Science, Tech & Environment

The full extent of the BP Gulf oil spill is still unfolding before our eyes

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other officials tour the Roseau Grasses on May 19, 2010, where oil washed ashore on the Louisiana coastline.


Ted Jackson

In 2010, soon after the Gulf oil spill began, a Sky News reporter asked BP’s CEO Tony Hayward what effect he thought the oil spill would have on the Gulf of Mexico.

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“It is impossible to say,” Hayward responded. “We will mount, as part of the aftermath, a very detailed environmental assessment, but everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.”

Hayward was widely ridiculed at the time, as photos of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf were broadcast around the world. Soon after, BP asked Hayward to resign.

Melanie Driscoll, the director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico for the National Audubon Society, was closely involved in documenting the aftermath of the spill in 2010. Back then, she expressed great concern about the damage being inflicted on the Gulf and the coastal areas of the US mainland.

Today, Driscoll says that the full extent of the environmental damage is difficult to gauge because the scientific studies are tied up in the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. “What scientists know is held within that legal process to prosecute the responsible parties,” Driscoll says, “So, the government can’t talk about what’s really going on with the Gulf ecosystem, and independent conservation organizations can’t appropriately help guide responses because a lot of the studies are not available.”

There's no doubt about one thing, though: Oil is still washing up on Louisiana's beaches.

“Where the oil was heaviest, we still see it fairly frequently,” she says. “Sometimes [it's] little tar balls, but last June a 40,000 pound mat of tar rolled up onto East Grande Terre Louisiana. There are hundreds, thousands of pounds of oil left in the system, and some of those will continue to come up onto our beaches.”

Driscoll says she expects that eventually there will be studies showing that hundreds of thousands of birds were killed during the acute phase of the disaster. “From other spills,” she says, “we know that acute toxicity mutations, egg failure, reduced nestling growth, reduced reproduction and survival can plague birds in spill impact areas — and this was a very big spill impact area.”

From observation, Driscoll says that some bird populations in and around the Gulf seem to be recovering; with others it is difficult to know.

“We go out to nesting islands, and we see a couple of different things,” she says. “Out in Barataria Bay and Bay Jimmy, where the oil came in very heavily, some of the islands like Queen Bess have what seem to be thriving populations of pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills, terns and egrets. Other islands where the birds were nesting in 2010 are completely gone or they are so small that there’s no room for birds to nest. ... We don’t have really good tracking available to know where those birds have gone or if they’re breeding successfully somewhere else.”

Many islands in the bay were already eroding fairly quickly before the spill, but now the erosion is accelerating. On some of the islands that were once covered with thick, lush mangroves, which are the nesting sites for the Brown Pelicans, “it actually looks like a little miniature tree graveyard,” Driscoll says.

“Oil, when it heavily coats marsh grass or mangroves, can suffocate the roots — and the root systems are really what hold ... the sand in place and allow there to be land out there in the middle of the Gulf. The mangroves are dead. ... It’s just stark brown branches where thriving green mangroves coated an island. As the roots have died, the erosion has either increased or continued and there’s virtually nothing left now.”

Driscoll can’t say for sure if this is a direct result of the spill — again because "so much of the science being done is held within a confidential process.”

“All I can say is, I’ve never seen mangroves die this quickly and the erosion seems to be very high,” Driscoll says. “I can’t say that’s attributable to the spill. It’s just very suspicious that this would be happening at that rate.”

Driscoll compares the situation in the Gulf of Mexico to Prince William Sound in Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred. Though the sound has recovered well in many respects, the spill is still affecting the ecosystem of the Sound and the people who live around it.

“Like with the Exxon Valdez, I think we’ll know parts of [the impact] in the next few years, but it will be decades until we know the full toll. As Aldo Leopold stated, 'To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.' We, as humans, are really not wise enough to randomly tug at strands in the web of life, and then to predict which tug [will] cause a link to break.”