and genetic damage, Kerr says. To study those threats, Ocean Alliance sent a research vessel to the Gulf shortly after the spill to take biopsies from whales and study how different toxins affect whale cells and DNA.
“The extent of it we don’t understand, and only time will tell,” Kerr says.