Defenders in Action: Gulf Oil Spill: Gusher Stops, Problems Remain

Defenders chief scientist heads to the Gulf to document the oil spill's impact on wildlife.

© Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

© Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

As crews worked to plug the gushing BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in July, Defenders chief scientist Chris Haney spent six days aboard a research vessel documenting the spill’s impact on wildlife.

“Looking at the oil as the sun broke the horizon, it was a rainbow sheen as far as you could see,” Haney recalls. “It was, quite honestly, the ugliest ocean water I’ve ever seen.”

Haney, who spent eight years on the science team that helped document the impacts from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, joined 14 other scientists aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessel in the Gulf. His mission was to observe signs of oiling on deepwater seabirds—birds that spend months or even years at sea before ever coming ashore.

Deepwater seabirds found in the Gulf include masked boobies, Audubon’s shearwaters, black-capped petrels—of which there are only a few thousands left in the world—and band-rumped storm petrels—which also have perilously low numbers. Haney was also looking for signs of distress, dead birds and their general abundance far from land and “downstream” of the Deepwater Horizon’s colossal failure.

With 25 years of oceanography under his belt, he says, “It was the first time in my life I could spend an entire day at sea and never see a seabird. I did see a couple of fish gulping oxygen at the water’s surface, lunging up because they couldn’t get oxygen through their gills.” As bacteria break oil down, it depletes the water of oxygen.

Meanwhile, a  NOAA report released in August claimed much of the oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP well evaporated; was burned, skimmed or recovered; or has degraded or dispersed.

“The conclusions of this report are troubling in many ways,” says Haney. “Based on these estimates, up to 75 percent of the oil from the disaster still remains in the environment. Terms such as ‘dispersed,’ ‘dissolved’ and ‘residual’ do not mean gone.  That’s comparable to saying the sugar dissolved in my coffee is no longer there because I can’t see it. Whether buried under beaches or settling on the ocean floor, residues from the spill will remain toxic for decades, and we will be examining and documenting this crime scene for years to come.”

Defenders has filed suit against the Interior Department after revelations that it granted BP’s Gulf oil drilling operation a waiver from a full environmental analysis as required by federal law. Defenders and the Southern Environmental Law Center are also in the process of suing BP for violating the Endangered Species Act. Endangered sea turtles, whales, fish and seabirds will continue to be adversely affected by the oil and the widespread use of chemical dispersants for decades to come. Scientists are watching to see whether the spill will cause the disappearance of already imperiled populations of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, sperm whales and bluefin tuna.

To learn more about Dr. Haney's trip to the gulf and his analysis of the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster, visit the Defenders blog.

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