A new study by the University of South Florida underscores the need to continue monitoring the impact of the 2010 BP oil spill. Researchers testing the toxicity of the Gulf of Mexico found that a portion of the spilled oil could have moved southeastward toward the Tampa Bay area, potentially affecting marine life in ways that might not be known for years. This is the latest reminder of the importance of tracking the spill's long-term impact.
The researchers made more than a dozen trips in recent years to examine the health of the water column and sediment in the wake of the spill in April 2010, which released 205 million gallons of oil. The team found that water currents might have pushed some of the dispersed oil to a shelf off the west coast about 80 miles from the bay area, and that organisms in these waters "might experience DNA damage" that could lead to mutations in the coming years.
The researchers were careful to hedge their findings, calling the movement of the BP waste "likely" and "consistent" with the damage while acknowledging that "other explanations" exist for the "problematic" toxicity in the gulf waters. Still, the USF team reported that the "acutely toxic" water was not found on the western shelf until nearly a year after BP managed to shut down the runaway well.
As one of the few studies of the impact to the west Florida shelf, USF's findings, published this month by Environmental Science & Technology, raise new questions about the long-term damage from the discharge. As the report noted, the exposure "at all levels of the marine food web" may have complex effects "that are difficult to predict at this time." And one area ripe for more rigorous review was the federal government's decision to allow the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil. That might have speeded up the cleanup effort. But the use of dispersants, notably undersea, raises environmental questions that have not been adequately addressed.
USF has contributed significantly to a fuller, public picture of the environmental fallout of the BP disaster, which has serious implications for the quality of life and economy of this state. This report is another in that record of public service. Federal and private agencies that are still assessing the spill should recognize USF's report as but the latest acknowledgement that the disaster will require continued monitoring. The impact on gulf waters, its fisheries and coastal ecosystem could take years if not decades to become clear, and the government should not be quick to reach convenient conclusions and move on.