Shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico grow with drops of petroleum inside them, coyotes eat oil-soaked birds, and sharks suffocate when the oil coats their gills.
Oil droplets have been found beneath the shells of tiny post-larval blue crabs drifting into Mississippi coastal marshes from offshore waters, says Harriet Perry, director of the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.
Many kinds of fish and shore birds feed on those young crabs. And this is just one of the many examples of how the crude oil that began to spill Apr. 20 from British Petroleum’s (PB) Deepwater Horizon well has already taken its toll on the Gulf’s food chain.
Jonathan Henderson, with the Gulf Restoration Network, explained to this reporter that oil-soaked birds are being eaten by coyotes, which are then later eaten by alligators further inland.
“Do you know how the pelicans die of oil?” asked Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. “They open their wings, thinking they are drying them in the sun, and they just cook in the sun. Thousands of birds are dying like that because of the greed of a foreign company.”
The organisation Wilson heads is dedicated to preserving the ecosystems of the Atchafalaya Basin on the Louisiana Coast. He is incensed at the catastrophic impact the BP oil disaster, which has been ongoing for nearly three months.
Oil began to gush into the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion Apr. 20 on the Deepwater Horizon oilrig, which BP leased from the Swiss firm Transocean. Two days later, the platform sank. As of Jul. 20, the company had capped the well and stopped the flow of oil, though tests continue on the cap’s structural integrity.
Wilson is angry about what he perceives as BP’s lack of willingness to implement measures necessary to adequately protect wildlife.
For example, the company is not rescuing the chicks of oiled adult birds, nor is it allowing local environmentalists, like himself, to go out and participate in animal rescue efforts.
“You have to realise that it takes two parents to raise the chicks in these areas. If one of the parents gets into the oil, the other parent alone cannot raise the chicks, and the chicks are going to die,” he said.
There are at least as many chicks that have died as there are rescued pelicans, and the number rescued is “only the tip of the iceberg,” said Wilson.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as of Jul. 14, 553 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline was oiled, 2,930 birds had been recovered (1,828 of them dead and 1,102 of them oiled), along with more than 500 dead sea turtles and other mammals.
More than 45,000 workers are currently responding to the BP oil disaster, but higher-end estimates show that as much as 8.4 million barrels of BP oil has been released into the Gulf, and more than 6.8 million litres of chemical dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 used (the same chemicals are banned in Great Britain).
The dispersants are believed to cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, irritation of eyes, nose, throat and lungs, difficulty breathing, respiratory system damage, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, genetic damage and mutations, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage.
“This is the second most important delta in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most important deltas on the planet,” said Paul Orr, an officer with Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, a group focused on keeping the lower Mississippi River pollution-free.
“We just have no idea what this amount of oil in this close proximity to the delta could do. The decision was made to use the dispersants intensively to sink the oil — the rationale was to minimise shore impacts at all cost,” he said.
“But now it seems like the real reason they’ve been doing that is to get the oil to disappear because if it was staying on the surface, at least you could collect it, even if it starts impacting the shore in some way,” said Orr.
“Now we have unknown millions of barrels of oil floating around in the water column and sticking to the sea floor. We may not ever know some of the long-term damages,” said the activist.
Orr, like many Gulf region environmentalists and scientists, is critical of BP’s lack of adequate efforts towards helping oil-contaminated wildlife. “They have to look like they’re doing something,” he said, alluding to the relatively small number of birds the company has treated.
He is concerned about all the Gulf species, but in particular those that were already endangered before the spill. For example, the Kemp’s Ridley and leatherback sea turtles, the sperm whale, the Gulf sturgeon fish, and birds such as the piping plover.
“There are at least 75,000 square miles of the Gulf covered in oil as we speak,” Henderson told this reporter.
Likewise, Wilson expressed concern for microorganisms that are feeding on the oil, particularly in the deeper regions in the Gulf where BP has sunk the oil through the use of dispersants.
“There is a big population of whales and whale sharks that migrate right where the oil is. We’ve already seen that the shark won’t avoid the oil. We’ve seen schools of hundreds of whale sharks migrating through the Gulf of Mexico. They open their mouths to filter plankton — so the oil contaminates their gills, and they will suffocate.”
“We can’t play around with BP’s toxic science experiment and sit around and wait for the outcome in the Gulf,” said Henderson.
And, with a note of pessimism, added: “I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last of this kind of oil well blowout.”
This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) — all members of the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).