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May 29th, 2013

Environment still feeling impact of BP oil spill



Dear EarthTalk: The three-year anniversary of the 2010 BP oil spill just passed. What do green groups think of the progress since in restoring the region?

- Mary Johannson, NY

When an undersea oil well blew out 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010 and caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig above it (killing 11 workers), no one knew that an even bigger disaster was yet to come. Over the next three months, 4.9 million gallons of crude poured into the water before BP could get the wellhead capped to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to BP, which has already spent $14 billion on clean-up and restoration, the Gulf is returning to baseline conditions prior to the disaster. "No company has done more, faster to respond to an industrial accident than BP did in response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010," reports the company.

But not everybody sees the situation that way. Many environmentalists are concerned that, while BP has done a thorough job removing visible oil from the water column and surface, little has been done to repair damage to marine life and ecosystems.

"Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold," says Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). A recent report by the group found that the three-year-old spill is still having a serious negative effect on wildlife populations in the Gulf. For one, dolphin deaths in the region have remained above average every single month since the disaster. In the first two months of 2013, infant dolphins were found dead at six times pre-spill average rates. Says Inkley: "These ongoing deaths—particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin—are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem."

Gulf dolphins aren’t the only ones suffering. NWF found that more than 1,700 sea turtles were stranded in coastal areas of the Gulf between May 2010 and November 2012—almost three times the pre-spill rate for the animals. Researchers have also detected changes in the cellular function of Gulf killifish, a common bait fish at the base of the food chain. And a coral colony seven miles from the offending wellhead struggles due to oil and dispersants compromising its ability to rebuild itself.

"The oil disaster highlighted the gaps in our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico," says Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald. "What frustrates me is how little has changed over the past three years. In many cases, funding for critical research has even been even been cut, limiting our understanding of the disaster’s impacts."

MacDonald and others are optimistic that a federal court will find BP accountable for further damages in a civil trial now underway. NWF says that substantially more money is needed to carry out restoration efforts vital to the biological and economic stability of the Gulf region. "Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over," says NWF’s David Muth. "Justice will only be served when BP and its co-defendants pay to restore the wildlife and habitats of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico."


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