Understanding effects of chemical dispersants on marine wildlife is critical to whale population

March 5, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in BP Oil Disaster, Science, Wildlife

By Matthew Phillips, NWF

During and after the 2010 BP oil spill, clean-up crews relied heavily on chemical dispersants to break up oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. In total, crews used more than 2 million gallons of dispersants, namely Corexit 9500 and 9527, applying them directly to the head of the leaking well and over the surface waters of the Gulf. Dispersants break down oil into small droplets that easily mix with water and, in theory, biodegrade quickly. The intention is to reduce the amount of oil in an area, dispersing it throughout the water column. While debate continues over the efficacy of dispersants in cleaning up spills, their use continues to rise, despite little data on their suspected toxicity. For this reason, scientists have begun looking into the effects of these powerful chemicals on marine wildlife.


Chemical dispersants being sprayed into the Gulf following the BP oil spill.

In a recent study out of the University of Southern Maine, “Chemical dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis are cytotoxic and genotoxic to sperm whale skin cells,” researchers tested the effects of the chemical dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 to sperm whale skin cells. There is a small population, around 1600 sperm whales, residing in the Gulf. Since these whales inhabit part of the area inundated with oil after the BP spill, there is a high chance some of these whales came into contact with oil, and with the dispersants. With so few whales, the population is highly susceptible to disturbance: any chaotic or harmful event threatens its overall vitality. In addition, the most recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classified sperm whales as Vulnerable, meaning they are at risk of extinction. Therefore, understanding the effects of chemical dispersants on sperm whales is critical for ensuring the population’s health and stability.

To begin the process, researchers grew skin cells from samples obtained from Gulf whales before the spill. They applied varying concentrations of the two dispersants to the cultured cells, and measured the effects for one day. Since chemicals can be harmful in different ways, researchers studied the dispersants’ toxicity to the cells (called cytotoxicity) and to chromosomes (called genotoxicity). They found both dispersants to be poisonous to the cells, but only Corexit 9527 to be toxic to the cells’ genetic material.

Cytotoxicity and genotoxicity have different implications. A chemical that is cytotoxic –poisonous only at the cellular level—may cause fatal or non-fatal issues for individual organisms, such as skin lesions or respiratory complications. A chemical that is genotoxic, that disrupts the functions of genes, can leave an imprint on the next generation. It may cause problems in mating, reproduction, or calf development. A sperm whale exposed to Corexit 9527 may be unable to reproduce. If she can reproduce, she may have mal-formed or non-reproductive offspring.

Genotoxicity can have lingering detrimental effects on the population as a whole, endangering its future. While it would be valuable to know which dispersant is more toxic, researchers caution it is difficult to compare them because the effects are very different. Corexit 9500 was slightly more cytotoxic, but Corexit 9527 was significantly more genotoxic. Ultimately, the choice of which to use may depend on which outcome is more, or perhaps less, desirable.

There is no way to determine how many whales were exposed to dispersants, nor the degree of exposure. But a 2014 study citing widespread health problems among Gulf marine mammals, including complications in fetus development, gives cause for concern. The population’s size, the toxicity of chemical dispersants, and reports of toxin-related health problems make clear that Gulf sperm whales are at risk. Researchers will continue monitoring the health of the population, and only time will illuminate the full effects. Until we know more, we’re left wondering: if dispersants harm wildlife, how useful are they?

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Five Years Later, Scientists Gather to Assess Ongoing Impact of BP Oil Spill

February 26, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in BP Oil Disaster, Science

By Alisha Renfro, National Wildlife Federation & Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Societyoil slick

Last week while some people on the Gulf Coast were in the thick of celebrating Mardi Gras, more than 1000 scientists, including those from the Restore the Mississippi River Delta campaign, met in Houston, Texas, to attend the third-annual Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference. The four-day conference, which included a mix of keynotes and oral and poster presentations, aimed to share scientific information and forward scientific understanding of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and particularly the impact of oil pollutants on this fragile ecosystem. Nearly five years since the BP oil spill, the takeaway is clear: The effects of the oil spill on the Gulf ecosystem are far-reaching, ongoing and significant.

Here are three key highlights from last week’s conference:

  1. The impact is far-reaching: Research ranging from the deep sea to Gulf shoreline estuaries has documented significant impacts of the oil spill on ecosystems and on different animal and plant life.
  2. The impact is ongoing: Recent research has found a large amount of the oil discharged during the spill can still be found in offshore sediments. Storms, like Hurricane Isaac in 2012, redistribute oil into previously unoiled marshes and wash sandy tar balls onto beaches.
  3. The impact is significant: The rate of marsh shoreline erosion increased with oiling and continued impacts on marshes have been documented at least four years after the spill.

