At least 20 animal species are still suffering from the effects of the largest oil spill in U.S. history nearly five years after it occurred, according to a National Wildlife Federation report released Monday.
The common loon, blue crab, red snapper, and sperm whale are among the animals named in the NWF’s report, Five Years And Counting: Gulf Wildlife in the Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Those animals only make up a small portion of the 13,000 species in the Gulf, the federation’s president told reporters on a phone call Monday, implying the difficulty of determining the spill’s total long-term impact on animals.
“Given the significant quantity of oil remaining on the floor of the Gulf and the unprecedented large-scale use of dispersal during the spill, it will be years or even decades before the full impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is known,” the report said. “It is clear that robust scientific monitoring of the Gulf ecosystem and its wildlife populations must continue — and that restoration of degraded ecosystems should begin as soon as possible.”
The report comes just a few days after BP filed papers in federal court arguing its businesses would be threatened by fines for its historic April 2010 spill, which saw an estimated 210 million gallons of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is currently weighing what that fine should be, and it could be as high as $13.7 billion — but BP is arguing that anything above $2.3 billion would put its U.S. business in serious trouble.
BP is also arguing that Monday’s report is unsubstantiated. The company’s senior vice president of communications, Geoff Morrell, said in a statement that the findings are “a work of political advocacy by an organization that has referred to the Deepwater Horizon accident as ‘an historic opportunity’ to finance its policy agenda.”
In recent months, Morrell has led BP’s effort to communicate that the Gulf of Mexico has “inherent resilience” when it comes to oil spills, and that environmentalists are overreacting about its impacts. In October, Morrell authored an article in Politico Magazine titled “No, BP Didn’t Ruin The Gulf,” which among other things argued that the “unprecedented” clean-up response “greatly minimized the spill’s impact on wildlife and their habitats.”
The National Wildlife Federation’s report argues the contrary. It blames the spill for the deaths of 12 percent of the brown pelican population in the northern Gulf, and 32 percent of the laughing gulls in the same area. It notes that compounds from both oil and the dispersant used to clean up the oil have been found in white pelican eggs in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.
The report also cited 2014 research which found two new coral reefs in the deep ocean that were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill, indicating a possible impact on marine ecosystems in the hard-to-analyze deep sea. It also cited the unusual string of bottlenose dolphin deaths which have been linked the the BP spill, though BP adamantly denies culpability.
BP itself has countered claims that its spill is harming wildlife by releasing its own 5-year impact report, which asserts that the Gulf “is returning to its baseline condition.” It claims there was no long-term impact to bird populations; that affected areas are recovering faster than predicted thanks to its massive spill response; and that most of the light crude oil evaporated before it could make a lasting impact.
Though it is true that much of the spilled oil evaporated on the ocean’s surface, scientists recently discovered a 1,235-square-mile “bathub ring” of oil on the deep ocean’s floor. In addition, the dispersants used to break up the oil were dangerous, holding carcinogenic pollutants that are soaked up by human skin. Possibly because of those dispersants and the oil itself, the workers that participated in the massive spill response that helped save thousands of animals and ecosystems now face higher risks of sickness and cancer.