The Big Reason the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Is Not Over

A study finds that whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine life continue to suffer the effects of the massive oil spill.

Sperm whale. (Photo: James R.D. Scott/Getty Images)

Mar 30, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Dolphins, sea turtles, coral, pelicans, and even whales continue to suffer five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a report issued Monday by the National Wildlife Federation.

The study came two weeks after BP released its own report claiming that the Gulf ecosystem has rebounded after the spill.

“Areas that were affected are recovering and data BP has collected and analyzed to date do not indicate a significant long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species,” BP Executive Vice President Laura Folse said when the company published its study.

Is BP’s claim true?

Evidence to the contrary continues to accumulate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week released a study concluding that evidence from the past five years indicates “chronic poor health, failed pregnancies, and increased mortality of coastal bottlenose dolphins in the aftermath and footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

NWF researchers, meanwhile, found that in 2014, dolphins in Louisiana died at four times their pre-spill rate and that a growing amount of evidence links the deaths to Deepwater Horizon.

In addition, the NWF report cites nearly two dozen other wildlife species that continue to suffer. Among the findings: Numerous fish species, including yellowfin tuna and Gulf killifish, have experienced abnormal development; nests of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles have declined since the spill; oil-dispersant compounds have been found in brown pelicans; and sperm whales have started hunting for food in areas away from the disaster, a change in their normal feeding and migration pattern.

The report also cites previously published research that found that many fish species, such as mahimahi, that were exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil while they were embryos or juveniles were not able to swim as quickly as unoiled fish. In addition, seaside sparrows are less abundant in coastal marshes that experienced moderate to heavy oiling.

The report also points out that data on thousands of additional species is unavailable, as much of the information regarding the spill has not been made public because it is part of the government’s ongoing legal cases against BP.

Representatives from environmental groups Gulf Restoration Network, Oceana, and the Sea Turtle Conservancy declined to comment on the NWF study.

NWF has issued similar reports each year since the disaster. During a telephone press conference Monday, NWF President Collin O’Mara said this year’s report is a public reminder that BP needs to be held “fully accountable” for restoring the Gulf.

BP discounted NWF’s report. In a statement, BP Vice President Geoff Morrell called it “a work of political advocacy” and accused NWF of trying to “finance its political agenda.”

Morrell also accused NWF of overlooking data “that show that damages were limited and the Gulf is undergoing a strong recovery,” echoing statements BP has made for several years whenever its efforts have been criticized.

NWF Gulf of Mexico restoration scientist Ryan Fikes appeared to anticipate Morrell’s comments. “BP seems to prefer attacking scientists over accepting responsibility,” he said in a statement. “It’s time for BP to quit stalling so we can start restoring the Gulf.”