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First comprehensive Gulf oil spill study reveals extensive damage in shoreline, deepwater habitats

Saturday, December 7, 2013 12:12
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Map showing cumulative oil slick footprint from BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill, based on satellite images taken between 25 April 2010 and 16 July 2010. Graphic: SkyTruth

By  Mark Schleifstein
6 December 2013

(The Times-Picayune) – The extensive damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the ensuing cleanup efforts to natural resources along the shoreline and in deepwater habitats of the Gulf of Mexico were outlined for the first time Friday (Dec. 6) in a comprehensive environmental assessment.

The assessment, released by federal and state oil spill trustees, accompanies a plan for spending $627 million on 44 projects aimed at restoring some of the damage outlined in the report, or compensating the public for lost resources. That plan is the third batch of projects to be paid for with $1 billion set aside in 2011 by BP to build “early restoration” projects under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process required by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The release of the report and tentative approval of the projects were announced Friday by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the Jean Lafitte Historical National Park’s Barataria Unit in Marrero on Friday morning.

The report cites studies showing continued problems with growing oysters in both Louisiana waters, where freshwater diversions designed to keep oil out of wetlands killed oyster beds, and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, which may be linked to toxic chemicals associated with the BP oil. It also recounts concerns about the deaths of hundreds of bottlenosed dolphins, thousands of sea turtles and migratory waterfowl — plus potential reproductive problems for these species.

The report also outlines concerns about tiny organisms living in deep water in the Gulf, and the possible effects of their loss on commercial fisheries, while also raising questions about the future of deepwater coral reefs and bottom-loving organisms close to the site of the BP Macondo well 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast.

The findings will come as no surprise to those following the effects of the 2010 disaster that resulted in as much as 4.2 million barrels of oil being released into the Gulf over five months, coating coastal beaches from east Texas to the Florida Panhandle and soaking into wetlands along hundreds of miles of Louisiana’s coastline.

The report provides only a summary of most contamination concerns. And while both federal officials and BP have made so-called “metadata” — individual sample collection records — available during the past few months, more comprehensive reports explaining how the spill may have affected — and may still be affecting — wildlife are believed being kept under wraps by federal and state officials who are concerned that BP could walk away from their obligations. […]

The environmental report is the result of “hundreds of scientific assessment studies focused in areas ranging from deep sea sediments, through the water column, to the nearshore and shoreline,” the study said. The research was conducted by scientists with state and federal agencies, academic institutions and BP. Ongoing investigations include many aspects of “the injury determination phase and the full extent and duration of impacts on the Gulf of Mexico resources and habitats,” the report said.

Laboratory tests aimed at determining the potential effects of the BP oil spill have so far documented a variety of effects to wildlife, according to the report, including:

  • Disruptions in growth, development and reproduction of organisms
  • Tissue damage
  • Altered cardiac development and function
  • Disruptions to the immune system
  • Biological and cellular alterations
  • Changes in swimming ability and other behaviors that can adversely affect the ability to survive

Another important segment affected by both the oil and the ensuing cleanup, the report notes, are the reefs of eastern oysters, which serve as a valuable habitat resource by providing protection to wetlands and shelter to other wildlife, as well as have commercial value. Oyster eggs, sperm and larvae also were exposed to oil and dispersants, compounds that are toxic to oysters throughout their life cycle, the study said.

The problems with oysters have occurred well beyond the Louisiana waters, according to the report.

The study also pointed out that coastal marsh and mangrove vegetation, which act as a nursery ground for a variety of recreational and commercial finfish, shrimp and shellfish species, were harmed. That vegetation also is important to a variety of bird species — including federally protected migratory and wintering waterfowl –  that use the wetlands for foraging, roosting and nesting.

Studies have found reduced live plant cover and total vegetation, with the effects more pronounced along marsh edges, the most environmentally productive part of the wetlands. The more serious the oiling, the greater the effects, the studies have found.

Researchers also are finding that the vegetation damage is mirrored by damage to animals living in the marsh, such as fewer Littorina snails, “a typicially abundant marsh organism that is an important source of prey.”

In nearshore waters, toxins associated with the oil spill and cleanup were found in areas that are home to major Gulf commercial crab species, including blue crab, Gulf stone crab and stone crab, and the forage areas of the Gulf sturgeon, listed as threatened. Also threatened are plants that provide food and shelter for fish, shellfish and crustaceans, the report said.

The report also raised concerns about the 600 miles of beach habitat between eastern Texas and the Florida Panhandle, where several locations were oiled several times. “Oiling of beaches can have a variety of effects on the physical and biological communities of the beach and near shore habitats,” the report said. […]

“Preliminary … analysis suggests that tens of thousands of square miles of surface waters were affected by oiling and that hundreds of cubic miles of surface water may have contained petroleum at concentrations associated with mortality to sensitive aquatic organisms,” the report said. “This indicates that injuries to offshore water column organisms were widespread, both spatially and in terms of the diversity of organisms and life stages that were affected.” [more]

First Gulf oil spill natural resource study reveals extensive damage in shoreline, deepwater habitats


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