Years After the BP Gulf Oil Spill – Ecosystem Under Stress

uv light on human body after swimming in the gulf of mexico

On April 20th, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, causing the United State’s largest environmental disaster in its history. Years later, the ecosystem continues to suffer.

Eyeless Shrimp and Fish With Lesions

eyeless shrimp with lesions

Eyeless shrimp, from a catch of 400 pounds of eyeless shrimp, said to be caught September 22, 2011, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana. Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera recently published findings of eyeless shrimp and fish with lesions, found by commercial fisherman and scientists. Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences began hearing about fish with sores and lesions from fishermen in 2010.

Scientists and food processors, whom have found disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab, and fish, point to the chemicals BP used in their oil spill cleanup. The signs of the malignant impact on the Gulf ecosystem are ominous with collapsing fisheries.

According to one commercial fisherman, Tracy Kuhns, from Barataria, Louisiana, at least 50 percent of shrimp caught during the September, 2011 season were eyeless, and even lacking eye sockets. Kuhns continued to report crabs are being caught with their shells being soft instead of hard, lacking spikes and claws, and smell of rot.

BP has dispersed over 1.9 million gallons of the toxic chemical Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico to clean up the oil spill. With the Gulf of Mexico providing over 40 per cent of all seafood caught in the continental United States, this eery phenomenon does not bode well for the country.

Corexit is contains solvents such as petroleum distillates, 2-butoxyethanol, which dissolves oil, grease, and rubber, reports Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist, and Exxon Valdez survivor. These solvents are extremely toxic to people – it is no surprise they are also toxic to marine life.

Pathways of exposure to the dispersants are inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact. Health impacts can include headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitization, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage. They are also teratogenic – able to disturb the growth and development of an embryo or fetus – and carcinogenic.

Dr Wilma Subra, a chemist and Macarthur Fellow, has conducted tests on seafood and sediment samples along the Gulf for chemicals present in BP’s crude oil and toxic dispersants. “Tests have shown significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline,” Subra reported to Al Jazeera. “We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation.”

US Environmental Protection Agency published its findings that PAHs “are a group of semi-volatile organic compounds that are present in crude oil that has spent time in the ocean and eventually reaches shore, and can be formed when oil is burned”.

The University of South Florida released the results of a survey whose findings corresponded with Cowan’s: a two to five per cent infection rate in the same oil impact areas, and not just with red snapper, but with more than 20 species of fish with lesions. In many locations, 20 per cent of the fish had lesions, and later sampling expeditions found areas where, alarmingly, 50 per cent of the fish had them.

Prior to 2010, the percentage of fish found with lesions was less than one tenth of one percent.

The office of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal provided a statement which said the state of Louisiana continues to test its waters for oil and dispersants, as well as PAHs. The office reported Gulf seafood has consistently tested lower than the thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health.

BP reports fish lesions are common, and prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there were documented evidence of lesions in the Gulf of Mexico cause by parasites and other agents. BP continues to fund multiple scientific investigations to evaluate potential damage to the ecosystem, despite having already settled with the US government and has protected itself from future liabilities.

According to the FDA, based on the levels of PAHs found, a person could consume 63 pounds of peeled shrimp, or 1575 jumbo shrimp, or 5 pounds of oyster meat, or 130 oysters, or 9 pounds of fish, or 18 fish fillets, every day for five years and still not reach levels of concern. The FDA feels confident that the levels are safe of anyone who eats seafood, including children and pregnant women.

Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer, notes that after the 1979 lxtoc-1 oil disaster in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, the oysters, claims, and mangrove forests have still not recovered from the disaster. The herring fishery in Alaska has still not recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster.

Darla Rooks, a fisherperson from Port Sulfer, Louisiana, notes that people who live in Louisiana know better than to swim in or eat what comes out of the Gulf, and continues to find tarbells in crab traps.

At the bottom of the food chain, zooplankton, accumulated toxic compounds after coming into contact with oil and dispersants. As smaller fish and crustaceans eat the zooplankton, which in turn are eaten by bigger fish, contaminants have worked themselves up the food chain.

The amount of bottlenose dolphins washing ashore sick or dead have alarmed biologists as well. Prior to 2010, the average was 74 a year. Currently, over 600 have washed ashore in the past year.

Despite apprehension from the locals to swim or eat in the Gulf, BP touts ads to promote tourism.

Would You Swim in the Gulf of Mexico?

uv light on human body after swimming in the gulf of mexico

Left photo - under regular light. Right photo- under UV light. Taken after swimming in the gulf. Photos courtesy of James "Rip" Kirby

Geologist James “Rip” Kirby reports evidence that oil is still present and a threat to beach-goers in Florida. Using an ultraviolet light, Kirby examines the legs of a grad student who had just been swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and showered. The UV light shows orange blotches where globs of oil and chemical dispersants stick to the skin.

The oil dispersant, Corexit, can be toxic to the bacteria that normally consumes oil in the gulf. When Corexit bind with the oil, it prevents the naturally-occurring bacteria from consuming it.

The National Institute of Health began conducting a study last year of people who came in contact with the oil. The study will follow participants health fluctuations for the next decade.

BP continues to clean up 8 miles of beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, there are no signs indicating if beaches are hazardous or not.

Corexit was first used by cleanup crews on the Exxon Valdez spill. Officially known as Corexit 9527, this dispersant has been designated a “chronic and acute health hazard” by the EPA. Made with 2-butoxyethanol, a highly toxic chemical that has long been linked to the health problems of Exxon Valdez cleanup crews.

A newer Corexit recipe dubbed the “9500 formula” contains dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, a detergent chemical that’s also found in laxatives, was used for the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

The Link Between BP, Corexit, and the Gulf of Mexico

bp logoRodney F. Chase one board member of Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit, used to also sit on the board of BP, and holds a significant amount of shares with both companies. Nalco Holding Company is owned by Blackstone Group, an asset management and financial services company. Blackstone has financial ties to properties along the Gulf of Mexico.

Dolphin and Whale Deaths in the Gulf


dolphin grand terre island ap

A dolphin is photographed near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana in June 2010. AP Photo.

The Herald Tribune of Sarasota, Florida, reports on a slew of illnesses found in dolphins which have washed up dead or ill. Weight loss, anemia, low blood sugar, lung and liver disease, and hormone imbalances to name a few. Federal scientists  caution they are unable to find a link between the sick marine life and BP’s oil spill. Dolphins found in areas not touched by oil are tested to be healthy.

Due to oil remaining in the ocean sediments, dolphins continue to be exposed to contaminants and eat other animals exposed as well. Randall Wells, director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program at Mote Marine Labratory notes it is difficult to correlate the oil spill with the sick dolphins due to the dolphins in the northern Gulf not being well-studied prior to the spill.

Life in the Gulf of Mexico looks very grim for the ecosystem. It will take years before scientists are able to fully understand the impact of the BP oil spill.

Extra reading: FDA’s report on PAHs

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