And for more, don’t miss some of the media coverage that came out of the conference:

  1. Los Angeles Times: “BP cherry-picks study to dodge blame for massive deaths of gulf dolphins
  2. Houston Chronicle: “Studies: BP spill reduced Gulf life
  3. Houston Public Media: “Houston Conference Highlights Scientific Research On Deepwater Oil Spill Damage

Want to learn about efforts to provide meaningful restoration in the ongoing wake of the BP oil spill? Visit mississippiriverdelta.org, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. You can also share this post with your network using the following tweet:

  • 5 years later, major oil spill science conference tells us BP effects are evident and ongoing: http://www.mississippiriverdelta.org/blog/2015/02/26/five-years-later-scientists-gather-to-assess-ongoing-impact-of-bp-oil-spill/ #GulfScienceConference

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Third and Final Phase of the BP Trial Brought to a Close on February 2, 2015

February 9, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Federal Policy, RESTORE Act

By Will Lindsey 

This is the second post about phase III of trial. To read part I, click here.

The third and final phase of the BP trial ended on Monday, February 2, 2015. Based on the evidence presented in this phase, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will decide the Clean Water Act civil penalty that both BP and Anadarko, a 25 percent non-operator in the Macando well, will pay. The United States is seeking the maximum Clean Water Act penalty of up to $13.7 billion from BP and an amount more than $1 billion from Anadarko.

Throughout the trial, Judge Barbier was relatively quiet, occasionally inserting questions or points of clarification. Towards the end of the trial, however, Judge Barbier suggested on numerous occasions that some of the testimony BP was presenting was duplicative. This was especially true during the testimony of a BP exploration & production executive, Richard Morrison. As Mr. Morrison was testifying about the extent of BP’s response efforts after the spill, Judge Barbier interrupted at least twice to suggest that it was testimony that he had already heard from previous witnesses.

Judge Barbier also interrupted during the testimony of one of Anadarko’s witnesses. For its second witness, Anadarko called Kenneth Arnold, an expert in the field of safety in drilling operations. Mr. Arnold testified that requiring additional duties of non-operators, such as Clean Water Act civil penalties, could lead to confusion and ultimately a lower level of safety in drilling operations. This argument aligns with Anadarko’s overall theme – that there was no act committed by Anadarko as a non-operator, and thus assessing a Clean Water Act civil penalty against the company would not serve to deter future behavior. Judge Barbier stepped in here, however, suggesting that a policy argument such as this should be made before Congress and not in the courtroom. Despite allowing Anadarko to proceed with Mr. Arnold’s testimony, Judge Barbier noted that Congress had already clearly decided to make an “owner or operator” liable for discharges under the Clean Water Act.

The United States has several strong arguments weighing in favor of a high Clean Water Act civil penalty. The first is that there were numerous stakeholders involved in the spill response, including the U.S. Coast Guard and a number of federal agencies. Each of these entities expended time, resources and expertise in responding to the spill. Given that one of the factors that Judge Barbier will consider in assessing the civil penalty is the success of efforts to minimize or mitigate the effects of the discharge is, it is important that BP not get credit for the entirety of the spill response actions that were taken, as indeed BP was not responding to the spill in isolation. The second big point weighing in favor of a higher penalty is that lowering the civil penalty based on previously paid penalties, such as criminal penalty assessed against BP, would ultimately dilute the effect of these penalties.

During opening statements, Judge Barbier asked the parties if there was any precedent for requiring that a Clean Water Act civil penalty be paid over a specified amount of time rather than as a single lump sum. The United States indicated that there was at least one such instance in a Clean Water Act suit. This indicates, at least to some degree, that Judge Barbier is considering the option of assessing a high civil penalty against the company.

Due to the enactment of the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of the penalties resulting from this phase will go to the Gulf Coast for restoration. This funding cannot come soon enough given the high price tag that many coastal restoration projects carry with them. Ultimately, the funding stemming from this trial could mean the difference in reversing the trend of coastal wetland loss that has been impacting the gulf coast for decades.

It is unclear when exactly Judge Barbier will come out with a penalty ruling. But recent polling indicates that 70 percent of Americans believe BP should pay the maximum allowed under the Clean Water Act for its role in one of the largest oil spills in American history. It is imperative to both the Gulf and the nation that BP be held fully accountable.

