Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill still causing damage in gulf 2 years later, scientists find

On Florida's Panhandle beaches, where local officials once fretted over how much oil washed in with each new tide, everything seems normal. The tourists have returned. The children have gone back to splashing in the surf and hunting for shells.

Every now and then, a tar ball as big as a fist washes ashore. That's the only apparent sign that the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history tainted these sugar-white sands two years ago.

But with an ultraviolet light, geologist James "Rip" Kirby has found evidence that the oil is still present, and possibly still a threat to beachgoers.

Tiny globs of it, mingled with the chemical dispersant that was supposed to break it up, have settled into the shallows, mingling with the shells, he said. When Kirby shines his light across the legs of a grad student who'd been in the water and showered, it shows orange blotches where the globs still stick to his skin.

"If I had grandkids playing in the surf, I wouldn't want them to come in contact with that," said Kirby, whose research is being overseen by the University of South Florida. "The dispersant accelerates the absorption by the skin."

As those blotches show, the gulf and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began with a fiery explosion aboard an offshore drilling rig on April 20, 2010.

Even before BP managed to shut off the undersea flow on July 16, 2010, observers ranging from Time magazine to Rush Limbaugh insisted that the ecological damage from the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled seemed far less severe than everyone had predicted.

Now, after his company has spent $14 billion on cleanup and restoration in two years, BP spokesman Craig Savage said this month, "the beaches are open, the tourists are back and commercial fishing is rebounding."

But biologists are finding signs of lingering — and perhaps growing — damage throughout the gulf, from the bottom of the food chain to the top:

• Scientists have confirmed that tiny creatures called zooplankton accumulated toxic compounds from coming in contact with the Deepwater Horizon oil. Because small fish and crustaceans eat the zooplankton and are then eaten by larger fish, that means those compounds could now be working their way up the food chain, they said.

• Three months after BP shut off the flow of oil, scientists searching the floor of the gulf found a colony of deep sea corals that were covered in what they described as "frothy gunk." They were in the area where undersea plumes of oil had been spotted. Nearly half were dead. Extensive tests resulted in a finding, released just last month, that the culprit was in fact oil from Deepwater Horizon.

• This month, crews from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fanned out to rivers across the coast to catch and take samples from sturgeon swimming upstream from the gulf to spawn. The reason: When scientists examined the sturgeon that swam upriver last year, they found "significant levels" of DNA fragmentation in the 300-pound fish that could have been caused by exposure to the oil spill, said wildlife service chief investigator Glenn Constant.

"It can lead to a number of abnormalities, such as cancer, tumors, challenges to their immune systems," Constant said. Reproduction could falter, too, he said.

• A survey last summer by USF scientists found that the highest frequency of fish diseases occurred in the area where the oil spill was. While scientists were initially cautious about attributing the lesions on red snapper and other fish to Deepwater Horizon, subsequent laboratory tests have all but eliminated everything other than the oil from the spill as the cause.

"It would be hard to argue otherwise," USF scientist David Hollander said this month.

• Biologists have become alarmed about how many bottlenose dolphins are washing ashore sick or dead across the gulf, from Texas to Florida — more than 600 during a time when the normal average is 74 a year. In Louisiana's Barataria Bay, where waves of thick oil washed in throughout the spill, dozens of dolphins have been found suffering symptoms of liver and lung disease and possible immune system failures.

Savage, of BP, points out that the jury is still out on most of those findings, and that much of the research being done on the impact of the spill is being funded by $500 million that his company donated to make up for the damage. Kirby's study is an exception — his funding comes from the Surfrider Foundation, a group founded by surfers to work on ocean protection issues.

Some good news has emerged since the spill. For instance, sperm whales apparently avoided contact with the oil, swimming clear of that section of the gulf. Biologists say bluefin tuna, which were spawning during the spill, appear to have suffered only minimal effects. And a "dirty blizzard" that USF scientists discovered littering the gulf's bottom with dead organic matter after the spill has now mostly dissipated, Hollander said.

