Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill still causing damage in gulf 2 years later, scientists find
Originally published by the Tampa Bay Times
By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
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….
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