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Survey Says Majority of Americans Believe BP Should Pay Maximum Gulf Oil Spill Fines

February 6, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Van Cleve in BP Oil Disaster, Media Resources


Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, schatzele@nwf.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, evancleve@edf.org
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, jhebert@audubon.org

Survey Says Majority of Americans Believe BP Should Pay Maximum Gulf Oil Spill Fines
70 percent say oil company should be fined the maximum allowed under the Clean Water Act

(New Orleans – February 6, 2015) A new national survey reports that 70 percent of Americans polled nationwide believe “BP should be fined the maximum amount allowed under the Clean Water Act” for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

The third and final phase of the BP oil spill civil trial, which will determine how much the oil company will be required to pay in fines, concluded this week in New Orleans. BP could be ordered to pay up to $13.7 billion in Clean Water Act fines for its role in one of the largest oil disasters in U.S. history.

IMG_9283“The majority of Americans understand that BP has not yet paid any civil penalties for its reckless discharge of oil into the Gulf, nor can it claim credit for clean-up costs as if mopping up your mess is the same as fixing the damage it caused. As new scientific studies are published, we learn more and more about the lasting impacts to many species, habitats and industries,” said David Muth, director of National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf restoration program. “Five years later, Gulf restoration has not truly begun. If BP really wants Americans to believe it is sincere, it should pay the fines it owes, and fund the restoration the Gulf so badly needs.”

An overwhelming majority of Americans polled in all parts of the country said they believed BP should pay the maximum fines, even after hearing BP’s claims of what the company has already spent on “spill-related costs” thus far. This is according to the results of the independent survey conducted by the polling company, inc./WomanTrend.

“Americans aren’t fooled by BP’s misleading advertising campaigns and five years of legal shenanigans to drag out this court case,” said Douglas Meffert, executive director and vice president of Audubon Louisiana. “BP claims it wants to ‘make it right.’ If that is true, the first step is to start accepting responsibility for the damage it caused the wetlands, people and wildlife of the Gulf Coast and pay the maximum fines.”

“If BP wants anyone other than themselves to agree that they ‘made it right,’ they can step out of the shadow of lawyers, quit spinning and arguing, and just accept full responsibility,” said Steve Cochran, director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration program. “The sooner that happens, the sooner real resources can be put to work restoring the Gulf. And in this anniversary year of one of the worst oil spills in American history, that would be a great thing for the Gulf and for BP.”


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Conservation Groups React to Coastal Restoration Cuts in President’s Budget

February 4, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Van Cleve in Media Resources


Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, schatzele@nwf.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, evancleve@edf.org
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, jhebert@audubon.org

Conservation Groups React to Coastal Restoration Cuts in President’s Budget
Proposed budget jeopardizes critical wetlands restoration

(NEW ORLEANS – February 4, 2015) On Monday, President Obama unveiled a $4 trillion proposed budget that would tap more than $3 billion in future oil and gas revenues from Gulf Coast states to pay for other national conservation priorities. This shift would divert monies from coastal restoration projects in Louisiana.

National and local conservation organizations committed to coastal Louisiana restoration – Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation – issued the following statement in response:

“We are encouraged by and committed to the elements of the President’s budget that take on climate change, support the development of clean energy, and fully fund the woefully underfunded Land and Water Conservation Fund and other crucial conservation initiatives. But we are disappointed by the budget’s proposed diversion of critically needed and currently dedicated funding for coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta.

“This proposed budget undercuts the Administration’s previous commitments to restore critical economic infrastructure and ecosystems in the Mississippi River Delta, where we are losing 16 square miles of critical wetlands every year – a preventable coastal erosion crisis. Those wetlands, and the culture and economic infrastructure they protect from hurricanes, will be lost without complete and ongoing intervention. And that intervention – currently underway through implementation of the 2012 Coastal Master Plan – cannot be successful without sufficient funding.

“We urge Congress to fund the President’s commitments to coastal restoration and conservation by maintaining GOMESA funding that is vital to the Gulf Coast and by identifying additional funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other priorities. The Mississippi River Delta is a national treasure that is home to millions of Americans, provides vital wildlife habitat, and supports billions of dollars in seafood production, navigation interests and energy production. This landscape deserves our full attention – and comprehensive restoration.”

The budget proposal would shift hundreds of millions of dollars of offshore oil and gas GOMESA revenue from Louisiana to other spending needs. Louisiana already constitutionally dedicated these future monies to the critical efforts now underway to restore coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta.

Additionally, the groups expressed strong disappointment that the Administration’s proposal walks away from an essential longstanding commitment to Army Corps of Engineers funding for construction of critical restoration projects. For four years, the Administration has proposed investing in the Corps budget to restore the delta through the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) program. In fiscal year 2013, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo Ellen Darcy explained the investment to Congress that restoring coastal Louisiana is “a nationally significant and urgent effort to both restore habitat and protect the important Louisiana Gulf region from the destructive forces of storm driven waves and tides.”

“The LCA program is far too important to abandon or delay,” said EDF, NWF, NAS and LPBF. “The Administration and Congress should do all they can to fund it as soon and as fully as possible.”


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