Still, serious questions remain. A massive study of everyone who came in contact with the oil began last year, overseen by the National Institutes of Health. So far, thanks in part to an offer of a $50 gift card for participants, the study has signed up 8,000 people, half of them from Florida, said Dr. Dale Sandler, who's in charge. She hopes to have 40,000 by the end of the year and to follow the fluctuations of their health for a decade.

"People are concerned," Sandler said. "There are pockets of people there who have poor health and came into contact with the oil. Putting two and two together, they think the oil spill is responsible for their illness. Our job is to sort that out."

Kirby, the USF geologist, is concerned too, based on what his ultraviolet light has shown him.

The oil he found lies in what's called the swash zone, just below where the waves lap against the sand. When a "plunge step" forms there, small flakes of weathered oil or even large tar patties settle there, mingled with shell debris, he found.

Studies have found that the dispersant used to break up the oil slick, Corexit, can be toxic to the bacteria that would normally gobble up oil in the gulf. That's why the oil is still showing up two years later, he said. When Corexit bound with the oil, it prevented bacteria from consuming it.

The concentrations of toxic hydrocarbons in the flakes and patties are above the level considered to be dangerous under federal standards, he said. That's what makes him so concerned about how quickly the dispersant-mixed oil absorbs into human skin.

Kirby consulted with three toxicologists about it. Two recommended an immediate study of what level of toxic oil might be absorbed. The third, a state employee, was less concerned, he said.

According to Savage, only 8 miles of gulf beaches are still undergoing cleanup paid for by BP. Kirby thinks someone should be surveying every beach's swash zone every morning to check for the little oil-and-dispersant globs he found.

Given how toxic those globs might be, he said, "would you let your kid play in the shallow water and absorb toxic tar product? Wouldn't you rather have a sign that told you the beach was hazardous in certain spots?"

Information from the New Orleans Times-Picayune was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill still causing damage in gulf 2 years later, scientists find 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 6:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Bill Clinton coming to Miami Beach on Saturday for mayors' convention

    Blogs

    From our friends at the Miami Herald:

    Former President Bill Clinton gives the opening address to kick off a meeting of International Aid Groups at the InterAction Forum 2017 at the Washington Convention Center on June 20.
  2. Obama's secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin's election assault

    National

    WASHINGTON — Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried "eyes only" instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Barack Obama shake hands at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. [Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]
  3. GOP's challenge: Finding votes for Senate health care bill (w/video)

    National

    WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally unwrapped his plan for dismantling President Barack Obama's health care law. Now comes his next challenge — persuading enough Republicans to back the measure and avert a defeat that could be shattering for President Donald Trump and the GOP.

    Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to reporters at the Capitol after Republicans released their long-awaited bill to scuttle much of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2017. He is one of four GOP senators to say they are opposed it but are open to negotiations, which could put the measure in immediate jeopardy. [Associated Press]
  4. Trigaux: Halfway through 2017, a closer look at six drivers of the Tampa Bay economy

    Business

    We're nearly halfway through 2017 already, a perfect time to step back from the daily grind of business and ask: How's Tampa Bay's economy doing?

    Is there one theme or idea that captures the Tampa Bay brand? Not really but here's one possibility. The fun-loving annual Gasparilla "Invasion" of Tampa is captured in this photo of 
The Jose Gasparilla loaded with pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on its way this past January to the Tampa Convention Center. In the future a vibrant downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg may be the better theme. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  5. Harmeling first woman to receive lifetime honor at Sneaker Soiree in Tampa

    Human Interest

    TAMPA — For the last quarter-century, she has combined passion and meticulousness to keep the Gasparilla Distance Classic humming and evolving. Indefatigable and detailed, Susan Harmeling braces for every race-weekend contingency.

    Susan Harmeling gives a speech after accepting an award  during the annual Sneaker Soiree, at TPepin's Hospitality Centre, Thursday, June 22, 2017.